Menu Sian Prior

Writer, Broadcaster, Singer, MC & Teacher

So Many Questions [July 15]

There’s a scene in the Elton John movie Rocketman where young Elton is auditioning for a place in a music school and he gives a note-perfect performance of a piano piece he’s just heard for the first time. No sheet music, no preparation. It’s a kind of magic.

I’ve always had to depend on my eyes. Learning the piano as a child I had to look at the notes on the page, then at my fingers on the keyboard, then at the notes again, one painstaking bar at a time. Imagine my amazement when the blind pianist came to visit.

Ian and his flautist wife Roma were friends of my parents. They had all met at National Music Camp when they were teenagers, gathering together over the summer  holidays to play in bands and orchestras. Roma and Ian lived in Mittagong, NSW but every few years they would visit us in Melbourne. After tea and biscuits Roma would lead Ian to our piano. Any requests? He would stroke the keyboard to find his place then launch into a note-perfect performance.

I remember looking at his fingers, then at his unseeing eyes, then his flying fingers again. It was a kind of magic. I was a shy child so I never asked all the questions I had for him. How come he didn’t make any mistakes? How did he remember those tunes? How many other blind people could play like this? Did they learn by ear or was there some other way?

My life has been littered with moments like these – curiosity stymied by social anxiety. Ian passed away a few years ago so it’s too late to ask him now. But sometimes the universe delivers. Recently I stumbled across an article about Roma and Ian in a National Music Camp newsletter. This is some of what I learnt.

Three and a half decades ago Roma and Ian helped to start up a National Braille Music Camp for blind and visually impaired students. Each year students would come from all over Australia and New Zealand to Mittagong, NSW. They would learn to read braille music, sing in choirs and play in bands and orchestras. Generations of kids have gone home with new skills and friendships. Some come back later and tutor at the camps, and Roma still helps out.

It’s not magic. It’s a kind of equality.


(This column was first published by Fairfax in July 2019.)