He is a winner of the prestigious Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, an accomplished composer who regularly performs his own works and a thrilling musician, who has already graced the stage of New York’s Carnegie Hall.
He also happens to be blind.
While Nobu (as he is fondly referred to) has risen to fame on an international scale, selling over 100,000 of his Cliburn CD in his native Japan and garnering the praise of critics, musicians, jurors and conductors across the globe, he has remained a hugely personable, warm and down-to-earth person. An excellent representative of his art.
When you see Nobu perform, you are blown away by the depth of feeling he exudes in his playing, his crystalline tone, the breathtaking ease with which he masters even the most complex passages of music and his obvious, unbridled love for his art. With this breadth of talent, perhaps the least of our thoughts should be devoted to the fact that he is blind.
Simply a pianist
In an article in Time Magazine titled ‘Nobu’ Fever: Japan Falls for a Blind Piano Prodigy’, the most striking quotation comes right at the end of the piece, where Nobu states:
“When I was small, I realized I was blind, but at the same time I said, ‘But I can play the piano, so it’s okay.’ I’d like everyone to think that I am simply a pianist.”
It’s an interesting thought that our judgments can often be swayed by something altogether unrelated to the main point in question. In the case of Tsujii we may well be overcome with the brave path his life journey has taken, rooting for an underdog who has displayed unnerving talent to triumph over physical disability.
While it is natural to feel such a strong connection to his personal story, this is a pianist who is most worthy of respect for the beauty of his playing alone.
Here’s a video of Tsujii at age two. I’ll repeat that for clarification: Two. Astonishingly, Nobu has demonstrated a natural kinship with the instrument from his earliest days:
Of course, while it is absolutely right that we judge Tsujji first and foremost on his talent, it’s fascinating to consider the challenges he must overcome to perform in a world that has little experience with accommodating a blind musician.
When he performs with an orchestra, the conductor may let out a low breath to signify the moment he expects him to begin to play. Then there is the ongoing struggle with acquiring musical scores, with other pianists regularly recording whole passages with musical notations added, so that Nobu is able to literally hear the preferences and instructions of a conductor.
But in the end, none of this would even matter if he couldn’t play. And Nobuyuki Tsujii can play.
So, while Nobu asks us to think of him as ‘simply a pianist’, it would perhaps to be more fitting to add another word to that phrase: Nobuyuki Tsujii: simply a great pianist.
Here is a video of Nobu performing Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No.2 in C minor in the final of the 2009 Cliburn competition. I’ve also added a video of the final moments of his debut at Carnegie Hall.