July 9, 2009 / 5:18 AM / 10 years ago

Award turns blind Japan pianist into music sensation

TOKYO (Reuters) - Japanese pianist Nobuyuki Tsujii has become the latest star on the classical music scene after winning one of the world’s most prestigious awards, but the blind 20-year-old has no need for a score.

Blind since birth, the college student last month won top prize at the 13th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in the United States.

Tsujii, who shared first prize with 19-year-old Haochen Zhang of China, became the first Japanese — and the first blind — pianist to win the coveted award.

And after his first public appearance since his victory, Tsujii says he is still adjusting to his celebrity status.

“I was extremely surprised, more so than excited, when I heard my name at the award ceremony because I wasn’t even thinking about winning the competition,” Tsujii told Reuters backstage after entertaining a 2,000-strong crowd at a Tokyo concert hall earlier this week.

Born in Tokyo, Tsujii began playing the piano at age two after his mother bought him a toy instrument.

Influenced by music from Bach and Beethoven to Japanese “enka” folk music, he held his first solo recital at Tokyo’s Suntory Hall at age 12 and made his U.S. debut at Carnegie Hall.

Since then, he has performed with the Japan Philharmonic Orchestra, Orchestre des Concerts Lamoureux in France and the Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra, among many others.

“It’d be my dream to have the audience say ‘I want to hear Tsujii’s Chopin when it comes to Chopin or Tsujii’s Beethoven when it comes to Beethoven.’ So I’m hoping to go in depth and focus on one composer in the future,” he said.

Tsujii practices on average five hours a day during the school week and up to eight hours before concerts and recitals.

Instead of tracing over a musical score written in braille with his fingertips, he listens to recorded piano pieces over and over until he has memorized every detail.

The recordings are tailored for Tsujii by his piano instructor, who records the left hand and right hand parts separately. If the piece is complicated, the instructor plays the piece very slowly so that Tsujii can hear each note.

Tsujii and Zhang were the first Asian pianists to win the competition, held in Texas.

“As he’s just won, I feel very lucky to even be able to attend,” said Ryoko Sakae, a 66-year-old housewife at the concert.

Sales for Tsujii’s CD and DVD have skyrocketed.

The week after his Van Cliburn performance, his debut album - titled “debut” - jumped to second place on national charts the and has become one of the best-selling albums ever by a Japanese pianist.

Writing by Yoko Kubota, editing by Miral Fahmy

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