Grand pianist: 12-year-old plays through blindness

Twelve-year-old Luther Fuller, a pianist who is blind, navigates his way around a grand piano that he will soon practice on during a tour of Murphy Hall, Monday, July 2, 2012. Fuller spent part of the day with his mother, Brendy Latare, learning the lay of the building in preparation for the upcoming International Institute for Young Musicians Summer Music Academy, which begins on July 8. Nick Krug/Journal-World Photo

Luther Fuller said once he gets to the piano, everything’s fine.

The 12-year-old musician and Liberty Memorial Central Middle School student has been blind ever since his earliest memories, but he said that doesn’t hamper how he plays the piano.

“I don’t feel that blindness impairs my musical ability at all,” he said.

He’s progressed far enough to participate in Kansas University’s International Institute for Young Musicians, a summer academy that draws top young talent from around the world.

It can be the getting around that’s a bit of a challenge. He and his mother, Brendy Latare, spent some time walking around KU’s Murphy Hall this week, getting to know the lay of the land a bit before Fuller will navigate the halls on his own during the academy.

Latare said the family acquired an old piano for their son after noticing he seemed to enjoy plinking away at a toy piano.

“Not only that, but he just seemed to be making noises on everything,” she said.

Luther said he’s always enjoyed listening to music. He remembers enjoying the complex and different music of Frank Zappa from a young age (just the music — no words — his mother added). Today, he enjoys jazz music and particularly classical piano. He recently learned a Haydn sonata.

He’ll be taking two courses at the academy: One features piano technology and the other is on conducting. As part of the academy, he will also receive instruction from Scott McBride Smith, the director of the institute, who has worked with Luther before.

Smith, who oversees the annual institute that drew 67 participants this year and its associated piano competition, said there have been some famous blind pianists who have done very well. Though the institute doesn’t have blind students very often, Luther is not the first, Smith said.

Luther uses Braille music to help him learn, in conjunction with trying to learn a piece by ear.

“My feeling is he sort of enjoys the challenge,” Smith said.

The Braille music is often quite complicated, and he can’t read and play at the same time. Luther said he typically learns a measure or two at a time. Latare said finding Braille music can be a difficult chore at times, as it’s not readily available.

Latare credited Melissa Warren, a neighbor who works in KU’s piano shop, with helping Luther advance his musical career. It was Warren who suggested that Luther might be ready for IIYM this year, Latare said.

“He is very talented, I think, and very enthusiastic,” Warren said. “He’s always been like that. Since he’s been 2 years old, the first thing he would do is bang two sticks together and create rhythms.”