A Concert Pianist Adapts to Blindness

Oct 22, 2014

When the Iowa Department for the Blind threw a party to celebrate the 50th anniversary of White Cane Day, it called on a former client to provide entertainment. 

Concert pianist Tim Schmidt, a professor emeritus of music at Waldorf College, performs during the 50th anniversary of White Cane Day at the Iowa Department for the Blind.
Credit Rob Dillard

To open a four-song set at the Iowa Department for the Blind offices in downtown Des Moines, Tim Schmidt chooses a number from legendary jazz musician George Shearing, who also happened to be blind.

Schmidt is professor emeritus of music at Waldorf College in Forest City. During a more than three decade career at the piano, he’s taken concert tours through China, Russia, Western Europe, Mexico and Canada. He has taught keyboard, accompanied vocalists, and recorded classical and jazz standards, all while slowly losing his vision.

“I was born with the condition I have, it’s a very rare sight condition, and it starts affecting you when you’re like 18, 19. You start losing your nighttime vision, your depth perception, and you start bumping into things, and it continues progressively throughout your life until your peripheral sight is under 10 percent, and then you’re legally blind.”

He was declared legally blind more than a quarter century ago. The deterioration of his sight has continued. Schmidt describes what’s left of his vision. “I can see your face right now, when I am talking to you," he says following his short concert. "But when my hand is out here, I do not see my hand, and that is just two inches to the left of your face, so my sight is very tunnel vision.”

Eventually, Schmidt says, his eyesight will fade to black. The transition to blindness has been tough at times. For some years, he gave up playing concerts, believing he could no longer handle the more difficult pieces. He thought he might have to give up teaching, too. But music, which has held him in its grip since he was three years old, won’t let go. “Even through all of the various times in life when there are deep crevices and deep valleys to go through, music has always been there for me, calling me back," he says.

Schmidt has had to make changes in his approach to the keyboard, of course. Where he once relied on visual cues, he now must trust his kinesthetic senses; those physical sensations that help determine his body position relative to the piano. He’s also incorporated a lesson learned while studying at the Iowa Department for the Blind – there is nothing a disabled person cannot do with the proper training. Now, Tim Schmidt has returned to the concert stage and plans to stay there for a very long time. “Until I stop breathing," he says. "Until they plant me. I think I’ll keep playing because that’s how I speak to people and how I communicate some of my deepest feelings and thoughts.”