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Blind Pianist, Composer Inspires Visually Impaired Students

Blind pianist and composer Marcus Roberts sat front and center on the DeVos Performance Hall stage and gave blind students advice: “The most important thing is to read and write as much as you can,” he said.

“If you can read and write, it means you can communicate with other people who are not blind. That’s real important,” Roberts said. “People who can see honestly don’t understand what it’s like to be blind and they don’t really know how to cope or deal with that. You have to make it easy for people to understand you and to communicate with you.”

Twelve local visually impaired students met Roberts, headliner of the recent “Symphony with Soul” concert, prior to the performance. The musician who is known as a master of jazz welcomed them for a question-and-answer session, talking about music, education and accomplishing dreams. Grand Rapids Symphony sales specialist Tom DeVries reached out to Kent ISD Media Center for the Visually impaired to arrange the meeting. The Lions Club provided a grant for tickets and transportation.

Marcus, who grew up in Jacksonville, Florida, lost his sight at age 5. He began teaching himself to play piano and had his first formal lesson at age 12. He went on to study classical piano at Florida State University with renowned pianist Leonidas Lipovetsky.

Blind pianist and composer Marcus Roberts greets blind students and their families

Roberts toured with Wynton Marsalis for six years starting at age 21, before he left to tour and record with his own band. He has been profiled on “60 Minutes,” has served as artist-in-residence for the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City and appeared on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” in 1987.

Joe DeJong, 22, a blind student in Grand Rapids who sings and plays piano and guitar, said he was inspired by Roberts.

“There are many different people with disabilities who play music. He’s talented and good at what he does,” Joe said of Roberts. “I have a lot of respect for him.”

Roberts asked students what technologies they use and stressed literacy through braille. Along with braille, blind students have programs like never before that are giving them a voice, he said.

Maria Jimenez, media specialist in the Media Center for the Visually Impaired at Kent ISD, said the symphony trip exposed some of her students to a unique and special setting.

“They were able to hear directly from the artist, which personalized the experience, and were able to hear how passionate Marcus was about braille literacy, something we often have to try and invest our younger students in,” she said. “For the students who were already interested in music, the chance to meet another visually impaired musician is priceless. It was a phenomenal experience.”

Steven Rogers and his daughter, Cecilia, 10, who is blind, said they enjoyed the opportunity.

Cecilia, who is home-schooled and plays piano, has always gravitated toward music, her father said. Cecilia said she was amazed how fast Marcus could play.

“I think this is a special opportunity,” her father said. “It is good to expose them to what other people have done. It helps broaden their world.”


Marcus Roberts

Grand Rapids Symphony

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is associate managing editor and reporter, covering Byron Center, Kentwood, Wyoming and Grand Rapids Community College. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013 and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio or email Erin.


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