'Nobu' Fever: Japan Falls for a Blind Piano Prodigy

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Rodger Mallison / MCT / Landov

Nobuyuki Tsujii performs at the 2009 Van Cliburn International Piano Competiton in Fort Worth, Texas on May 31, 2009

As Nobuyuki Tsujii finished the last note of Andante spianato et Grande Polonaise brillante by Chopin, the packed audience in Tokyo's Kioi Hall broke into an emotional applause. Executing each piece with energy and concentration, the 21-year-old classical pianist, who has been blind since birth, mesmerized the typically reserved Tokyo crowd in a two-hour solo performance on his latest tour. Kumi Araki, a 25-year-old from downtown Toyko, gushed. "I am so moved. Before I knew it, I was standing to applaud!" she says, wiping at tears.

Backstage, Tsujii's fans surrounded him to congratulate another great performance. Dramatically different from his stage persona, the soft-spoken and laid-back musician says, "Everywhere I go on this tour, people's reaction is amazing." After Tsujii won the Gold Medal at the prestigious Van Cliburn International Competition in Fort Worth, Texas, in June, the young performer has been launched into the unfamiliar world of Japanese mega-stardom. The sales of his first album debut, together with his second album and a live DVD, have sold hundreds of thousands of copies, and the interview requests flooded in. Tsujii, the first Japanese winner of the competition, says he rarely has time to go to his school now, or to meet friends. "The medal is a bit of a burden," he admits, "But I enjoy playing in front of people, so I try to give a good performance every time."

Japan, it seems, has got itself a case of Nobu Fever, the latest object of affection in a culture that regularly gets obsessed en masse with everything from fad diets to Haruki Murakami's latest book. And while this kind of fame may be new for the artist, life as a concert pianist is not. Tsujii's talent for music was discovered by his mother, when, at eight months, she says he repeatedly urged her to play a CD of Chopin's Polonaise Op.53. Soon after, his parents gave him a toy piano, and he started lessons before he was two. At 10, he debuted on stage with a professional orchestra. Masahiro Kawakami, who taught Tsujii for 12 years, is amazed at his pupil's unstoppable charisma. "He has a strong desire to strike a beautiful note, and this conviction that things will go well. His music has a power to make people happy."

By day, Tsujii is a junior at Ueno Gakuen University, a music school in Tokyo. The round-faced, stout Tokyoite — he says he takes after his dad, except for the fingers — likes karaoke and swimming, and would like to find a nice girlfriend soon. Pretty ordinary stuff for a college student, but once Tsujii sits in front of a piano, he transforms. Classical music critic Yukiko Hagiya calls his sound "pure and crystal-clear. It communicates his joy of performing to an audience." Michel Beroff, one of the jurors for the Cliburn Competition told the monthly piano magazine Chopin, "The special thing about his performance is his sound. It has depth, color and contrast, the genuine music."

Certainly, being blind hasn't made it easy. Tsujii can use Braille music scores to learn new pieces, but this kind of translation is usually done by volunteers. Because demand is so low, the variety of scores available does not meet the needs of a professional performer, so Tsujii has devised his own method. A team of pianists records scores along with specific codes and instructions written by composers, which Tsujii listens to and practices until he learns and perfects each piece. Yukio Yokoyama, Tsujii's current professor says, "Usually people learn by observing how others use their fingers, their bodies and their breaths, but he can only touch and feel."

Tsujii hopes one day to shake the label of being Japan's "blind" pianist. "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." He'll have his chance: As the winner of the Cliburn Competition, he is booked to perform worldwide for the next three years. "I am only at the starting line," he says. "I'd like to become a fine musician and play the piano as long as l live."