Westwood teen follows passion for piano despite blindness

Cassidy is legally blind due to a condition called achromatopsia (Photo courtesy of Linda Thomas)

By Linda Thomas
Hometown Weekly Correspondent

A haunting sound fills the room.

If you close your eyes for just a moment you may think you’re listening to a recording of Beethoven.

But if you open your eyes you’ll see the performance is live.

James Cassidy doesn’t even look at the black and whites. He doesn’t have to. Even if he did, he wouldn’t see them like his listeners do.

You see, this Westwood High School senior is legally blind - and only under the cloak of dim light or near darkness can he see the keys of a piano.

Much like his hero Beethoven who overcame his deafness to write nine symphonies, 32 piano sonatas and other memorable works, Cassidy, to the average observer, is a prodigy.

Light blinds him, but by trusting his senses of touch and hearing, he can play operas.

“He is one of those rare kids who can show you his soul with his playing,” said Vivian Tsang, voice and piano director and co-founder of Merry Melody Music Academy in Westwood. “James doesn’t boast much so nobody really knows how great he really is,” she said. “He’s not a kid who does competitions or wants to perform or show off.”

Despite being a gentle, quiet young man, his playing shows that he is a 17-year-old filled with intensity and passion, said Tsang, who has taught and followed Cassidy’s progression for the past 12 years.

Cassidy says he understands what the piece is about because he puts himself into each one he plays.

“When you play music, you can play and get every single note and do all the right kind of techniques,” he said. “But if you don’t feel what the piece is about … what it’s basically saying … then it’s hard to get across what the piece is about and what you really feel about the piece.”

On Saturday, April 30, Tsang’s music academy held its annual showcase recital at the First Congregational Church in Norwood with more than 100 in attendance.

The sun was just setting and casting light directly onto the piano as Cassidy was in the middle of performing Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C# Minor.

“While it made him look like an angel, it also meant he couldn’t see the keys because of the brightness,” Tsang said. “But he kept playing. Even though I was wondering about whether the sun was affecting him, it truly didn't sound like it at all.  He wowed everyone. Nobody in the audience even knew about his vision or that he was basically playing by the feel of the piano.”

Cassidy was born with achromatopsia, a genetic visual disorder acutely affected by light.

Peoples’ vision is typically corrected for 20/20 or 20/40. Cassidy has one eye corrected to 20/100 and the other is at 20/70.

“The sun is what kills him,” said Cassidy’s mother June. “It’s like you and I going out with snow on the ground with bright sun. There’s that moment where … ‘oh my God, I can’t see anything.’ For us it goes away very quickly. For him it’s still there.”

Early on Tsang remembers discussing with Cassidy’s mother how to print his music large enough for him to see.

“We worked on his posture more than the other students because he has to sit close to the piano to see the keys,” Tsang said. “That was tough to do. And when his parents bought the piano, they had to be considerate of where the music stand was to be sure he would be able to see the book from there.”

He also ends up memorizing the pieces pretty quickly while practicing piano. “That’s because it’s a bit difficult to see the music when I’m not playing,” he said, “just ‘cause I really can’t focus on certain parts very easily so I usually memorize it and don’t need the music when I’m practicing.”

Cassidy plays on regardless whether the light is too bright. “I just keep on playing with the same amount of enthusiasm and emotion I had been playing before,” he said.

He was born into a musical family. His mother plays the bassoon and his father plays viola and violin. Like his older sister, he chose the piano mainly because the sound appealed to him.

“When you play the piano you have a wide variety of sounds where you can play very soft and very delicate or you can play very loud and very rough,” he said. “That kind of range of sound appeals to me. It gives me a lot of joy just to play the piano and play different songs … play different kinds of moods … and express myself in the music … and hear myself.”

Debussy’s Arabesque is one of Cassidy’s favorite compositions.

“It’s about a blank canvas. The whole piece is about ‘here are notes.’ But you can be creative on how you interpret them and how you play the music,” he explained. “That’s something I really like about that piece. It allows you with all these notes to express yourself through them. Because it’s not really saying anything except to just be yourself.”

Besides piano Cassidy has played French horn since fifth grade and is principal horn at Claflin Hill Youth Symphony. His final concert is May 15. He says he’ll continue piano and horn in college – and looks forward to attending Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York this fall with a major in mechanical engineering.

Cassidy says he doesn’t let his disability limit his music playing.

For the past three summers, he’s attended Inter-Actions, a summer camp in Kingston, New Hampshire for children who are blind or visually impaired. That first summer as a counselor in training, he felt encouraged by the other campers.

“They were having so much fun you basically wouldn’t even know they were blind or had any visual impairment,” he said, “and it spurred me not to worry about my own disability but rather do whatever I wanted and not be inhibited mentally by my disability.

“People may think you can’t perform at the same level as them. But if you try hard enough … if you work hard enough … you can outdo other people. And you can even outdo your own expectations.”

Editor’s Note: Linda Thomas writes for Hometown Weekly Publications, Inc. For comments and suggestions she can be reached at lindasfaces@gmail.com

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