Pianist’s blindness hasn’t impaired his musical vision

© Providence Journal June 4, 2009

By Channing Gray

Journal Arts Writer

CROHAN

This is a little like old home week for Rhode Island-bred musicians. Ron Leonard, longtime principal cellist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic returns to the area for the Music on the Hill chamber series Friday and Saturday (see story Page 6), and David Crohan, the blind pianist who grew up in Mount Pleasant and for years ran a restaurant on Martha’s Vineyard, will be in Wickford Sunday for a recital mixing Mozart and Chopin with show tunes and hits from the Great American Songbook.

When last we caught up with Crohan he was playing a Mozart concerto with the Ocean State Chamber Orchestra. That was 10 years ago and Crohan was living off Smith Street and playing cocktail piano at Boston’s Bay Tower Restaurant. But when business soured he was out of a job.

It turns out he went to Palm Beach to audition for a job and stopped by a swanky restaurant nearby. He got to talking with the owner and got a chance to sit in with the band. The owner was so impressed she hired him. So six years ago, Crohan and wife Claudette sold their cottage on the Vineyard and moved to Florida.

“I hated to leave the Vineyard and family,” said Crohan, “but I’m very lucky to be here.”

Crohan, who has been blind since birth when he was exposed to too much oxygen in an incubator, started picking out tunes on his grandmother’s out-of-tune piano when he was 3. As a youngster he appeared on a Boston television show, during which an appeal was made to get him a piano.

Around Christmas he was invited back to the show and handed a Braille Christmas card that read: “David Crohan, this is your piano.”

Crohan, who has been playing restaurants since he was 19, credits his aunt with helping him get around the keyboard. She started him out playing stride, which requires a leaping left hand. Had he stuck with traditional jazz, which doesn’t require so much jumping about, he doubts whether he would have gone as far with the instrument.

When it comes to classical music, Crohan has had to learn pieces through an arduous method with a Braille score. He feels the embossed symbols for notes and rhythms (they look nothing like traditional music notation) with one hand and plays the notes with the other, committing the passage to memory as soon as he plays it. Then he switches hands.

But for the most part, he has relied on his remarkable ear, and learned pieces by listening to recordings. That’s the case with one of the pieces on his program this weekend, an etude by Hungarian composer Ernst von Dohnanyi, which calls for a lot of crossed-hands acrobatics. His teacher at the New England Conservatory, who bet Crohan he couldn’t learn the difficult score, played the piece slowly and Crohan recorded it on a reel-to-reel tape player that he lugged to his lesson.

By the next lesson he had it down cold. Crohan said learning a piece such as this is similar to the way people type without looking at the keyboard.

Ironically, Crohan said he is something of a klutz when it comes to other manual activities. “I don’t know how I do what I do,” he said, “especially when it comes to pop music.”

Crohan will also be performing Mozart’s C Minor Fantasy, which he said he plays with something of a romantic bent, and Chopin’s B Minor Sonata, a tall order even for a sighted pianist.

Most all the popular music he plays, he plays from ear; he said it is difficult to maintain his concentration when he has to improvise for several hours a night, so over the years he has worked up standard arrangements for certain pieces.

Crohan will be performing at St. Bernard’s Church, 415 Tower Hill Rd., Wickford, Sunday at 7 p.m. The pastor there, The Rev. Dennis Reardon, is a childhood friend of Crohan’s from Mount Pleasant.

Tickets are $20 at door, $15 in advance for individuals, and $25 in advance for couples, and there will be a wine and cheese reception after the concert. Call (401) 295-0387.

Crohan is also playing a private party for retired banker Terry Murray while in town, and working Friday and Saturday at the Crane Brook restaurant in South Carver, Mass.

“I can’t imagine doing anything else for a living,” said Crohan. “I’m enjoying it as much as I ever did.

“I know guys who do this and might as well be plumbers, who don’t even like music, and they’re pretty good. They just don’t have the abiding love for it. And people say that comes across in my playing, that I love what I’m doing.”

cgray@projo.com
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