Playing the Piano

I started playing the piano at about age nine. At ages eleven and twelve, I won two small, local, age-graded piano competitions. Though I had some talent, I was by no means gifted, and I spent my adult life continuing to play the piano and face my limitations.

I have played classical music, from 18th-century baroque (e.g., Bach) to 20th-century romantic (e.g., Rachmaninoff) and a lot of composers in between (e.g., Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Chopin, and Brahms). I have dabbled only a tiny bit with jazz and pop. I got to where I was by practicing, though really what I was doing most was exercising my finger memory. A big weakness of mine is my “ear” and aural memory.

I think the spectrum of everyone’s musical experiences and capabilities is vast. A typical professional pianist might memorize scores and be able to play without looking at his/her hands. They might involve little to no eyesight with their playing. I’ve played the piano for almost 40 years and have always relied more on my eyes than my ears. Note that I never pursued an accredited education or a career in music.

Enter ataxia

Because my aural memory has always been weak, I would never memorize. Because I relied on having sheet music in front of me as I played, I relied heavily on my vision. Even though my first signs of ataxia were in 2003 at age 35 and affected my coordination, it primarily affected my walking and other physical activities but didn’t affect my fingers.

In 2006 at age 39, when my vision problems became dominant, my vision was an impairment while playing the piano but still mainly a nuisance more than anything. I always relied on having sheet music in front of me, whether I had “learned” the piece or was sight reading. I would occasionally get together with other musicians and mainly sight read, and sight reading became quite difficult.

The vision degradation I have, caused by SCA3, is not correctable. However, I was able to improve the situation using two methods. First, I need extremely well-lit music. Second, I use an eye patch to eliminate double vision.

Getting lit

Overhead lights and nearby lamps aren’t sufficient for me. Since 2011 at age 43, I’ve been using a lamp that clips perfectly to the music stand of my grand piano:

The lamp is easily portable, and I’ve taken it with me when I’ve played other pianos. I simply never play without it.

Double vision

I’ve devoted a separate article to the topic of double vision. I have found that wearing an eye patch helps with reading music and seeing where my hands are on the keyboard. If I’m not wearing an eye patch, I see two keyboards, plain and simple, which is problematic.

There’s still the problem of my eye muscles being too sluggish to keep up with the needs of being able to glance quickly here and there.


One of the biggest problems I have with playing the piano is the difficulty I have concentrating, which is so bad, I think it’s a form of cognitive impairment. It’s impossible to enjoy activities through a cloud of poor vision and mental exhaustion. This is one of those outwardly invisible issues that makes me appear lazy.

Going backwards

Vision impairment was my biggest issue in 2006 at age 39. Finger coordination degradation overtook that in about 2012 at age 44.

I still try to play the piano every day. I spent about 33 years getting better at the piano with each passing day, week, month, and year—if not getting better then at least learning new things. That was a big motivator: the more I put into it, the more I got out of it.

For the last few years, I have gotten worse with each passing day, week, month, and year. That’s a little on the demoralizing side. But I’d still say it’s better to start with something that degrades rather than starting with nothing at all.

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