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Blindness has its musical advantages

Living without sight never stopped these Edmonton musicians from following their passion.

Just a few months before the David Letterman show ended, Stevie Wonder made an appearance that left the audience in stiches when he spontaneously came up with his own 'Top Ten Advantages of Being Blind' list.

While Wonder was mostly joking, scientists have often wondered about whether blind musicians have advantages over sighted musicians. In fact, one study showed that 57 per cent of blind musicians have perfect pitch, compared to less than 20 per cent of sighted musicians.

Piano player Jim Bennett and drummer David Lazaruk may not think of their childhood blindness as an advantage, but it did give them a unique perspective into the world of the sighted and a doorway into the bigger world.

Both from Alberta, the two met on the train heading to the Ontario School For the Blind in Brantford in the 1950s. The older Bennett began to teach himself how to play the school’s old piano. Lazaruk noticed, and he started to play the accordion.

When their school years ended, Lazaruk returned to Edmonton and took up the piano, joined an orchestra and learned to play various percussion instruments, later taking lessons from Joe Wade, a drummer in Tommy Banks’ band.

In his early 20s, Lazaruk played in bar bands while working full time at the CNIB. He joined up with trumpet player Bill Owens and approached school pal Bennett to join in too. Together they started playing in venues like the Army, Navy and Airforce Club.

Since all three were blind, they called themselves the Brailletones, among other names. There were lots of CNIB gigs, as well as countless weddings, anniversaries and private parties playing pop and dance music, country and rock.

Compared to sighted musicians who often use hand signals, eye glances or head bobs to communicate, Lazaruk says blind musicians approach and interpret music differently.

“It was lots of fun. I looked forward to doing that kind of work all the time," said Lazaruk. "We had a bond. We could feel the music where you could go in and go out. We could read each other. When it was another person’s turn, you just backed off a little. We did it automatically.”

Lazaruk and Bennett don’t see each other much these days, Lazaruk living at the Rosedale Seniors' Living facility and Bennett with his wife in their west Edmonton home.

For the past ten years or more, Bennett has played mostly solo at Edmonton seniors' homes where he has become a favourite. It's been a good gig after retiring from work as a computer programmer at the University of Alberta.

Now at 83, he arrives at each gig with Delphine, his wife of 62 years, sits down at the house piano and begins to loosen up his arthritic fingers.

“I play the first song and if I get a reaction, then I am quite happy,” said Bennett. “If I don’t, I try something else.”

Some of the songs that never fail include You Are My Sunshine, Gene Autry’s Let The Rest of the World Go By, Jim Reeve’s Have You Ever Been Lonely, Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain, the Blue Skirt Waltz or the old church hymn Battle Hymn of the Republic.

Thanks to Delphine’s driving skills, Bennett can be found playing in Morinville, Legal, Gibbons, St. Albert, Leduc, Sherwood Park and throughout Edmonton.

In 2000, Bennett put together a CD of original songs, with support from producer Gary Dere, manager Ev Morin and graphic designer Carol Pylypow. Appropriately, Bennett called the CD 'Life As I See It'.

Looking back at those years, Lazaruk smiles. Playing music for the community--not just the blind community--made him feel like he was part of the larger world, he says.

“Sometimes we would have a crescendo and we would all end at once. It made you feel like you were on top of the world,” said Lazaruk.