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Imagination is key for music tutor who can’t see

Whenever he plays “The Movie in My Mind,” pianist Raymond Gatdula said he could better feel every note by imagining Kim, “Miss Saigon” herself, standing right in front him, “waiting for her love with sadness and deep longing.”

This “imaginary theater” he puts himself in, easily conjured thanks partly to his zest for Nicholas Sparks novels, poetry and essay writing, has made Gatdula not just a performer worth paying to hear but also a special music teacher.

Born blind, he recently heeded the call of his alma mater for him to hold piano lessons—for students who are also blind.

Gatdula is the first visually impaired piano instructor produced by the University of the Philippines (UP).

The UP-Diliman College of Music opened last year a special extension program for blind students. “(UP) invited me because they wanted to make music education more accessible to the blind,” said Gatdula, who has been playing professionally for the last 15 years before he got the teaching job in September.

Every Friday and Saturday nights, Gatdula plays at Café Ysabel on P. Guevarra Street, San Juan City. On Wednesday mornings, the 39-year-old pro currently attends to his first apprentice, 23-year-old Aileen Galang.

“I have long realized that everything starts with a story,” he said of his mentoring style. “Behind every masterpiece is a story, real or fictional, that inspired the artist to write, paint or create.”

He’s not very particular with “precision” or perfect execution “for what’s important is the emotion.” For certain pieces, for example, he would tell Galang to master not just the Braille music notations but also to imagine herself climbing a mountain. “It makes her happy because she is treated as if she were sighted.”

He received no special treatment when he was still a learner himself. “I wasn’t a child prodigy,” said Gatdula, who finished high school at the Philippine National School for the Blind in Pasay City.

Encouraged by his father to study piano at age 17, Gatdula first attended an extension program of the UP College of Music for a year to learn the basics, and then auditioned for a slot in the course proper in the early 1990s.

He recalled working doubly hard to keep up with his fellow students who were “all sighted,” as there were teachers who declined to accept him in their class because of his disability. To those who took him in, he said: “Just teach me and I’ll do my best to learn.”

Having a Walkman then proved very useful: With earphones on, he would listen intently and repeatedly to the chords sampled by his teachers. The Braille notations were especially crucial for learning classical pieces.

“At first, I did not play with emotions. My teacher in UP used to scold me and say: ‘You play like a computer,’’’ he recalled with a smile.

Outside his music, Gatdula has found his life’s harmony with wife Dina and their two sons, Ian and Gio. At home, his leisure time includes surfing the Internet using the NonVisual Desktop Access software that “reads out’’ the text on the screen.

And since literature remains his other passion, Gatdula said he still prefers reading Braille text since “it gives more room for imagination.”

Asked how he could possibly have a mental picture of a woman, a mountain, etc. given his in-born condition, he said he really just “asked so many questions” about the world in his childhood.

Hence, there is always a vivid movie in his mind ready to play, as felt by his fingertips, from the dotted page to the black-and-white keys.

“Most blind people (who also play the piano) are already content with what they hear that they no longer care about emotions or visualizing the scenery described in the song,” he said. “But you’ll never get it without some imagination.”

Read more:

Lima Granali, Philippine daily inquirer