Given over to a shelter by his family because of his blindness, a 19-year-old overcomes obstacles to shine as a pianist. James Allen speaks to Vu Van Tu about his life.
Vu Van Tu appears almost silently, walking remembered steps across the familiar room, his hands feeling their way onto the bench beside me. His head remains mostly lowered, after all, he is only 19 and being interviewed can be nerve wracking.
We had arranged to meet in the cramped entrance room of the blind shelter he has called home for the last 13 years. A huge upright piano, covered in a makeshift stainless steel shield dominates the tiny room and a heavy padlock keeps the cover firmly shut. After mumbled introductions barely audible over the chattering of women in the alley, he begins, “I was brought here when I was five-years-old by my parents”.
Born blind into a working class family in Binh Duong Province, Tu is very matter-of-fact about his childhood. “They wanted me to learn from people who knew more about my disability, people who could prepare me for life as an adult,” he explains. I try to imagine a five-year-old version of the boy sitting next to me, being led into this room 13 years earlier, his life suddenly about to change.
“Playing the piano has always been a dream,” he continues. A dream that might not have been realised had it not been for Dao Khanh Truong, the founder of the shelter, who took an interest in Tu. Truong has since passed away and his photo is pointed out, perched on a shrine looking out over the room above the piano. Nguyen, Tu’s current piano teacher, who is chaperoning the interview, explains “There aren’t many options for visually impaired children”.
“Massage,” Tu chimes in. With a nod of agreement, Nguyen continues, “A lot of the students now are able to use computers and want to be computer programmers but that’s not really an option yet.” Massage does seem to be the most viable profession for the blind community here, but not for Tu.
“I just want to play,” he declares. The determination of his simple statement goes a long way to explain his current success.
It all started with Hidge (www.hidge.org), a small local charitable group who work on empowering children with disabilities through the arts who were already volunteering at his shelter. After hearing him play, they introduced him to British singer Lee Kirby who was involved in various charitable projects in the city as well as managing his own career in music. This led Lee to introduce Tu to Trang Trinh (www.trangtrinh.org) an international concert pianist and graduate of the Royal Academy of Music in London.
Despite a busy tour schedule in Europe, Trang takes some time to remember her first meeting with Tu last year. “He did not have the best piano, and hadn’t had a lot of music lessons, but there was an unmistakable joy so evident in his playing that is rare to see even in professional musicians,” she recalls.
Just for a fun test to see what this quiet boy could do, she suggested an improvised piano duet between the two of them. “To my amazement he very quickly got hold of the main harmonic progression, and started to make out a beautiful melody. I knew then that I wanted to do something for him.”
During Trang’s Piano Journal concert (Nhat Ky Duong Cam) in Ho Chi Minh City in May 2011, she pulled a bewildered Tu onto the stage to play with her. “It was a touching moment, I watched this boy shining, a natural performer, on a professional stage for the first time in his life.”
“I was nervous, but happy nervous,” Tu laughs as he remembers that day.
Still, the main challenge for him is finding and paying for a teacher who is willing to teach a visually impaired student. Nguyen, who helps Tu with the basics, feels his way carefully over the top of the piano to retrieve a large worn green covered book, a beginner’s guide to the piano, printed in Paris, and of course in braille. “I can read the music here, but I can’t read and play at the same time,” he says, which means that he must learn everything by heart and just practice and practice until it is correct.
Tu really wants to master jazz piano. Trang has already set him on his way by introducing him to Le Quang Long, a professional jazz pianist and teacher. “I have only given Tu jazz piano lessons for six weeks but his progress is excellent,” explains Long. “The way he plays music with his heart, with his feelings leads me to understand who he is.” The endless exclamations of praise from such accomplished musicians are promising to say the least.
Before the interview concludes, Tu agrees to play a number. Up comes the makeshift metal cover and almost instantly his hands find the keys and the strains of a rhythmic jazz number fill the tiny room. Ignoring the bellowing street vendor and the ambulance siren outside, his left hand attacks the complex base line while his right hand works away at the tricky melody.
Looking to the future, Tu needs more lessons as he wants to eventually teach other children to perform. For now he is happy playing every Saturday night at Regina Coffee (84 Nguyen Du, Q1) and is looking forward to a tour of his own around central Vietnam organised by Hidge.