At 8 a.m. each Wednesday—a time when most students have pressed their snooze alarms at least a dozen times—freshman Timothy Jones is in McCorkle Music Hall perfecting his rendition of Claude Debussy’s “Clair de Lune.”
For four hours, Jones’ hands glide over the piano keys in a practice room until his class at noon.
From outside of the practice room, Jones sounds like any gifted musician. Jones, however, doesn’t have sheet music and never glances down at his keyboard.
He has memorized the entire performance. He is legally blind.
The 22-year-old is an organ performance major at the Mercer University Townsend School of Music.
The road to success hasn’t been easy. When Jones was nearly 4 years old, his mother, Nancy, learned her son was blind. Nancy learned that he suffers from Leber’s Congenital Amaurosis, a rare hereditary eye disease. But Jones, who began playing Twila Parris’ “Lamb of God” on the piano at two years old, has always had a passion for music.
It all started when Jones was growing up. He would attend Sunday church services with his parents and two brothers. There, the precocious talent heard a choir singing accompanied by a thunderous organ.
“I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to play an instrument like that and play for a choir and congregation,’” Jones said. “I knew from then on that I would want to study to become a church organist.”
Though Jones was excited to study organ at Mercer, he decided to defer his acceptance for a year because he would have to learn some new technology and software before beginning.
During Jones’ deferment year, the Townsend School of Music offered him organ and piano lessons free of charge, which shocked Jones and his family.
The summer before Jones’ freshman year, he memorized the basic layout of campus. At first, the task appeared daunting to Jones, who was overwhelmed by the campus’s size.
In June, he worked with disabilities service coordinator Carole Burrowbridge to order his braille books for his classes.
Once Burrowbridge received the textbook list from Jones’ professors, she ordered the textbooks through AMAC, an accessibility solutions and research center that supplies braille and other materials for students with disabilities. Both Jones and Burrowbridge also searched other library catalogs to see if they could find existing textbooks in braille.
AMAC ended up not delivering Jones’ textbooks, and the center referred them to another contractor who took a while to respond to Burrowbridge’s request.
Jones started his first week of freshman year without his essential textbooks, but he still had assignments to complete under deadline.
At the time, the anxiety of having to complete certain assignments but not having textbooks took a toll on Jones. He considered packing his bags and going home.
“I was thinking, ‘This isn’t going to work. I sense disaster coming, and I’m going to flunk,’” Jones said.
Once the music faculty became aware of his situation, they called a meeting and tried to find a way to help Jones.
The professors agreed to give Jones an extension on his homework until his books arrived.
The dean of the music department even read some of his music textbooks aloud to him so he could turn in his assignments.
In many of Jones’ classes, he’s learning the theoretical side of music, so the courses’ textbooks use musical symbols. Burrowbridge had to find a way to present this visual information in a way Jones could use. The secondary contractor eventually got in contact with Burrowbridge, and Jones received his books towards the end of his first week of classes.
Learning the theoretical side is only half the battle for a music major. Jones also has to find a way to learn the pieces he is expected to perform.
When Jones is learning a new piece, his professors will record themselves playing sections of the piece with the left and right hand played separately. The professors will then upload the file onto Dropbox—a file sharing and storage site—where Jones will download and listen to the file.
Since Jones has perfect pitch—the ability to identify a musical note without hearing any other tone—he is able to teach himself to play what he hears without the benefit of sheet music. He repeatedly listens to specific sections and practices them until its memorized.
Playing classical music is a challenge in itself, but the fact that Jones can play blind makes it a “physical phenomenon,” said Ian Altman, a professor of piano at Mercer.
Although being blind makes life more difficult, Jones said he believes his disability serves a spiritual purpose.
“As far as faith goes, I have learned that we don’t know what’s ahead of us, and in a way, each one of us is blind,” Jones said. “We don’t know what’s on the road ahead, and that’s where it takes trusting in an eternal creator.”
Disabilities won’t stop the aspiring musician from pursuing his dream of one day hosting his own concert and and sharing his testimony at the end of it.
“I did get some challenges when I came here, and I’m still getting challenged. But who knows what’s on the road ahead?” Jones said, “I’ll just be trusting the Lord that he will direct my path.”
“Conference Recitalist Second Alternate” (2009)
National Federation of Music Clubs’ Agnes Fowler Award for Blind Performance and the Joyce Walsh Junior Disability Award (both in 2010)
Atlanta Music Club’s High School Keyboard Scholarship for 2010
Georgia Music Teacher’s Association State Auditions Outstanding Performer (2008, 2009, 2011, 2012)
Scholarships for Organ Performance from the Atlanta Chapter of the American Guild of Organists (2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014)
Master Class Level Preformer (2011)
Paderewski Gold Medal in the National Piano Guild Auditions of the American College of Musicians (2011)
National Winner of The American College of Musicians’ National Guild of Piano Teachers for 12 years’ participation with consistent “Superior Plus” ratings
Completed a full 14 years of Superior ratings to earn the prestigious “Irl Allison” Award
Second place in Gwinnett County Music Teachers Association Junior/SeniorScholarship Auditions (2012)
Second Place Medalist at the Champianos 2012 High School Piano Competition (2012)
First Place Winner at the North East Georgia Music Teachers Sonatina/ Sonata Competition (2011)
First place in the Organ category for the Bob Jones University High School Festival for the Arts ( 2012)