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Take a look inside UK’s only blind orchestra, where musicians from different cultural backgrounds find a safe place to perform

By Alessia Peretti

Inner Vision orchestra gives blind artists a platform to share their stories through music. Baluji Shrivastav started the group, without conductors and composers, in 2008. “I just believe [in] the musicians coming together telling their stories and blind people have got fantastic stories” he said.

The “virtuoso multi-instrumentalist” (The Times), born in India’s Uttar Pradesh 60 years ago, organises workshops every two weeks where he sits and pretends to be the director. “You talk about yourself and I will just listen. When my turn comes, I will do the same” he said. With the help of funding from the British Council and Arts Council of England they perform concerts nationally and internationally.

Inner Vision organises workshops every two weeks, where anybody – musician or not – can participate. Once a woman, who is now aged 96, attended the orchestra, and although she had no previous musical experience, she began playing the cymbals which she now loves.

According to Aby Baker, alumna of the Royal College of Music who plays piano, clarinet and violin, it is not about someone’s ability, but the possibility to meet other musicians and have fun. “One of the best things is the social aspect,” she said.

Shrivastav started the session by putting on a song from an old Indian film. Everyone listened intently, they commented on the tuning and chords then decided who would play the main melody and solos. “In the last 15 minutes they listened to a tune once or twice and they’re already performing it almost flawlessly on their instruments” says Dr Chandra Nisha Singh, an Indian university professor who watched their performance for the first time.

The orchestra then went on to perform songs they requested themselves; they ranged from classical, to blues and traditional Indian tunes. She said:

“To have the opportunity to bring my favourite pieces here and put them together with an Indian sitar or saxophone player is interesting for me because that’s not how you would normally do, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done.”

Baker loves the revolutionary approach to music in the group. Within the orchestra nothing is impossible and the attitude is “Why not? Let’s try that!”

Research shows that only one in 10,000 sighted people have perfect pitch (less than 20 percent) whereas a whopping 57 per cent of blind musicians have perfect pitch.

“Some people come up to me and say ‘Oh my God, it’s extraordinary that you have perfect pitch, you’re a genius!’ and I answer ‘No, I’m not! It’s not more of a genius than you saying that’s red and that’s green.’ It’s the audio equivalent of that,” Baker said.

Each musician in the orchestra has had a fascination with sound since they were young. Some of them used to record themselves pretending to be different people in a radio show, others would listen to their voice played backwards – in rewind mode – and try to copy it.

Inner Vision’s lead pianist Kevin Satizabal, used to press the play and rewind button on old tape recorders because it made “the most amazing sound.” Twig, a blind pianist who often attends workshops, remembers that he got into learning the piano by pressing the sustain pedal down, shouting into it and hearing the reverb of his voice.

Mr Shrivastav said that he could already imitate people in the street when he was only one-year-old, sing Bollywood songs and copy the sound of old gramophones, including the scratches of the records. “Then, at the age of three or four, I could play harmonium, banjo, [and] any instrument I found. If I couldn’t find any, I could play cup, plates, or bowls, whatever I find. I became blind at the age of eight months, so after that there was nothing but music, I needed to communicate.”

One of the things he is most proud of is that they do not just play notes written by composers, but ‘real’ music through improvisation: “Our music comes from our heart, and not from our brain.”