Blind pianist Brian Collins laughs when people compare him to Ray Charles or Stevie Wonder.
“I always have done my own thing,” he said. And even though he likes Stevie Wonder, he makes one thing clear: “My music is my own style.”
Since birth, Collins has had a condition known as Leber’s congenital amaurosis, which has rendered him blind for all 26 years of his life. But that hasn’t stopped him from following one of his passions: Music.
“I learn by ear,” said Collins, who currently takes classes at Front Range Community College. “I took lessons to help with the technical stuff, but most of my experience came from listening to and playing music that I’ve heard.”
Amaurosis is partial or total loss of sight caused by disease of the optic nerve, retina or brain. Not much is known about the actual mechanism of the disease.
Despite this setback, Collins has learned to play many instruments. Although he plays the guitar and drums, the piano is his instrument of choice.
“The notes (on the piano) are so accessible,” Collins said. “There is not as much as other instruments on limitations on what you can play.”
Collins, well over six feet tall with unseeing brown eyes, is often found at the Alley Cat Caf/, 120 W. Laurel St., where he plays the piano for all to hear.
“Since I’ve worked here, Brian’s come in,” said manager Neal TePaske, a CSU alumnus with a degree in art. “Generally everyone’s a really big fan. Sometimes he plays during finals week and some people are frazzled while he’s rocking out.”
Others enjoy his music no matter what time of year he plays.
“It creates a nice atmosphere,” said Scotty Roebuck, who also graduated CSU with a degree in art last May. “The music is beautiful no matter what. Talent is talent.”
The musician is usually found at the caf/ with his roommate, Jared Luttrell, who accompanies Collins on his guitar.
“The highlight (of being here) is learning from a musician like him; you learn so much,” Luttrell said. “You excel a lot quicker when you play with someone as talented as he is.”
Contrary to the usual pattern of learning music, Collins does not practice, but improvises.
“It’s just about understanding the notes and the sound they make together and seeing that in your mind,” he said.
Collins, who has been playing for more than 15 years, is not only a performer in the band Wasabi, but also writes classic and progressive British rock.
Wasabi is a six-member band and features two guitars, a piano, bass, drums and a sax to create a blend of music that Collins dubs “soulful.”
Traveling throughout Colorado and nearby states, Collins has many hopes for the band.
“I want moderate success, but not to be on a label,” he said. “I want to put a smile on people’s faces and see different places.”
But life for Collins was not always as smooth as his music.
His parents first realized there might be a problem when he failed to respond to visual stimuli when he was a baby. Throughout 12 years of schooling, Collins has always had to learn differently than the other kids in class.
“In elementary school I had a special education teacher in class with me to help me understand what was put onto the chalkboard and another who would translate my braille into print,” he said.
When other classmates would work on reading or writing, Collins learned Braille, the abacus, traveling with a cane, and how to cross streets.
He describes himself as pretty independent by high school, and by listening to traffic patterns and knowing facts like how many streets were between Mountain Avenue and Olive Street, he could get himself around town.
After graduating from Poudre High School in 1998, he studied music at the University of Northern Colorado for a few years, but then moved back to Fort Collins.
He’s now the father of a 1-year-old son, Jesse, who does not have any vision problems. And although Collins teaches piano to students of all ages, he is more laid back about Jesse.
He doesn’t want to push his love of music onto his son, but is curious about the kid’s interests.
“I want to see if he gravitates toward it,” he said.
When asked about the possibility of getting reconstructive surgery, Collins is very decided about the matter.
“I’ve thought about being able to see, and at this point, it’d be a disturbance in my life because all of a sudden I’d have to relearn everything and redo my view on everything because it’d all change,” Collins said. “It’d actually be a challenge to see at this point. I have enough going on right now.”
Staff writer Megan Buettgenbach can be reached at email@example.com.