I doubt that Andrea Bocelli and Doc Watson ever met each other, but they sure had a lot in common, and not just blindness. Both men saw things the rest of us don’t, and turned them into great music.
Arthel “Doc” Watson lost his sight before the age of one from an eye infection. His parents taught him to work hard and take care of himself – and all of his life, he did. He bought his first guitar with money he earned helping his brother chop down trees, and then he taught himself to play it. By the time of his death at the age of the age of 89, he had won 7 Grammy awards and a Grammy lifetime achievement award.
And what a lifetime it was. He not only wrote and played and sang songs, he created a whole new style of guitar picking. He had a world-wide legion of devoted fans who listened to his music and went to his concerts and were dazzled by his artistry and captivated by his genuine warmth. He was a fine musician and a fine human being.
Andrea Bocelli, the superb Italian tenor, was born with poor eyesight and lost it entirely after an accident on a soccer field at age 12. By then he had already fallen in love with music, learned to play the piano and other instruments, and at age 7 decided that his voice was the best of them. At last count, his recordings have sold more than 150 million copies worldwide. Bocelli, like Doc Watson, has a devoted following who appreciate not only the quality of his voice, but the passion he brings to the interpretation of great music.
I once heard Doc Watson say that losing his sight made his develop and rely on his other senses, especially his hearing. He told of playing hide-and-seek with his brother, and being able to tell where the brother was by listening for the tiny sound of his movements and breathing. He developed a keen ear for voices, and if he heard you once, he knew who you were. Unquestionably, he brought all of that to his music. He listened to fiddlers, took apart their technique in his head, and adapted it to his guitar. It was unlike anything guitarists had ever heard, and the best of them adapted and built on his unique style.
Bocelli, with his keen ear, finds and uses the subtle nuances of his songs. In an interview a couple of years ago, he talked about the value of silence. “Even in the most beautiful music there are some silences, which are there so we can witness the importance of silence. Silence is more important than ever, as life today is full of noise.” Listen carefully to Bocelli sing, and you hear how beautifully he uses silence. He appreciates that even more because his life is consumed with sound, not sight.
I thought of Doc Watson and Andrea Bocelli when I was speaking to a group of children about reading and imagination. “Imagination,” I told them, “is what you see when your eyes are closed.” It’s the pictures in your mind that are triggered by everything else in your world – what you see, hear, taste, feel. And if we don’t have use of our eyes – like Bocelli and Watson – our imaginations are even more exquisitely cultivated by the senses we do have. I believe those two wonderful musicians give something unique and special to those of us who admire them because they are using their imaginations to the fullest. In this way, they see things others miss.
When I write my stories, I’m in a sense writing with my eyes closed. I’ve entered the world of the characters I’ve imagined. I can see and hear and touch them, watch them move about and bump up against each other and make sparks and a story. My job then is to give them free rein, to be honest and faithful with them, and to trust them to lead me through the underbrush and find the path.
If I do that, things turn out fine. And in a very small way, I get fleeting glimpses of what artists like Andrea Bocelli and Doc Watson see. It’s beautiful.