Photo: Timothy Jones, 26, who is blind, is obtaining a Master’s Degree in Piano Pedagogy from Georgia State to teach children to learn how to play piano through braille. Christina Matacotta/Christina.Matacotta@ajc.com
Photo: Timothy Jones, 26, who is blind, is obtaining a Master’s Degree in Piano Pedagogy from Georgia State to teach children to learn how to play piano through braille. Christina Matacotta/Christina.Matacotta@ajc.com

Blind student pianist at Georgia State prepares to teach children

One night on a family camping trip, 12-year-old Timothy Jones, blind from birth, walked hand in hand through the woods with his mother. He saw something glowing.

Saw.

Was it an outdoor light? No, she said. It’s the moon. Timothy had never been so happy.

Fourteen years later as he sits at the piano and performs Debussy’s Clair de Lune in the Norcross home where he grew up and as his fingers dance across shiny keys, he seems to be tapping into something – emotions brim.

“It’s about the light of the moon … that memory has always been what I think about when I play this piece,” he said.

Literally speaking, Jones can see illumination. He is blind with light perception.

As a 26-year-old with Asperger’s who speaks often in metaphors, “light” is also a word he uses to describe the discovery of one’s path. Lighting the way for others – both sighted and blind — is the path he’s chosen. This month, his journey continues. He begins Aug. 26 at Georgia State University, aiming to acquire his master’s degree in piano pedagogy, and teach others, especially children, to learn piano and organ.

Timothy Jones, 26, plays the piano at Georgia State University in Atlanta on Monday, August 6, 2019.Christina Matacotta/Christina.Matacotta@ajc.com
Photo: Timothy Jones, 26, plays the piano at Georgia State University in Atlanta on Monday, August 6, 2019. Christina Matacotta/Christina.Matacotta@ajc.com

‘Face your fears’

Already in possession of a bachelor of music degree in organ performance from Mercer University, Jones said he wants to continue to use what he’s learned to “open the door to teach not only piano but Braille music to blind students as well. There’s a need for this … There are so many people who are just afraid to do it.”

He’s learned firsthand just how few Braille teachers there are in the area. Simply finding someone to teach him music was a challenge from the start of his musical career.

But, he did find some good ones. One of his teachers, in fact, Patti Bennett, taught him for 14 years. The Jones family first met Bennett at the church they attended in Norcross.

According to Jones, Bennett gave him a trial lesson and said, “‘Yes, he’s got talent, but I’ve got to figure out how I’m going to teach him.’”

Bennett said, indeed, upon deciding to teach Jones she found herself confused about how to go about doing it.

“I had never had a blind student before, so I just blindfolded myself for a whole weekend and walked around to see what it was like,” Bennett said. “I realized I was going to have to use different terminologies because I couldn’t say for instance ‘white keys’ and ‘black keys.’ Instead, I called them ‘tall keys’ and ‘low keys.’”

After all their years learning together, Bennett said that while Jones may tend to give her credit for his success, she feels “God should get the most credit because he gave Timothy perfect pitch.”

The role of God in Jones’ life cannot be overstated. He quotes from scripture and uses Biblical metaphors often throughout his conversations. For instance, his website, byfaithnotbysight.net, is a reference to 2 Corinthians 5:7.

“You need to face your fears and stop being so afraid of how you are going to do something,” Jones said. “That’s why I chose that verse … because we shouldn’t let our fears dictate our lifestyle.”

Photo: Timothy Jones performs Debussy’s Clair de Lune at his Norcross home on a recent afternoon. Contributed by Frank Reddy

‘Lamb of God’

It’s fitting perhaps Christian music was the vehicle by which Timothy’s mother, Nancy Jones, discovered his talent.

One evening, when Timothy was around two years old, Nancy was in the kitchen making dinner and heard the faintest sound of music being played from another room in the house – the room with a piano.

When she walked inside, Nancy discovered Timothy using the piano to hold himself up with one hand and picking out the distinct notes of a song by Christian singer Twila Paris with the other.

From the time the family discovered Timothy was blind – around three months old – they’d chosen to surround him with sounds to stimulate his mind.

“We had music in the house all the time. Music on CD. Musical toys,” Nancy said. “And, one of the popular albums at the time was ‘Lamb of God’ by Twila Paris. We played that a lot.”

After discovering her son playing the song on the piano, Nancy picked up the phone and dialed one of her friends who happened to be an organist.

“I said, ‘Is this normal’? And, she said, ‘No, it’s not normal. Get him a teacher!’” Nancy said, “The problem after that was finding people in organizations or programs willing (to teach Timothy). The fact that he was visually impaired – people were uncomfortable with that.”

It took time, but they did find teachers – few of them living nearby. Notably, Betsy Grenevitch of Social Circle taught him how to read braille music. And, of course, the aforementioned Bennett, taught him classical music, using cassette tape recordings of their lessons and memorization to teach him.

Timothy said that, whether learning to play songs by braille or by ear, it’s very difficult, requiring great skills of memorization.

“It takes a long time to learn a piece … (and if you’re blind) your pieces have to be memorized,” he said. “There’s no way around it. Unless God allowed you to be born with four hands, it just doesn’t work. You need your hands to play the song.”

Photo: Nancy Jones holds up a photo of her son, Timothy, playing the piano at the age of two. Contributed by Frank Reddy

He went on to memorize hundreds of songs on both the organ and piano spanning the genres – with a focus on classical and hymns.

Throughout his musical studies, mother Nancy – a teacher herself – home-schooled Timothy (as well as his two younger brothers, Stephen and Joseph) to keep him up to speed academically. His father, Ray Jones, worked throughout Timothy’s studies to make ends meet. He graduated from home school at the age of 21 and went on to graduate from Mercer in 2019, summa cum laude.

‘Do as the Lord leads’

His collegiate studies continue this month at Georgia State University thanks to his persistence and his desire to pass on what he’s learned on piano and organ. Being blind though, there were still obstacles – specifically, how he was going to get to and from Georgia State University.

When he attended Mercer from 2015-2019, Timothy lived on campus. At Georgia State, however, he’ll be living at home and traveling to school.

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He lives on a very busy highway, and upon arriving from the bus stop after his day at GSU, he’d need to be able to cross that road.

Gateway85 – formerly Gwinnett Village CID – was already in the process of installing a crosswalk close by. The original plan did not include an audible component for the visually impaired until Nancy Jones approached Robert Michener, director of operations for Gateway85.

“I was out to inspect the progress when I was approached by Timothy’s mother,” Michener said. “She asked if the system was audible. It was not.”

Gateway85 decided to invest an additional $15,000 in the project to add sound. Following its installation, a crowd gathered July 16 to celebrate both Timothy’s birthday and the activation of the system.

Gateway85 Executive Director Emory Morsberger said helping Timothy continue to pursue his dream of teaching sighted and blind children to play the piano was an opportunity “we could not turn down.”

Timothy said that helping others light their learning paths is an act of faith and an example of his belief that “we should be willing … to do as the Lord leads. We need to be brave enough to step outside the box and out of our comfort zone. That’s one of the things I want to do as a teacher – be willing to step out into those unknowns and help other people who have a desire to learn.”

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