TROY – Acclaimed jazz pianist and Steinway Artist Marcus Roberts called disability a universal struggle during the 21st annual Helen Keller Lecture on Tuesday at Troy University.
The lecture, held in the Claudia Crosby Theater on the Troy Campus, is designed to promote awareness of people who excel in their chosen fields despite physical and/or mental limitations.
Roberts, who was left blind at the age of five due to cataracts and glaucoma but is today one of the world’s most prominent modern jazz musicians and composers, said while those effected by disabilities struggle to overcome them, those without disabilities often times struggle with a “lack of understanding and fear.”
“Helen Keller was a remarkable example, giving us an entirely different view not only of what is possible for those with disabilities to achieve but also that those with disabilities can be leaders and play important roles in society,” Roberts said.
After losing his sight, Roberts answered his musical calling when he began teaching himself to play the piano. When he was 10 years old, Roberts enrolled in the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind where he began his formal musical training. Influenced by his mother’s gospel singing, the music of his local and jazz greats such as Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, Roberts dove into his studies and later found himself studying classical piano with Leonidas Lipovetsky at Florida State University. Today, Roberts is regarded as an icon by upcoming generations of jazz musicians.
Roberts said those with disabilities often face struggles on two different fronts – access and acceptance.
“First, those with disabilities struggle with having access to education and the tools necessary to achieve their dreams,” Roberts said. “Those with disabilities also struggle with being accepted by our culture and not being cast away. My mother lost her sight at the age of 16. My parents were my first role models. I didn’t see in my parents, people who considered themselves victims. Instead, I saw people who were working hard to have a better life. My mother didn’t let me feel sorry for myself and that was important for me.”
While role models and mentors played important roles in his life, advancements in technology have also made a significant impact on the lives of those with disabilities.
“Technology is playing a huge role in leveling the playing field for those with disabilities,” Roberts said. “It is important that we provide children with disabilities the tools necessary to help them navigate the difficulties while also instilling feelings of strength and confidence.”
Roberts, who performed on one of the University’s Steinway pianos during the lecture, was also scheduled to headline TROY’s Steinway Artist Performance Series Concert at 7 p.m. in the Long Hall Band Room. Troy University became an All-Steinway School last year, meaning that the John M. Long School of Music uses only Steinway pianos in teaching and performances.