Darrius Simmons was born with just four fingers and had to have his legs amputated when he was a toddler. But the 17-year-old doesn’t let his disabilities stop him from pursuing his passion: playing piano. Simmons has released several Youtube videos of him playing, which have received several million views.
“I like to show people that I can do things that you think I may not be able to do, and I think piano was a great way to show that,” he told NBC.
A Desire to Learn
Simmons taught himself how to play piano when he was ten, and struggled to create an unconventional technique that worked for him.
“It was hard. I mean when I first started playing getting my hand placement, that was the hard part, and that’s where I had to sit down and practice sometimes all day,” he told a local newspaper.
Seven years later, and Simmons has perfected his technique. His prosthetic legs push the piano’s three pedals, and his thumbs are his main tools of choice.
Using thumbs as a fingering technique is nothing new – it has been around since the 1700s, beginning with the Bach family. Johann Sebastian Bach was the first to discover thumbs worked well for consistent playing, though it wasn’t conventional. His son, Carl Phillip Emmanuel Bach, who became successful church composer, used his thumbs to compose 200 sonatas.
CPE Bach is quoted talking about his father’s thumb methodology in the book “Keyboard Technique and Articulation: Evidence for the Performance Practices of Bach, Handel and Scarlatti,” by musicologist Mark Lindley.
“Now as he lived at a time in which gradually a quite particular change in musical taste took place, he was obliged thereby to think out a much more complete use of the fingers, [and] especially to use the thumb – which among other good services is quite indispensable chiefly in the difficult keys – as Nature so to speak wishes to see it used.”
Behind the Talent
Not only does Simmons’ smart, unconventional technique allow him to play beautiful music, but his talent can also be attributed to his persistence and strong will. “The one thing you’d hear him say is ‘I can do it myself, I can do it myself,’” his mother, Tamara Simmons told NBC.
So what’s Simmons’ secret to perseverance? “I don’t ever get discouraged,” he said in the same interview. It also doesn’t hurt that Simmons has also developed an innate musical ear.
“I listen to a lot of songs repetitively, over and over, and I guess by doing that, I developed an ear,” Simmons said. “I can play a lot of music by ear.”
Simmons is only in high school, but has already performed at Carnegie Hall, which has housed music legends like Billie Holiday and Duke Ellington. Two years ago, Korean pianist Yiruma invited Simmons to be his opening act at the prestigious venue after discovering his YouTube channel. Simmons was only 15 when he played this memorable gig.
A Historical Trend
Simmons might be in line to be the next legendary disabled pianist, but he won’t be the first.
Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein used his left hand and special pedal techniques in the mid 1900s, and is one of the first known one-handed piano players.
Then there’s Dr. John, jazz musician who switched from guitar to piano after he injured his left ring finger. The iconic New Orleans piano player rose to fame throughout the 60s and 70s, and now has six Grammy awards and a spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Perhaps Simmons, who has already received 4 million views on a video of his first composed piece, will one day be included in the hall of fame. Regardless, Simmons hopes his story will encourage others to pursue their dreams.
“I’m just glad that I inspired people and made somebody’s day,” he said. “That’s all I really wanted to do.”