Sightless sisters make a lifetime of music
They sit next to each other on a piano bench covered with a pink pillow. Playing in tandem, their fingers effortlessly glide up and down the piano keys, not missing a single note.
The old Baldwin piano they play is out of tune, they say. They should know; the light-brown colored piano has been a fixture in their house for nearly half a century.
But they gladly continue to play.
They wear white button-down shirts, long skirts with flowery designs and black shoes.
Even though they are indoors, they are wearing dark, black sunglasses.
Betty Kane and Judy Meyers, twin sisters and residents of Squirrel Hill, are pianists. And they are both blind.
But that hasn’t stopped the 59-year-old duet from leading a life rich in music and community service, a life that will be recognized Monday, May 20, when the sisters receive the Suldan Shalom Award for public service at the Kollel Jewish Learning Center’s “Night of Music.”
Born premature, the twins were left sightless from birth. That, however, did not stop their parents from buying them a second-hand piano when their girls were 7 years old.
“We knew nothing about it at all,” Kane said of the instrument. “We banged on it at first, but the next year we went to the Western Pennsylvania School for the Blind, so we did start to learn [and] we played all through school.”
Kane and Meyers had some relatives who were musically inclined, so their parents thought that the twins might be as well.
“Everything they described about their parents, especially about their mother, they grew up in a family where their parents made it very clear they were going to see to it everything anybody else could do they were going to do,” said Robert Lebovits, former president of the Kollel and chair of the “Night of Music.” “What’s wonderful and extraordinary about them is not that they do everything everybody else does, but they do it with such a great sense of humor and inspirational joy. I mean they just make everything seem easy.”
The two learned from several teachers and by using braille music, at first. Today, they pick up tunes mostly by ear, listening to CDs. Kane and Meyers normally play together, however they can play separately — not so well, they said.
Kane and Meyers don’t need anyone to place their hands on the piano. They are able to place their fingers on the right keys almost all of the time.
“Sometimes we get on the wrong notes but not most of the time,” Kane said.
While some songs take longer to learn than others, the twins can absorb songs in as short as a few minutes. But learning by ear does limit them in ways — they can play the songs, but they do not know titles or composers. They know some names — Yaakov Shwekey, an Israeli-born recording artist, for one. But they refer to the music they play as Jewish music. They also play classical music and, for a short time, they even delved into jazz.
Kane and Meyers tried their hand at other instruments, too, including clarinet, guitar, organ, and alto and tenor saxophone, but they didn’t stick with any of those instruments like they did the piano.
“My one teacher said I didn’t have guitar fingers,” Kane said.
The sisters usually play at least a couple times a week; they said that it is one of their favorite things to do.
“It’s relaxing and brings us joy,” Kane said. “And we like to bring joy to others.”
“If you like something,” Meyers added, “you have fun with it.”
The two play music when asked and make phone calls for organizations. Congregation Poale Zedek Sisterhood considers them its social secretaries. They send out cards for b’nai mitzva, birthdays, weddings and condolences.
Kane helps people find rides or meals when they do not feel well, and volunteers for the Jewish Community Center’s CheckMates program for which she calls seniors to check in on them — something she’s been doing for more than four years.
The sisters both wish they could do more, so they were surprised when they heard they would receive the Suldan Shalom Award.
“I don’t think we’ve done enough to be deserving of it, to be honest,” Meyers said.
Lebovits respectfully disagreed.
“They have a tremendous, easy flowing, lack of pretention about them, and they do everything in the community, everything that anybody would want, anything that can be done by a volunteer, they are the first to volunteer,” he said. “They’re the kind of people who don’t even realize how special they are.”
(Andrew Goldstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)