There has always music in my life, for as long as I can remember.
Mom was a professional singer, and dad was an avid vinyl collector who was always making us mix tapes of his favorite songs. Between the two of them, and the piano and guitars we had at the house, I became a musician without really even being aware of it. I admit though, I never expected to play music professionally when I grew up.
I’ve been visually impaired/legally blind since birth, but my parents didn’t realize until I was around three. This kind of says it all when it comes to how much vision I have.
I am in that awkward category of “not quite blind, but not really sighted either,” and that can be confusing for a lot of people. I can, for instance, see a face, but not be able to read the expression on that face, so in some ways I’ve got a foot in each world.
School was an on and off challenge for me, not necessarily because I’m blind, thought that definite was a contributing factor. I wouldn’t say I was a rebellious kid, but I definitely hated doing things I thought were pointless, and I had a thing for defying authority.
However, school was really where I discovered, or really rediscovered my love for music. I’d played piano by myself, or at most with a singer, but hadn’t ever jammed with another musician up to that point.
Anyone who has played music with others knows the indescribable joy and connection you get when everything clicks and you are in wordless sync with each other.
X Ambassadors – the Early Years
My brother and I started really playing music together in high school, and we came to it kind of grudgingly. Sam had formed his own band in middle school, and I had been playing with any and every band I could, so I’d been jamming with the guys from his band, playing some keys on their recordings, etc.
My brother and I could fight like demons, but we were also very close, and while we both wanted to do our own thing, the music was just sounding too good to deny. Long story short, we started the band.
Now everyone knows that all struggling musicians need a day job, and I understood this at the tender age of 18. I was also becoming aware of how few jobs there were that a person of my visual persuasion could do.
All the good attitude and determination in the world was not going to allow me to bus tables in a tiny New York restaurant, or be a bicycle courier.
Somehow, I stumbled upon the idea of being a piano tuner, and it checked all the boxes for me. I was lucky enough to get a scholarship from the National Federation for the Blind to go to Emil Fries’ School of Piano Tuning and Technology, where I attended for two years, learning everything I could about pianos. Armed with these skills, I took a breath and dove into NYC.
New York City is an amazing place, filled with more opportunities and possibilities than you can count, but it is also a nightmare to navigate as a blind person. The fast pace, the cramped and obstacle-strewn sidewalks, and most pedestrians don’t look where they’re going, expecting others to get out of their way.
All in all, definitely a mixed bag for me.
Bringing the Band Together
It was around 2007-2008 that the band really got started, and we really ground our way from the bottom up. We had no connections, and virtually no money, but we managed to rent rehearsal spaces wherever we could, and finally persuaded a few small clubs and bars to let our band play.
These were not epic gigs by any stretch of the imagination, but they let us hone our craft. It was also though playing shows that we began building a reputation and getting our name out there, which finally led to us hiring a manager, buying an old van, and trying our hand at touring, and it’s now been around ten years on and off the road.
Whenever anyone asks us what advice we’d give to other up and coming artists, the number one thing that comes to mind is persistence. There are some artist who are lucky enough to have hits right away, and some who have to put out five albums before they catch a break.
Either way though, if you want to continue to grow and be as successful as you can possibly be, you have to be willing to stick it out, through good times and bad.
I’d say this advice goes for living as a visually impaired person as well. There are and will always be challenges, injustices and generally dark times, the only way to handle it is to put your head down and keep driving forward. There will always be a newer, brighter day, if you can just make it through till the morning.
Casey Harris is the keyboardist for X Ambassadors, which he founded with his brother Sam. The band’s new album, Orion, is available everywhere you buy music.