Blind pianist overcomes lifetime of health problems to help teach others

Patrick Brown Jr., who likes to be called B.J., says his earliest memories of music inspiring him were when his father played Bob Marley tapes.

Patrick Brown Jr., 23, has had 23 surgeries but has become a certified piano teacher

B.J. Brown teaches students aged 9 to 13 at Urban Arts and from his home in Alliston, Ont. (Michael Cole/ CBC News)
Patrick Brown Jr. — who likes to be called B.J. — says he was inspired by music at a very early age when his father played Bob Marley cassette tapes. Now, he's sharing that passion with other young people.

The 23-year-old is a certified piano teacher who teaches kids how to play. It's an accomplishment that hasn't come easily for the Brampton man, who is clinically blind and has dealt with a condition called hydrocephalus since birth.

He's had to have operations throughout his life to drain fluid that accumulates in his brain. It leaves him with headaches and causes his vision to get worse. 

"I've had 23 surgeries," Brown told CBC Toronto with a smile. "My faith is what keeps me positive."

Brown is teaching two days a week at UrbanArts — a not-for-profit centre in Toronto that provides arts programming for youth.

B.J.'s sister, Shaunasea, says playing music with her brother is a very humbling experience after witnessing all of his health challenges through the years. (Michael Cole/CBC News)

 Family influence

Brown recalls his older sister teaching him how to play Mary had a Little Lamb on piano when he was a child and he was able to pick it up very quickly.

"My parents saw that I was able to play by ear, and they thought it would be a good idea to put me in piano lessons," Brown said.

Now he plays everything from classical piano to the Beatles. His sister Shaunasea has witnessed Brown's journey and the challenges along the way.

"To say I am proud of him is an understatement," Shaunasea said.

"When he was a child, we had no idea what he would be able to do with his health problems but he's come such a long way, it's miraculous."

Shaunasea Brown said UrbanArts has provided her brother with a space to be himself and express his creative talent.

Employment challenges 

Brown says finding a job with his health problems has been a challenge. It's also been difficult to find a post-secondary program that fits his needs.

"With teaching and playing piano, it's good to feel recognized," Brown said. He also gets called up by his local church to perform at events. He dreams of finding full time employment working with computers and continuing to teach kids piano.

"There needs to be more places like Urban Arts," Shaunasea Brown said.

"He's capable of so much, there just needs to be more opportunity for him to share that."