Santon, a 32-year-old pianist-violinist, who goes by just that name, has adopted a simple philosophy about his craft. “Hans Christian Anderson says ‘When words fail, music speaks,’” he explains, on the phone from his Malden home. “What I can’t express through words, I’m expressing through music. It is the most comfortable language.”
“Music certainly is a channel,” adds pianist Yoo Jin Noh, 36, in a separate phone interview from Brookline. “I do believe it’s an international language — the melody, the harmony, the rhythm. They can communicate things beyond words.”
Both Noh, and Santon, are blind from birth. Santon is a self-described musical savant. The two Boston-area musicians will be two of 11 recipients of the fourth annual Danny Awards on Nov. 18. The award honors musicians with disabilities, and includes musicians from a range of genres from classical to rock to jazz.
Born in Russia, Santon began piano lessons at three-and-a-half after his family emigrated to Malden. He graduated from Perkins School for the Blind, where he performed with Felix Cavaliere’s Rascals, Peter Wolf, Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead, and Natalie Merchant.
What I can’t express through words, I’m expressing through music. It is the most comfortable language.Santon
“Each year,” Santon says, “they held the Perkins Possibilities Gala and invited famous musicians to play. As part of the Perkins Trio, I rehearsed and played on stage with these artists.”
Santon, who went on to graduate from Berklee College of Music summa cum laude in 2014, is a man of many genres. He cites Louis Armstrong and Bill Evans for jazz, Juan d'Arienzo and Astor Piazzolla for tango, Scott Joplin the king of ragtime music and Brazilian artist Antonio Carlos Jobin. His favorite classical composers are Chopin and Mozart, and Santon himself started composing in 2020 during the pandemic quarantine. “I filled my time by producing my own music for YouTube since I could not play in front of a live audience,” he says.
Regarding other blind musicians, Santon says, “Like everyone, I enjoy listening to Bocelli, Ray Charles, and Stevie Wonder — not because they’re blind but because they are talented artists. As a blind musician myself, I respect the additional obstacles they’ve overcome and how they’ve reminded the world that a disability does not mean inability.”
Asked about blind musicians who inspired her, mentioning some of those named by Santon, Noh, says, “Not necessarily. I know people tend to put all blind people in one category — you must be like this one or that one and I think all of us, blind people, have different talents, I wanted to be the best musician I could be.”
“I started to play when I was a little kid,” Noh continues, “but I started to have systematic lessons when I was 14, which is pretty late to start. I was fortunate enough to meet great teachers who walked me through learning the braille scores and helped me enjoy making music on keyboards.”
To that end, she is developing “3D educational materials for sightless musicians. Braille music literacy is very low, less than three percent of blind musicians can read braille music, I thought it would be beneficial to come up with something other than braille. It’s still being developed. I anticipate it will be finished by the end of the year and will test the prototype with musicians as to what could be improved or make it more accessible.”
Both musicians will travel to New York for the awards ceremony.
The Dannys are produced by Daniel’s Music Foundation founded in 2006 by Ken Trush, after his 13-year-old son Daniel had multiple brain aneurisms which left him in a month-long coma. Music was crucial to Daniel’s ongoing rehabilitation and the Foundation was formed to offer music therapy in an inclusive setting to foster a sense of community and belonging.
“Winning this award means a lot to me because it’s a unique opportunity to connect with so many musicians around the world who share the passion for music and breaking down barriers,” says Noh. “I’m so eager to witness and celebrate the diverse talents of individuals with disabilities. It fosters an environment to share our shared love of creativity.”
The Danny Awards will be livestreamed on Saturday, Nov. 18 from 4 to 6 pm from New York's Symphony Space. Register here for the event.
Santon will perform Dec. 15 at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Malden, where he joins singer-pianist Rebecca Harroldfor a program called “Ring in the Holiday Spirits.”