Meeting Fira Christiano for an interview was indeed a very special encounter. Rather than the usual formal interview, lots of laughter filled the room.
I was fascinated by how he was able to learn classical music in just a matter of 3 years and even won competitions – all while having impaired vision. At the same time, he created an orchestra with his musical friends naming it Angel Orchestra.
At 18 years of age with a jovial, optimistic and confident air about him, one would have never guessed Tian, as he likes to be called, was blind due to a genetic progressive loss in the late 90s, his hometown in Kalimantan Tengah was not a modern city at all. Medical facilities were at its bare minimum too. As such, his parents never realised he had a vision problem. He recalled tripping over over practically anything within sight. However, he was just a careless klutz to others.
Fira Christiano remembered the time when he started grade 1 in a local school, he had to move from the very back of the class to the front as he could not see the blackboard very well. Worried, his parents took him to see many eye doctors in town but all claimed Tian just had poor vision and needed to wear glasses. He started with minus 25 and it kept progressing higher and higher. Frustrated and desperate, his parents frantically searched all over Indonesia to find a solution to Tian’s problem. They even flew all the way to Semarang, a town on a different island from where they lived just to have Tian diagnosed by doctors recommended by people.
Unfortunately, the doctor’s diagnosis was simply that a mole grew in his eyeball! Terribly disappointed, they had no alternative but to return to their hometown and continue life whilst hoping someone could shed some light on what was happening to their son, Tian, one of their precious jewels in life.
However, things just got worse and his eyesight deteriorated so much over the years that he almost became blind and had to be put to a special school for the blind.
Nothing seemed to ruffle Tian while recalling his life struggles. He had that ever-smiling face with a cheeky look so full of life one would think he had it all easy while growing up. Recalling how he used to love art, he exclaimed jovially how he scored really well in art class while all academic subjects were on the borderline passing score. Sadly, due to his eye problem, he drew and painted less and less as he was not able to see clearly let alone focus well over the years. At the same time he recounted how his dad had bought him a keyboard for kids when he was very small. He never thought much about music, as he was more interested and passionate about art.
To make matters worse, Tian lost his father in a car accident in 2006. His mother had to face the world being a single parent taking care of a son with impaired vision. In 2008, he became practically blind and could not draw anymore. Seeing how he lost interest in school and life, his teacher encouraged him to enter a poetry competition for the blind. Surprised but challenged by the suggestion, he signed up without a second thought. He won and became the 2nd runner up.
It wasn’t until 2013 and settling in Jakarta that they were finally able to discover what Tian’s problem was all along. Tian’s mom brought him to Jakarta Eye Center and was very fortunate to meet an eye nerve specialist who confirmed that Tian has progressive retinitis pigmentosa. It is an incurable disease but had it been diagnosed much earlier, taking medicine and the necessary vitamins would have slowed down the disease and prevented him from losing much of his vision today.
When asked if he has totally lost his vision, Tian just smiled cheekily and replied that he could barely see the light and shadows now. He recalled being able to see dim colour differences in 2008 but alas today, nothing.
By this time, Tian felt hopeless, enraged and filled with so much frustration at his predicament. Many confusing thoughts tossed and whirled in his mind. It seemed that his world had just totally collapsed. Without any eyesight, what can he do, he exclaimed to me. At that lowest moment in his life, he felt his future was crashing down hard on him. All he could think of was a career as a blind masseuse in a massage parlour or even just selling crackers or dried condiments in the wet market!
Most blind people were not readily accepted in society and he could not see his place in the working world out there.
As fate would have it, he was invited to attend a workshop for the blind. When the speaker mentioned Stevie Wonder, the famous black blind pianist/singer and how he was able to overcome his disability, Tian immediately felt new hope arising within him. Excited at this newfound scoop, he started to see that this could be his way out and break that cycle where all blind people are limited in their career choices. Having had some music background in his childhood years playing pop, jazz and modern music with that small keyboard his dad gave him, he became enthusiastic at the thought that he could prove to people he can be a good pianist albeit his disability.
With the courage and hope brewing from within, he started calling practically all the music schools in Jakarta in the hope that one of them would accept him as a music student. Tian was immediately rejected over the phone the minute they knew he was blind. All excuses and reasons were handed to him bluntly despite Tian announcing he will pay for the tuition fees. Frustrated and filled with pent-up anger, he felt the world was extremely unfair to him. The last school he called was located at Bona Indah in the south of Jakarta. This was his last vestige of hope. In the beginning, the school was hesitant to accept him.
Tian argued and challenged the school to give him a month’s trial. Thinking they had nothing to lose, the music school accepted his offer and from here began his new adventure in life.
Tian had music-training background but it was in pop, jazz and the likes of modern music. Here, he felt the need to push himself in classical music. His music teacher was somewhat baffled but reluctant to give up and tried a different approach in teaching Tian the typical classical music. He would tirelessly record himself playing on the piano and pass it to Tian to listen diligently and practise by ear. Amazingly, Tian was able to pick it up really quick! Excited, the teacher took a gamble and kept on teaching Tian.
After about 2 months of training, Tian suddenly announced that he felt that he was ready to play at competitions. Surprised by his determination, his teacher reminded him gently it was impossible plus a large amount of money was needed to join all these competitions. Tian refused to see all this as a hindrance to his goals. In fact he challenged his teacher to teach and make him master all those classical music that would be for competition level. He even proclaimed he wants to study not just Mozart, Chopin or even Bach but Debussy’s music too! His teacher relented and the daunting journey to get Tian ready began. They had to get him ready for the August 2015 music competition in slightly less than 8 months!
Tian worked hard and furiously at each music sheet he was given, making sure he will play the perfect music when the time comes at the competition. On the day itself, he was the only blind pianist to join the international music competition and was awarded for outstanding achievement. Laughing, he recounted his adventure telling me it seemed like a crazy and impossible feat now that he looked back.
It was during this competition that someone saw him play and introduced him to the Cheshire Home foundation that sponsors and teaches disabled people. The owner, Mrs Petty Elliott was completely impressed by Tian’s ability and undaunting courage and told him that they would fund his music lessons and even provide a full scholarship to further his studies in music. Through Cheshire Home, he was given the lucky break to play the piano at the British Embassy for a Christmas gala dinner in 2015. A private donor who saw his performance gave him a full scholarship for his studies and funded his music lessons through the Cheshire Home management. He was also given a piano so that he could practise at home since he never had the privilege of owning one. In 2016, the American Women Association awarded him an electric piano after seeing him perform in a concert.
During this short period of 3 years, he felt so blessed and grateful with Cheshire Home’s help.
Without them, he knew he would not be where he is today, playing at concerts or signing up at competitions. He won many competitions from the ASEAN International Concerto Competition to the most recent, The Duke of Edinburgh’s International Award. Grateful, Tian and his mother organised a concert at the Jakarta Intercultural School (JIS) in collaboration with Ayoni, a senior high school student at JIS. The concert was held in one of JIS’ auditorium and all proceeds were donated to Cheshire Home to help fund Mrs. Petty in helping the disabled people. Both Tian and his mom felt this was the least they could do to repay all her kindness and faith in him.
Today, Tian is busy practising for concerts and preparing songs together with his Angel Orchestra friends. At the same time, he practises for upcoming competitions whilst preparing to enter university as well. He hopes that his endeavours in life can encourage and inspire people with the message that disability is only in the mind. If you have a goal, never give it up!