Music has the power to create an emotional experience and connection with the world through different rhythms, tones and instruments. That connection has been especially powerful for Costa Rican musician Gerardo Mora, who has been involved in music ever since he can remember and has overcome extraordinary obstacles to pursue his passion, including blindness.
Mora, 54, was born with congenital glaucoma, caused by the toxoplasmosis his mother suffered during pregnancy. Congenital glaucoma results in high fluid pressure in the eye, which damages the optic nerve, causing permanent blindness. However, this physical disability never pushed back Mora in achieving his dream to be a successful musician. It only made him develop his other senses and immerse himself more deeply in his art.
At the age of 13, Mora obtained a scholarship at the Castella Conservatory, located in Heredia, but was ultimately denied admission to the school because of his blindness. He enrolled in the Nocturnal High School in the low-income neighborhood of Hatillo. Only two years later, when he was 15, he entered the Escuela de Artes Musicales at the University of Costa Rica (UCR). He says he faced challenges to his enrollment because of his condition there as well, but after a long fight waged by both Mora and his mother, Mora was given the opportunity to study music there while getting his high school degree.
Mora eventually studied music education at the UCR and National University (UNA), but never concluded his degree because of alcoholism. He overcame this by joining Alcoholics Anonymous 18 years ago and met the woman who brightens up his life every day.
Watch Mora play an Uruguayan tango:
“For 15 years now I have lived with an extraordinarily beautiful woman who has a 28-year-old daughter, who’s also blind. I found the woman of my dreams who gave me the daughter I always wanted,” Mora said.
After years of teaching music at the UCR and playing the accordion, piano, guitar and organ, Mora has retired and vivaciously lives with his music passion.
The Tico Times sat down with Mora, surrounded by keyboards, organs, synthesizers and an accordion at his studio in Zapote, about his life and work. Excerpts follow.
Why did you decide to become a musician?
I was always given musical instruments as gifts when I was a child. My toys were musical instruments. I remember that my father had once given me an accordion on Christmas Eve: the next day I was playing melodies with the right hand and thinking on how to incorporate the left hand so that it would sound nice along with the right hand. Of course, I didn’t achieve that in the moment, but I did later. I also learned to play the guitar and the organ by myself.
I also enjoy live performances because it’s wonderful and the more people there are, the better. I love it and I love playing Costa Rican music. It’s just beautiful.
How do you prepare for a concert or recital?
I like the other people to get to know the instrument, so I take my time at the beginning to explain it. I also search for different types of music: a bit of Costa Rican music, a bit of academic music and a bit of popular music from other parts of the world, so that I can exhibit the instrument and my technique.
I wake up at 7 in the morning. The day is fresh; you’re fresh out of the shower. After getting ready, I warm up, like all musicians and athletes do. Then, I take a piece of music, play it like I’d normally do and check out were I’m not getting it right. I take every passage and play it separately. Then, I take the entire piece, play it very slowly and each hand separately [plays a melody with the left hand on the keyboard] and increase the velocity until I don’t miss a note. I do the same with the right hand [plays a melody with the left hand on the keyboard]. Afterwards I do this [plays with both hands on the keyboard] until I don’t miss a note. I start out very slowly and increase the speed more and more until I get to the point in which I play it faster than its usual speed. I do this until I a have it perfect.
How do you read the music with the Braille system?
I read the left-hand part with my the right hand, note by note. When I’ve learned it by memory, I do read the right-hand part with my left hand. When I learn it by memory, I then join both hands.
With the Braille system, everything is integrated. You know which note is which when you touch the paper. It’s a combination of dots. There are six dots, and that combination of dots forms the musical notes, the letters of the alphabet, and the punctuation symbols that exist. I know how to write [in Braille] in French, German, English and Spanish. I don’t know how the Russians do it.
How has music helped you in your life?
It makes you very sensitive and sometimes it can be a problem. [Laughs.] The fact that I can feel this [plays a melody on the keyboard], that I can feel those sounds, [has helped me] to feel when a person is nice or a hypocrite.
Humans and their bodies are like radio antennas. They transmit and receive. You transmit. I receive. I transmit. You receive. It’s part of the communication. There are many musicians who play a lot of notes and don’t transmit anything. There are others who play very few notes and transmit a lot of things, but it’s abstract. You can’t see it. You can’t listen to it. You can’t touch it, but you can feel it. I can touch your hand and know if it’s harsh or soft, but that that comes from your hand, that energy, I can’t touch it. I can’t see it. I can’t listen to it, but I can receive it and feel that vibration. You can feel it even though there’s no physical contact.
How has your blindness been an advantage and disadvantage?
On the one hand… things have been much harder. When I studied I could not be told, “Gerardo, we’re going to play. Take this paper and practice.” I had to be told well in advance to study, and look for someone to read it to me.
On the other hand, it has been an advantage, because I realized there are gentle people in this world. There are people who have helped me, out of their good will.
Out of necessity, I’ve developed my other senses. In this moment, if you close your eyes and walk away, you’ll probably crash into things, but that’s because you’re not used to it. When you become accustomed out of need, you develop what people with eyesight don’t see as necessary… the sense of perception and smell.
Our “Weekend Arts Spotlight” presents Sunday interviews with artists who are from, working in, or inspired by Costa Rica, ranging from writers and actors to dancers and musicians. Do you know of an artist we should consider, whether a long-time favorite or an up-and-comer? Email us at [email protected].