Walking by faith, not by sight

At 8 a.m. each Wednesday, a time when many Mercer University students already have pressed their snooze alarms several times, freshman Timothy Jones is in McCorkle Music Hall perfecting his rendition of Claude Debussy's "Clair de Lune."

For four hours, Jones' hands glide over the piano keys in a practice room there until his class at noon.

From outside the room, he sounds like any gifted musician. Jones, however, doesn't have sheet music, and he never glances down at his keyboard.

He has memorized the entire performance. He is legally blind.

The 22-year-old is an organ performance major at the Mercer's Townsend School of Music.

His road hasn't been easy.

When Jones was 3 years old, his mother, Nancy, learned that he had Leber's congenital amaurosis, a rare, hereditary eye disease. But Jones, who began trying to play Twila Paris' "Lamb of God" on the piano at age 2, has always had a passion for music.

When Jones was growing up, he would attend traditional church services with his parents and two brothers. There, the precocious talent heard a choir singing accompanied by a thunderous organ.

Timothy Jones grabs his music textbooks before his piano lesson with professor Ian Altman. Jones coordinates with disabilities service coordinator Carole Burrowbridge to order his braille books for classes. Marin Guta

"I thought, 'Wouldn't it be cool to play an instrument like that and play for a choir and congregation?'" Jones recalled. "I knew from then on that I would want to study to become a church organist."

Though Jones was excited to study the organ at Mercer, he decided to defer his acceptance for a year because he would have to learn some new technology and software before beginning.

During Jones' deferment year, the Townsend School of Music offered him organ and piano lessons free of charge, which astonished Jones and his family.

The summer before Jones began his freshman year, he memorized the basic layout of the campus. At first, the task was daunting because of the campus' size. He also tried to convince Mercer's disabilities service coordinator, Carole Burrowbridge, that he would need Braille books for his music classes.

Burrowbridge thought Jones would get most of his books through an electronic database, but Jones said it wasn't possible.

Jones started his first week of freshman year without any textbooks, but he still had assignments to complete under deadline.

At the time, the anxiety of having to complete certain assignments but not having textbooks took a toll on Jones. He considered packing his bags and going home.

"I was thinking 'this isn't going to work. I sense disaster coming, and I'm going to flunk,'" he said.

Once the music faculty became aware of his situation, they called a meeting and tried to find a way to help Jones.

The professors agreed to give Jones an extension on his homework until his books arrived.

The dean of the music department even read some of his music textbooks aloud to him so he could turn in his assignments.

In many of Jones' classes, he's learning the theoretical side of music, and his textbooks use musical symbols. Burrowbridge had to find a way to present this visual information in a way Jones could use, so her office ended up ordering all of Jones' textbooks in Braille.

Learning music theory is only half the battle for a music major, though. Jones also has to find a way to learn the music he is expected to perform.

When Jones is learning a new piece, his professors will record themselves playing sections of the piece with the left and right hand played separately. The professors will then upload the file onto Dropbox -- a file sharing and storage site -- and Jones will download and listen to the file.

Since Jones has perfect pitch -- the ability to identify a musical note without hearing any other tone -- he is able to teach himself to play what he hears without the benefit of sheet music. He repeatedly listens to specific sections and practices them until it's memorized.

Playing classical music is a challenge in itself, but the fact that Jones can play blind makes it a "physical phenomenon," said Ian Altman, a piano professor at Mercer.

Although being blind makes life more difficult, Jones said his disability serves a spiritual purpose.

"As far as faith goes, I have learned that we don't know what's ahead of us, and in a way each one of us is blind," Jones said. "We don't know what's on the road ahead, and that's where it takes trusting in an eternal creator."

Disabilities won't stop the aspiring musician from pursuing his dream of one day hosting his own concert and sharing his testimony at the end of it.

"I did get some challenges when I came here, and I'm still getting challenged. But who knows what's on the road ahead?" Jones said, "I'll just be trusting the Lord that he will direct my path."

Marin Guta is a Mercer University student in the Center for Collaborative Journalism.