African American Studies


Valerie Capers (b. 5/24/1935) is a concert pianist, composer, music educator, and jazz musician. Born in the Bronx, she lost her sight at a young age. Nevertheless, she attended the Juilliard School for her bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and was the first blind person to graduate from the school. She taught at the Manhattan School of Music for many years, and from 1987 to 1995, she was chair of the Department of Music and Art at Bronx Community College.

Valerie grew up in various places throughout the Wakefield section of the Bronx and further south in the Bronx, around 168th St. Upon losing her sight, she began attending the Institute for the Blind. It was at the Institute that Valerie began to set her sights on a career in music, and she especially wanted to attend the Juilliard School. She received a solid background in music theory and performance at the school, which had a number of resources other schools lacked. A direct source of inspiration and motivation was her mentor, Ms. Tony, an accomplished pianist in her own right, who recognized Valerie’s extraordinary talents as a pianist. While much of Valerie’s training was in the classical tradition (Bach, Brahms, Beethoven, etc.), the young pianist branched out by practicing jazz on the side. Ms. Tony was frequently domineering and controlling, but Valerie appreciates her influence. Capers’ mentor tried to convince her to attend Barnard College instead of Juilliard, but Capers, who had been accepted to both schools, defied her on this point and ended up enrolling at Juilliard.

The transition between the Institute for the Blind and Juilliard had its difficulties, but Capers insists that all her professors and fellow students were understanding and helpful. At Juilliard, Valerie decided to do a 5 year bachelor’s degree instead of the regular 4 year performance degree because she wanted to graduate with a strong background in academics as well as music. In addition to her performance work and music theory classes, she studied science and the humanities. Because none of the textbooks were in Braille, Capers had to rely on a state-provided assistant, who would read the material to her. However, she was very independent otherwise. She did not use a cane and did not have a seeing-eye dog. Despite the fact that her teachers were supportive for the most part, Capers was under a considerable amount of pressure, since she was the first blind student at Juilliard. The fact that she was black made her even more of an anomaly on Julliard’s campus. People would frequently remind her that she was playing a historically unprecedented role and was thus forging a path for future students. Under this pressure, Capers worked extremely hard. She spent most of her time learning individual concert pieces rather than large works such as concertos, since a broad repertoire of single pieces made her more viable as a concert artist.

Capers began performing professionally during her third year at Juilliard. She held recitals and public performances, and made some money on the side until she graduated in 1959. Upon graduation, she took a Master’s at Juilliard and subsequently began teaching privately and performing. Eventually she landed a job at the Manhattan School of Music in 1971, and in 1987 she went to Bronx Community College to become head of the music and arts department. As chair, she completely retooled the department, and is very proud of the work she has done there. Throughout the interview Valerie reminisces about some of her performances, professional relationships, and relates anecdotes from her remarkable life.

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Capers, Valerie Interview 3.wma (56677 kB)