Blind Duluth pianist performs to help others heal

Published 10:42 am Monday, January 21, 2013

DULUTH, Minn. (AP) — Scott and Cheryl Racine sit in the Essentia Health Cancer Center waiting room, lost in the piano playing of Sharon Gill. Scott Racine has an arm around his wife, who is there to hear the latest news about her leukemia.

Gill doesn’t notice the Racines’ enjoyment of her playing. In fact, she has never seen the joy she brings others.

The Duluth resident has been blind since shortly after birth. Despite that, she has played piano since the age of 3.

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“My grandmother had a piano and I used to play it when we visited,” she said. “I started out by just banging on the keys — you know how kids do.”

But, playing entirely by ear, she soon learned notes and chords.

“I developed my own style over the years,” she recently told the Duluth News Tribune (

A medical transcriptionist by profession, Gill began playing the piano in the lobby of Essentia Health-St. Mary’s Medical Center six years ago after hearing of a need for volunteer pianists. She auditioned and was asked when she could start.

“As soon as possible,” she replied.

“At that time I was working Monday through Thursday, so I played every Friday,” she said. After retiring she started playing at the cancer center as well. She can be heard at the cancer center from 10:30 a.m. to 2:45 p.m. on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and at St. Mary’s from noon to 5 p.m. on Fridays.

“I really enjoy volunteering,” she said. “It makes me feel like I’m doing something to help other people. That’s what music does: It helps people to heal. It’s real gratifying; I’ll be playing a song, and patients will come up to me and talk about how they really like the music and it’s helped take their minds off their chemo.”

Colleen Baggs, a registered nurse at the cancer center, also has seen the value of music.

“There are a lot of things that happen at the cancer center, and sometimes it’s not all about the medical care,” she said. “Sharon has the ability to speak to each individual through her music. There’s not a day that goes by but someone comes up and says, ‘Thank you.’ She’s a very inspiring person.”

Gill — dark glasses covering her eyes, a smile often gracing her face — plays a variety of music, from standards like “The Tennessee Waltz” to works of the Beatles and the Carpenters.

“My mother was a music teacher, and so often Sharon plays the songs that my mother would play,” said Virgil Boehland, another volunteer. “She plays so well. … She brings smiles to people’s faces.”

After learning the latest about her leukemia, Cheryl Racine returned to the waiting room and her waiting husband. The Duluth couple stayed to listen to more of Gill’s music.

“It’s very soothing to anyone, but especially to anyone going through a difficult time,” Cheryl Racine said. “Her selections are so wonderful; they give me a peace inside.”

During a break, Cheryl Racine approached Gill to thank her for playing.

“You’re absolutely so wonderful,” Racine told her. “Thank you for sharing.”

Gill graciously accepted the thanks. Soon she was making more music.