‘In the children’s ward, I learned to play the piano by ear. I discovered a whole new side of me, and there was no going back.’: Visually impaired DJ, musician shares sight loss journey

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“I’m a Korean-born adoptee, raised in the Netherlands and now living in London, UK. Music has always played a big role in my life, ever since I started playing the piano at the age of 6. Little did I know…

I always had bad eyesight, but when I was hit in the head with a surfboard when I was 6 or 7, things got worse. My parents noticed me walking into doorposts, groping around for things I tried to pick up, and they decided to take me to the hospital. They were told everything was fine by two hospitals, but the third informed us that sadly my left eye could not be saved anymore but they had to operate right away to save my right eye. The retina in each of my eyes had gotten fully detached. The doctors said there was only a 50% chance of success.

When I woke up, I couldn’t see a thing. Of course, I started freaking out, only to find out that they had accidentally put a black cover on my eye (!). I cried many tears of relief.

In the children’s ward was a piano, which I played daily. It was almost therapeutic, and it was here I discovered I could play by ear, sometimes even after hearing something once. In the meantime, my left eye developed a white pupil, a telltale sign of retinal detachment. I dealt with it very matter-of-factly, simply because I did not know any better.

Things didn’t get much better after that. I wore glasses with lenses so big that when I got into one of my many fights, the glass split my eyebrow. My acuity without glasses was so low, everything past half a meter was a blurry mess and so was my coordination. During elementary school, I still took it mostly in stride and things weren’t too bad.

A visually impaired man wearing glasses and over-ear headphones
Courtesy of Jun Seok Kim

My parents were very protective because we were all told that if I got another blow to the head, my retina could potentially detach fully and render me completely blind. This would become my life-long sword of Damocles and is still my one true fear in life.

As I got a bit older, my dad introduced me to Blues and Jazz, prompting me to switch from Classical piano lessons to Jazz and improvisation, a skill I, seemingly, naturally picked up along the way. I could only read scores in big fonts, and turning A3 pages was difficult, so I began to focus more on playing by feel, something that my teacher encouraged. Around this time, I discovered Hip-Hop music and related to the stories of struggles, (societal) injustice and racism, but also of hope, overcoming obstacles and facing the odds, no matter what. I soaked it all in and when I saw a live Hip-Hop band perform at a festival, I vowed to one day combine piano and Hip-Hop in one way or another.

A man wearing a white and blue sports jersey singing into a microphone
Courtesy of Jun Seok Kim

When I was 13 or so, my retina developed a tear, and it had to be treated again, with a laser this time. The anesthetic was delivered by needle right underneath my lower eyelid, and I can’t recall being in so much pain, even if it was only for a split second. I nearly broke my mom’s fingers.

Not long after the treatment, I got my first contact lenses, and for the first time, I could see the world around me properly—sort of. High school was hell for me, I was looking for and finding any excuse to skip classes and hang in town. I had few friends, mostly fellow outcasts who happened to sit at the bottom of the popularity pool. I just wanted to graduate ASAP and move on or I would turn the place inside out.

But something happened in my last year: I became the first student at my school to score a perfect 10 in music class for writing and performing my first rap. This moment changed my life forever. It really got me out of my funk, and I even became somewhat popular all of a sudden. I discovered a whole new side of me, and there was no going back.

In my college years, I debuted as a full-fledged MC on a big stage and became part of a few groups. But things really got serious during my time in Canada as an exchange student. Life in the Netherlands was slow, having grown up in a small town not far from Amsterdam, so I was not used to the more fast-paced college scene in Ottawa. I loved every moment of it. I also immersed myself in the Hip-Hop scene there: I even won freestyle battles and ended up opening for KRS-One when he was in town. When I returned to the Netherlands, I was depressed for a long time because I wanted to keep the momentum going but it just wasn’t happening.

A musician sits with a group of other musicians all wearing bright colored clothing
Courtesy of Jun Seok Kim

Around my graduation, I started working at PwC as a consultant. My parents were immensely proud, but after 11 months I had a burn-out and I was back at home trying to figure out what I really wanted in life. The answer was both easy and hard: of course, it was music. Next to doing shows as a solo artist, I started playing in a Fusion band as a keyboardist, and soon I was picked up by two higher-profile bands; one of them was called TrackAddicts with which I enjoyed a degree of national and international success. Turns out the bass player and the drummer played in the band I saw back then as a kid!

On stage I was clumsy as ever, tripping over wires and almost knocking over things and people, but I somehow always managed to stay on my feet—more luck than anything else.

A musician singing into a microphone with a guitar player standing nearby
Courtesy of Jun Seok Kim

I knew my rig by touch, so program changes were mostly smooth, but with last-minute changes, I often needed to improvise and somehow come up with the right sound for the song which could be very stressful. I made it work most of the time: failure was never an option. I don’t think I ever told the others about this specifically; I just did not want to make any excuses for the times I did mess up a bit. I had no other option but to become better and to do better with just my ears as a guide. My ear for sound and music surely developed very quickly during this period, and I shared the stage with many established artists.

In 2004 I met the girl who is now my wife. It is nice to come home to someone after a gig or tour. However, she became very sick, and so it was sometimes hard to be gone so often. After the band disbanded in 2008, I worked in IT for a few years which was challenging in other ways. If I needed to read small lettering or labels on a device, I would have to take a quick picture and zoom in to be able to make sense of it. And I asked for and got an enormous monitor that I had to move forward on my desk quite a bit so I could see what was going on in the network.

A visually impaired man stands with his wife outdoors near a river
Courtesy of Jun Seok Kim

I reunited with my Korean family in 2010, a landmark meeting in my life and the end of a very long identity crisis, something all adoptees go through at one point in their lives. I found out I come from a musical family and that goes a long way in explaining my stronger-than-usual urge to make music. When I came back home, I was a changed man with newfound confidence.

Despite this, in 2011 I started burning out again, and this time we decided to focus on what our hearts told us to do: we moved to London, UK, to study and work. I got an MA in Audio Production and, during this time, picked up DJ’ing, a skill I had learned from my DJ from back in the day. My first-ever DJ gig was unexpected: after a gig with my band, when the resident DJ forgot his crates. I stepped up with just my laptop full of music and some software. I just plugged straight in with no mixer or headphones, yet I had people dancing all night. That is how I found out I could do it.

A man on stage wearing an orange shirt and Yankees cap playing the keyboard
Courtesy of Jun Seok Kim

Over the years I worked here and there, started freelancing from several studios in town, and gradually got more gigs. For some reason, I could no longer wear my contact lens, so I had to switch back to glasses, taking my acuity down more than a few notches. The doctor said a cataract was slowly developing but no action was taken yet. I was not in the best shape, but I soldiered on anyway.

Then, in 2017, 7 months after our son was born, my vision took a sudden plunge; within 6 months I went from working some IT job to being legally blind. The cataract had completely obscured the lens and the vitreous body in front of the retina had become a cloudy mess. I was given a symbol cane after I hopped on the wrong bus and almost got run over several times. That was a watershed moment for me; the realization that I had truly become disabled hit me when I received my training on how to use it.

A man sits with his wife and his newborn baby all three wearing green jackets
Courtesy of Jun Seok Kim

I could no longer hold on to my job and decided to go back to university, something I wanted to do but was unable to until now. My wife started her studies at the same time so we could make full use of the benefits only available to students. That is what saved us.

Studying was extremely difficult this time around. My vision was deteriorating rapidly, and I could not read the suggested readings on my laptop, let alone on paper. I enrolled in a program for disabled students, and after 6 months I was given a big iMac, an iPad Pro, and some other tech to help me get through. Especially the iMac was a lifesaver, as I needed to zoom up to 200% and sometimes even 300% to read without straining.

Finally, in 2019 the cataract was successfully treated, and my acuity improved a bit. For the first time in my life, I was able to see better without glasses. This only lasted for a few days, because my son gave me a headbutt, and I had to get corrective surgery to rotate the lens back into place. The blurriness of the vitreous body remained, however, and in 2020 I had another surgery to remove it. This weakened my retina further, and during the surgery, the doctors had to laser it again. Now my peripheral vision was even more reduced on the sides and in the lower half as well. After all this, I was still legally blind, with the doctors saying they will not do anything else unless it is an emergency. It made me very depressed for a while.

Somehow, after also having to come to terms with the loss of my Dutch dad and Korean mom, I gathered the willpower for a final push, and in December 2021, I graduated and now have an MMUS in Ethnomusicology. I had to dig deep and focus on my music and what it means to me. If my vision fails, I know I can still play and teach. That is what keeps me going. There is no plan B. There is only this.

A man wearing a cap and gown at his graduation ceremony
Courtesy of Jun Seok Kim

During all this time, I kept on DJ’ing, doing gigs, and recording new songs. I can play keys with my eyes closed, and I can compose and record easily because I know my setup well, but with a DJ controller it is different. That is where I really needed to plan my route. Certain software works best with certain controllers. I went from a small Vestax controller with Traktor software, hardly more than a toy, to a Native Instruments one which broke down quite fast, to my current one, a large Pioneer controller with backlit-colored pads.

This has proven the key to successful DJ’ing for me. Because this type of controller is mostly one button-per-function, I can operate the non-moving bits by touch, and the rest is either color-coded or lined up by sound. The accompanying Serato software helps by enabling me to increase the font size reasonably well but reading the song titles and BPMs is still difficult sometimes, especially when it’s very dark on stage or when there are lots of bright lights shining directly on the screen. I could zoom in more, but the rest of the screen would then become unusable and lining up tracks would be affected, so it is really a careful trade-off. Knowing my music library and having theoretical knowledge so I know where and how to time the next ‘drop’ is essential for a good set and these days you need to almost be an IT professional to keep all the technology running smoothly.

The side of a man's glasses equipped with a piece of assistive technology
Courtesy of Jun Seok Kim

I recently tried a controller with motorized platters, and it took my DJ game to the next level because the platters enabled me to ‘feel’ the music more. This is how I learned it back in the day, so it was also instantly familiar. I was able to do all kinds of scratches for the first time, and I actually sounded like a turntablist rather than a regular DJ. I still get excited by things like this, and it tells me that I am far from being done. There is still so much to learn and experience that I can never allow my disability to take over my life. Plus, by now it is very clear to me that I burn out quickly if I do not follow my heart.

I am currently planning to start a Ph.D. in Music / Composition to further my professional and academic career in music, an ongoing journey defying the odds.”

A man wearing a green and yellow striped shirt standing on a street corner
Courtesy of Jun Seok Kim

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Jun Seok “Seoul Train” Kim of London, UK. You can follow his journey on Instagram. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

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