Q&A: Iranian American Pianist Deihimi pioneering new music school for blind
Last month I had the special opportunity to chat with Los Angeles area Iranian American pianist Said Deihimi who heads the “Beyond Vision Foundation”, a non-profit geared toward teaching those with vision impairment to become music teachers themselves. While Deihimi is not Jewish, for more than 40 years, the majority of his students have been Iranian Jews. He is one of the rare jewels of the Iranian American community in Southern California not only because of his extraordinary musical talent, but he has an incredible kind heart and love of humanity. Even though he has vision impairment, his passion is for music, his outlet is the piano and his students who have vision impairment or who are normal are carrying on his legacy. Deihimi’s philosophy is that love conquers all difficulties in life. He does not see his vision impairment as a handicap that has held him back. In fact, his lack of vision has propelled him to achieve greater things in his career and to give back to the vision impaired community through his non-profit.
He shares close friendships with many in Southern California’s Iranian Jewish community and they recently supported his group’s fundraising efforts this past January in a talent show featuring musicians, singers and comedians preforming for a large audience. The close camaraderie that many Iranian Jews, Muslims, Christians, Baha’is and other Iranians share with one another in Southern California is indeed quite unique in the U.S. and the world. Their example of harmony and mutual respect for one another is something all societies should strive to achieve.
The following is a portion my interview with Deihimi…
When did your family first discover you had problems with your vision and how did you end up with a career in music?
My brother is five years older me and my parents first discovered that he had problems with his vision, so they took him to Europe for a possible treatment. At that time the doctors diagnosed him with Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP), a degenerative hereditary disease of the optic nerves that had gradually reduced his sight. They also told my mother that I also had the same hereditary disease. At that time my mother was very upset that both of her children had this disease. My mother later took me to a clinic in Austria for possible treatment when I was nine years ago for my condition and by luck the site had a place that taught children music. I learned music theory and with my limited vision was able to read some music notes and I also memorized sheets music as well as compositions of music at that very young age. So by age 13, my parents had transformed a room in our home for me to teach piano in and my brother and I began teaching piano to various students. We taught out of our home for a duration of 10 years until the Iranian revolution started. Then in 1981 I immigrated to Los Angeles from Iran and began teaching piano out of my home. We had the good fortune that many of the new immigrants from Iran like ourselves wanted to have their children learn piano and music, so we were able to make a living with it.
Why do you feel such a close affinity to L.A.’s Iranian Jewish community?
I was practically raised within the Iran Jewish community and am very familiar with their way of life. When Iranians came to the America, two major communities arrived who were mostly Jews or Muslims. The Jews of Iran who came to the U.S. decided to maintain their Iranian heritage and culture. The Jewish parents always encouraged their children to learn Persian music. It is very interested that my school “the World of Music and Dance” was started in 1990 and since then 95 percent of my students have been Iranian Jews. We taught all kinds of Persian instruments in addition to piano. Look, I am not a religious person; I married a Christian woman and have many Jewish friends. What matters to me is the kindness, integrity and friendship of another human being, not their religion per se. The Iranian Jewish community has always shown me friendship and kindness; this is something I will never forget. Also I believe that one of the most important things in Judaism which many Iranian Jews still maintain is celebrating Shabbat night dinner. I think this keeps the chain of tradition and family together. Everyone respects everyone in the family, both young and old. This gathering creates a sense of harmony in the family and the older members of the family are able to pass along their values and love for others to the younger generation. How many other cultures have such a beautiful tradition and make an effort to bring family together like this? The Jewish Federation also makes great efforts to help those who are not well off survive today regardless of their religion and this is something I really admire about the Jewish community.
When did you come up with the concept for your non-profit school that helps transform vision impaired individuals into music teachers?
From a very young age I was so grateful and felt very lucky that I had this special skill to be able to earn a living on my own without getting help from anyone. Also whenever there was an event at school, I was the one who had the skill to play music and that helped me forge friendships with other kids. I have never gone after government aid to support myself. I have proudly earned a living on my own and supported myself. I have always made it my goal in life that my vision impairment would not become an obstacle in my life. Yes my lack of vision is a handicap, but it is something that can be overcome, especially in America where you can accomplish anything you put your mind to. In essence, I wanted others with vision impairment to have the same sense of freedom and self-worth by being able to take care of themselves on their own.
When did you start the non-profit sand what are your objectives for the students?
It was started in 2014. I had worked with a few vision-impaired students in the past. I have so much confidence in the music I teach because I have memorized the many books of music for many years. I always felt it was a good way for someone to earn a living instead of sitting at home doing nothing. We want them to teach others and make a living at it. Right now we have 15 students because we do not have funds to expand beyond that number. We currently teach them one on one. We teach music theory; we use braille sheets, and also teach rhythm. Sometimes there are students who cannot see and also have trouble with movement of their hands, so we work with them to enhance their voice so they can be singers. The language of music is international, it’s not just classical music, or pop music, or Persian music— we teach them general music theory so they can teach every style of music. I am hoping we can get donations of others to help other students with similar vision impairment in the coming years so this non-profit can grow into a major national center for turning them into music teachers.
As you are well aware the Islamic regime in Iran has all but outlawed Persian music from being performed or played in Iran due to their strong Islamic religious beliefs. So can you share how important L.A.’s Iranian Jewish community has been in keeping Persian music and culture alive today?
In my humble opinion all of the Persian musical events and concerts in Southern California are mostly attended by Iranian Jews and Iranian Armenians. They are the ones who have essentially patronized and supported Iranian artists and musicians to keep this beautiful music alive and well in America. I very much doubt that without the support of these key communities would Persian music be so vibrant today in this city. Now the Iranian Jewish community members came forward to help raise money for my non-profit, their actions speaks volumes in my opinion that they care about healing the world and helping others regardless of religion.
Why do you think we as Iranian Americans of different religions living in California have close friendship with one another?
The majority of Iranian people living in Southern California are successful and well educated people. So for them religion is not as important. They typically find that being kind, considerate and loving as more essential factors regardless of one’s religion. We as Iranians share the same language, the same culture, the same music and the same food. These common factors we share and the mutual respect we have for one another no matter what religion we may be is the primary reason why we get along so well and maintained our close friendships while living in America.
Why do you think you’ve had so much success with your music teaching career all of these years?
I am now teaching the grandchildren of my students from Iran, — so that is three generations of people that I’ve taught. All of these 43 years that I’ve been working, not one day have I gone to work and not truly loved it. There are a lot music schools in town that are successful, but folks in the community generally still come to our classes because they know we are professional and show a special love to their kids who are often coming to learn music for the first time.
The following is brief segment I capured of Deihimi playing piano…