His slender fingers deftly fly over guitar strings he will never see. He memorizes long, intricate, classical pieces by hearing a recording once. He instinctively feels music the way another person recalls a favorite poem--phrase by phrase.
Blind since birth, Dat Nguyen’s talent is remarkable, almost savant-like, says the professor who has mentored him for four years.
But no less incredible is the life journey that brought Nguyen to the United States seven years ago and an emerging career as a classical guitarist.
The Amerasian son of a GI who deserted him before birth, and a Vietnamese mother who died when he was 5, the 28-year-old senior at Cal State Fullerton lived through a childhood of poverty and abuse in Vietnam.
“He’s an astonishing musician,” said David Grimes, head of the university’s classical guitar department. “But it’s his attitude and experiences that really sets him apart. He has a constant excitement about the music. He loves to perform. This is his way of communicating to the world.”
Nguyen’s love of music began early, the only solace in a brutal life of panhandling and street survival in Vietnam.
After his mother died, Nguyen lived in an orphanage with his younger sister, Diane, now 24. They were taken in by a foster family who became abusive. The two eventually escaped to Ho Chi Minh City, where they lived on the streets.
Blind, Amerasian and a beggar, Nguyen knew he was an outcast.
‘I was really bitter, very closed in. I didn’t trust anyone. Society was putting me down,” he said. “But something inside me always believed that there are good people.”
Spending time outside a barbershop to sell the lottery tickets that gave him a meager living, Nguyen loved listening to American music that blared from the shop’s radio: Santana, the Eagles and the Bee Gees.
“I was fascinated by percussion. I was always drumming on things, chairs, buckets, anything,” he recalled.
A customer noticed his interest and offered to let him play on a set of real drums. Nguyen was hooked by the power and the rhythm. He eventually was introduced to one of the city’s most renowned classical music teachers: an older blind musician who taught him to play the piano, several stringed instruments and drums.
Then came the moment, several years later, when his life changed again.
“It was a spring evening, a Sunday,” he recalled. “I was listening to the radio, the city’s only FM station, when I heard it for the first time. Deep down, I knew this was it.”
It was classical guitarist Andres Segovia, strumming the opening notes to “Capricho Arabe.” During a recent performance on campus, Nguyen quietly introduced the music that set him on a different course.
“This next piece is very special because it turned my life around,” he told the rapt audience. “It sounded like heaven. When I heard it, I said to myself, ‘This is it.’ This is what I want to do for the rest of my life.”
The piece remains Nguyen’s inspiration. The desire to play it drove him to learn a new style of music and a different instrument. By this time, Nguyen had heard about a U.S. program that allowed Amerasian children to come to the States.
In 1991, he and his sister arrived in Orange County, sponsored by an Orange County businessman who had been vacationing in the Philippines when he met them. Nguyen started high school and threw himself into learning English and catching up with his peers.
But he never forgot his love for music, and scraped up enough money to buy an old, battered guitar for $89. For 2 1/2years, he taught himself, buying music recordings and learning them.
By the time he auditioned for Grimes’ guitar class at Cal State Fullerton in 1993, his technique was raw, but the talent was plainly there.
“He’s got perfect pitch. He has almost complete recall,” Grimes said. “His learning curve is very steep. He will generally learn a piece in an hour. We can move very quickly from the mechanical stuff to the interpretation.”
Nguyen can play a piece almost note for note after hearing it once. He learns most of his music by listening to a recording of Grimes performing a new piece.
“I remember music better than people read words,” he said, giving an impish grin as he cradled his guitar during an interview at the apartment he shares with his sister. “It just comes naturally.”
His friends joke that they will stop practicing in front of him, because in one sitting he picks up pieces that they have spent six months learning.
But even more than his skill, his friends marvel at his attitude, which remains unfailingly positive. His sense of humor is never far from the surface.
“When I first met him, I knew he was special. But gradually I began to get pieces of his story and became amazed at how sane, sweet and good-humored he is, despite everything he’s gone through,” Grimes said.
A guitar performance major, Nguyen devotes about five hours a day to his music, while taking a full load of 13 to 14 college credits a semester. He normally practices until 2 or 3 in the morning. On holidays, he spends as long as eight hours practicing.
It has paid off. Nguyen already has won a string of local, state and national awards. He was just chosen to be part of the Orange County Performing Arts Center’s outreach program, which will take him into public schools throughout the county.
Most recently, he was invited to perform a guitar concerto with the Philharmonic Society Youth Orchestra, with performances scheduled at the Orange County Performing Arts Center and the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles.
For Nguyen, the acclaim means coming one step closer to his goal of becoming a concert guitarist, composer and teacher. But he won’t allow his current successes to cloud the memory of what he has survived. He meditates daily, and wears a bracelet of wooden beads as a reminder.
“Ultimately, I want to have my music touch people’s hearts,” he said. “Life has so much chaos. If people can hear my music and find some peace, then I am happy.”