Barry Popkin's life was shaped by sight and sound -- something he lacked, and something he made.
Popkin, of Huntington, who died April 1 at the age of 61, was born blind in 1953, and never saw the world around him. He nonetheless became an accomplished singer and pianist, remembered as a man who used the gift he did have to enrich those who knew him.
He started to learn piano at age 3 from his mother, Mitzi Popkin of Huntington, showing a spark of immediate interest when she put his fingers on the keyboard. "His talent evolved through his love of playing," she said.PhotosRecent notable deaths See alsoSee more LI, U.S. obits
By the time his brother, Seth, seven years younger, came of age himself, Barry and his music, fiddling at the piano, were a fixture in their household.
"He could not read music because he was blind," Seth Popkin recalled. "He learned everything by sound. . . . He would learn by having his piano teacher play something, or hear songs, the chords and the melody, and work it out and have it in his brain."
As a teenager, Barry won second prize in a national competition for the blind for an original composition that was performed in Toronto. He later studied with noted blind jazz pianist George Shearing after showing what Shearing called "inner voices" during an audition in his Manhattan apartment.
Sister-in-law Judith Popkin, also a singer, said that at family gatherings she and Barry would often perform together, and remembered his ability to shift keys to accommodate her voice and a musical memory that allowed him to play almost any request.
"He knew jazz and rock and standards," she said. "He was a fantastic, unbelievable musician. . . . He had perfect pitch, I think that's what allowed him to change keys so easily."
Popkin graduated from Huntington High School and sang in the chorus, and later took classes in music composition at Hofstra University. For a time, his brother said, he tried to make a career of it -- playing at restaurants and private functions. Physical infirmities on top of his blindness made that impossible.
But he did what he could, singing solos at holiday services at the Huntington Jewish Center synagogue, and later performing at the Gurwin Jewish Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, where he spent the last 10 years of his life after he suffered a spinal injury.
Popkin never talked about his blindness, which was the only way he had ever experienced life, his brother said, or about his frustrations with physical declines that affected his piano abilities.
"He was not a complainer, and he had reason to complain," Seth Popkin said. "I would not have been nearly the sport he was. Music was probably his key, the focus of his life outside of managing his disabilities, something he was able to get pleasure from and give other people pleasure from."
In his last years, his brother said, Popkin listened mostly to classical music and opera on the radio. If he had a favorite song, family members said, it was either "When I Fall in Love," or Frank Sinatra's rendition of "My Way."
Popkin also is survived by two nephews. Donations may be sent to the Helen Keller American Foundation for the Blind.