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by Dr. Melissa Martiros

This blog post will be part one of a three-part series focused on teaching reading to students with special needs. As with all of our posts, we invite you to implement what you find useful, disregard what you do not, and email us with any questions you have along the way.  Please send all questions to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..  (Side note and a shameless NCKP plug: All three of us Inclusive Piano Teaching bloggers will be present at NCKP 2017 and are hoping to see you there!)

The Reading Process

When reflecting on the topic of teaching music reading, I feel it is important to consider everything that goes into the reading process. It is, for all intents and purposes, extremely complex.  Consider the following:

The moment our eyes fall on a passage of text, a complex set of physical, neurological, and cognitive processes is set in motion, enabling us to convert print into meaning: As the eyes track across the page in a smooth, coordinated movement, nerve impulses from each retina simultaneously stimulate an area near the back of the brain that allows us to distinguish the light and dark areas on a page. A region of the brain farther forward converts the letters and words our eyes see into abstract representations of sounds and translates those representations into language. Finally, another part of the brain converts the collection of words in any given sentence into meaningful ideas. 1

I feel relatively certain that the neurological process behind note reading is similar as students are asked to translate individual notes that correspond with different pitches that combine to create musical sentences and meaningful ideas.  This is further complicated by the simultaneous presence of letters, individual rhythms, dynamic markings, time signatures, and tempo indicators along with fingering suggestions and the not-so-intuitive geographical distribution of the keyboard (up=right, down=left, soft=light, loud=hard, three pedals, two feet, and one bench!). 

It’s quite a challenge.

This process of decoding is further complicated by the high levels of focus, retention, and transference required of us as musicians.  Not only are we expected to execute multiple notes per second, but we must also actively block out all sorts of external stimuli while effortlessly applying musical concepts and physical skills that have taken years to build.  This is truly a miraculous process and one we often take for granted.

Now imagine you have a sensory processing issue, or a learning disability, or a neurological delay.  Not only are you actively working to process, decode, and execute, but you are doing so while also having to navigate the challenges that come from the manifestations of your unique needs.  I believe it is critically important for us as teachers to remain cognitive of this perspective as we work with children in our studios, especially when we coach them through the process of learning to read music. As we teach children with special needs, we must also provide unconditional support by meeting them where they are, making adaptations to incorporate their strengths and while responding to their struggles. And we need to do this while strategically implementing a learning sequence that accommodates their needs.

Teaching The Skills

Routines are important to all of us.  I am, by nature, a creature of habit.  I order the same food at restaurants, follow the same sequence as I get ready for work in the mornings, and, for the most part, all of my Mondays look the same (as do my Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, etc.).  This might be boring for some but I, like many of you, find comfort in this process.  I rely on it for security and, without my routine, the likelihood is high that I would be far less productive.  I believe in providing routine to my students as well, especially my students with Autism who may find the concept of time abstract and frightening.  From the very first lesson, I like to provide a tangible schedule that breaks up the lesson into small tasks.  These tasks may include note learning on the keyboard, rhythm activities, finger exercises, note reading on the staff, games, repertoire, and other musical related activities. I use the same schedule each week, but I allow the students to choose the order at the onset of each lesson.

It is in this context that I teach note reading and I do so carefully and sequentially. Flash cards are sacred to me and, for the most part, I find them to be highly effective, particularly when presented as a matching game.  I first use flashcards to teach keyboard geography—each week, we go through the flashcards until I feel confident that the student has memorized the note letters on the keyboard.   I then use a different set of flashcards to teach reading, one note at a time, until the student is not only able to label the note but also able to find it on the piano. This approach is most effective when previously learned skills are reviewed each week and the focus is on building gradually and building well, not necessarily building quickly.

Some other suggestions: I like to use a system of color coding that helps students more easily identify different notes during the beginning stage learning process. The key to color coding is to make sure you color code consistently, otherwise the student will spend more time decoding the inconsistencies of the color coding system.  Lesson books can be challenge for students who have attention or processing issues because they include pictures and colors that often detract from the notes on the page.  By making black and white copies and cutting out the extra “stuff” you can eliminate these challenges.  If you have access to a smart board or wipe board, have the student practice writing notes on the staff.  This can serve as a strong assessment tool, particularly when working with non-verbal students. As a more advanced approach to application, you may consider using theory worksheets or composition exercises. Finally, technology can definitely be your friend.   I recommend incorporating note learning apps, music theory software, and video recordings, both for at home practice support and as pedagogical tools in the lessons.

Transference

It is entirely possible that your students may develop theoretical understanding and note memorization at a far faster pace then they are able to communicate these understandings at the keyboard.  This is because the transfer of learning is not always guaranteed. For most of us, transference is a subconscious process—we master a new behavior, concept, or skill in one context and are able to apply it to other contexts with ease.  Children with special needs may not have the same knack for transference.  This is especially true for students with Autism or Learning Disabilities who may masterfully recite the notes on the Grand Staff one minute and struggle to find Middle C on the piano the next (two entirely different contexts).  As these students master note identification away from the piano, they may continue to struggle to apply this knowledge through sight-reading at the piano. It is important to keep this in mind as you work with these students in your studios.

Reading versus Rote

So, what to do when you have a student who has a well developed and relies on rote learning while resisting reading? My approach would be to build on the student’s strengths while strategically working to improve their weaker areas.  Rote learning can be easier for students who have good ears but who also struggle with visual stimulation and processing.  I think encouraging the student to learn to read is a good idea, but I would do so gradually.  You may wish to have the student verbally label the note letters before the excerpt for him/her.  You may consider encouraging the student to play hands separate, sight reading before providing a demonstration. Sending the student home with practice videos is a good way to support the student as he/she learns at home.  At the end of the day, you want the student to build self-efficacy and learning independence while also accommodating the student’s needs. And you want the learning to remain enjoyable.  It’s a tough balance but I encourage you to find it.

1 http://www.pbs.org/parents/education/learning-disabilities/types/reading/reading-processes/

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by Dr. Melissa Martiros

Registrations are now open for the 2017 National Conference on Keyboard Pedagogy, scheduled for July 26-29 in Lombard, IL (a suburb of Chicago).  This year’s conference will feature many helpful and engaging sessions related to inclusive piano teaching. The conference program may be found on the NCKP website.  We would like to highlight some of these events and encourage all of our readers to attend NCKP 2017!

This year’s Pre-Conference Sessions on Teaching Students with Special Needs will be held on Wednesday, July 26.  Ms. Kaitlin Cooper, instructor for Beethoven’s Buddies at Wheaton College, will kick-off the event with her workshop Integrating Technology in the Piano Studio for Children with Special Needs. During this session, Ms. Cooper will address strategies for integrating technology into lessons in order to increase student engagement and facilitate the development of reading fluency, rhythm reading and performance, ear training, and other skills. Mrs. Michelle Bastien’s session on Preventing and Managing Challenging Behavior in the Piano Studio will be particularly helpful for teachers who struggle with behavior management in their studios.  Mrs. Bastien serves as Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) Coordinator and is highly experienced with Advanced Behavioral Analysis (ABA).  The final session will be led by Dr. Sarah Bauer, a developmental pediatrician at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago and Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at Northwestern University.  Dr. Bauer’s session To Diagnose or Not To Diagnose: What is The Role of The Piano Teacher In This Process will focus on the diagnostic process and the myths and facts behind labels. The Pre-Conference Session will conclude with a panel featuring all speakers along with all three Inclusive Piano Teaching authors. 

Following the Pre-Conference Seminars will be two exciting days of workshops, panels, and presentations! Dr. Beth Bauer, Dr. Scott Price, and Dr. Melissa Martiros of Inclusive Piano Teaching will present a panel on the main conference program entitled Teaching Students with Special Needs--Your Questions Answered.  This interactive panel was well received at the MTNA 2016 conference in San Antonio and we are truly very excited to present it again at NCKP. Our main goal for this session is to be helpful as we provide evidenced-based responses to questions related to studio management, teaching techniques, repertoire, and performance situations. A call for questions will be sent out prior to the event but all teachers are invited to submit email questions to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

In his session Every Student Can! - Inside Autism and the Piano Lesson, Dr. Scott Price will present a live lesson with one of his students. The lesson will be followed by a moderated question and answer period during which the “invisible” and non-traditional pedagogical techniques used in the lesson will be examined, along with discussion about teaching this very talented and deserving population of students. This will be a ground breaking session for NCKP and one you definitely won’t want to miss.

Also Inspiring will be Dr. Derek Kaelii Polishuk’s PedX 7 session Celebrating The Spectrum: A Festival of Music and Life. A first-of-its kind summer piano festival at Michigan State University is providing advanced music students on the autism spectrum a chance to preview life as a collegiate musician by immersing them in a daily schedule that emulates a week in the life of a music major.  Derek Polischuk will discuss the impact of this festival on the lives of these students, their families, and piano teachers. Dr. Polishuk currently serves as Associate Professor of Piano and Director of Piano Pedagogy at Michigan State University.

The NCKP Committee for Special Needs includes Dr. Beth Bauer, Dr. Melissa Martiros, Dr. Scott Price, and Dr. Derek Kaelii Polishuk.  More information on the NCKP 2017 Conference may be found at the conference website.

We look forward to seeing you in Lombard!

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by Dr. Scott Price

Welcome back to the Inclusive Piano Teaching blog. Today’s entry is part two of a discussion on teaching students with visual impairments. I would like talk briefly about some things to think about when bringing a student into the piano studio.  Some of these things may sound redundant, but can have a substantive impact on the educational experience for these students. 

So much of what we do as pianists depends on sight. We use our sight to read the music, find our way around the keyboard, study related music subjects, and various other activities needed to learn to play the piano in a traditional setting. We also use our sight to observe non-verbal communication such as facial expressions and body language, and visual models of piano playing technique. If you think about it, when we remove sight from the teacher/student equation much of our traditional teaching process is removed as well.

Here is a list of things to keep in the teaching toolbox to help facilitate a positive and meaningful experience for the student with a visual impairment.

1) Collect Information: Be informed about the student’s impairment, and any associated needs.  Most parents and caregivers want the best for their children and will be very open and honest about these things. Some of this information may also be found in the Individual Education Plan (IEP) if the parents are willing to share it with you.

2) Communication: Be honest and communicative with the student and parents about the challenges and procedures for teaching. If you are unsure of how to proceed with aspects of the instructional process, ask for help. Our students and their parents are used to navigating their world and can be our best teachers in the process.

3) Surroundings: Give the student a tour of your studio or teaching area so that they may learn and memorize the placement of furniture and objects.  If anything is moved between lessons, be sure to let them know so that they may adjust.

4) Tone and Clarity: Facial expressions and body language are no longer part of the communicative experience in most cases.  Tone of voice and clarity in vocabulary are important keys to success.

5) Explanations: Be sure to explain the learning and teaching process to the students so they know what to expect and how the process will work.

6) Permission: Where the teaching needs to be very tactile (i.e. hand-over-hand), it is nice to ask permission to touch the student and to explain what you are doing and why.  Unexpected physical contact can be startling for a sighted person, so you can imagine what it must be like for someone with a vision impairment.

7) Follow-Up: Always follow-up and ask if the student understands everything or if they need more instruction on a certain task or element of the lesson.  Developing an environment where they are comfortable being totally involved in the instructional process and the outcomes is very important.

8) Practice Instructions: Stay in communication with the parents regarding practice instructions.  Be very clear in written instructions.  It is always useful for a parent to be present to see what occurs in the lesson and what is expected during the practice sessions. Smart phones and tablets can be very useful in recording segments of the lesson so parents can reference them at home. Additionally, students may use recording devices to assist them in their practice and learning at home.

9) Pacing: Always allow the student enough time to listen, experience and try concepts, absorb and reflect, and to ask as many questions as needed. Sitting back and not saying anything while a student works does not mean you are being a bad teacher. It means you are giving them time to work and understand.

10) Empathy: Perhaps most importantly, see what it is like. Put on a blindfold and take a tour of your studio or working teaching space, experience the environment, and try to go through your technical regimen and repertoire and practice habits.  It will be a very instructive experience.

I always try to remember that some of the best pedagogy teachers are my students. Asking questions of them and observing them in their learning process always makes me a better teacher, and I learn how to serve them better on their musical journey.

Thank you for reading, and we hope to see you back soon. The National Conference on Keyboard Pedagogy will include workshop offerings on teaching students with special needs. The next conference is scheduled for July 26-29, 2017 in Lombard, IL (a suburb of Chicago). Information is available at:

National Conference on Keyboard Pedagogy

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by Dr. Scott Price

Welcome back to the Inclusive Piano Teaching blog. After a brief rest, we are back sharing information and resources with all of you.

Today’s post will include information on where to find resources for teaching students with visual impairments. This group of students includes students who are blind and those with partial vision, but can also be expanded to include those of us who wear corrective lenses, or suffer from macular degeneration, glaucoma, and other conditions.

Fortunately, a wide array of resources is available for students and teachers – you just need to know where to find them.

An important first stop on the journey should be the Library of Congress National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS). The NLS provides numerous services and products to assist with music learning and enjoyment for persons with visual impairments, and is a free library service supported by tax dollars. You can find the main webpage at this link (click on the blue link for access):

National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped

This webpage will guide you to all of the resources the Library of Congress offers concerning music instruction for people with visual impairments.  Visually impaired persons must register to use some of the services, and to obtain Braille music scores.  The breadth of materials includes popular and classical music scores, recordings, textbooks, opera libretti, large-print music scores, the Braille music catalog.

For your piano students, items include braille scores for the standard classical piano repertoire, and many of the widely used piano method series. There is a catalog search function that is easy to navigate. Visit the direct link to the music services page comprehensive listing of resources:

Comprehensive Listing of Resources

You may also peruse the NLS Music Notes blog for articles on services and general music subjects:

Music Notes Blog

Available for download is a free PDF version of the Music Braille Code. It is 362 pages, and includes information on transcribing music for piano and all other instruments including orchestra and vocal ensemble.

Music Braille Code PDF

Among many other useful websites and services is the Dancing Dots company.  This company was founded by Bill McCann, a blind musician and programmer. Dancing Dots offers Braille music resources and instructional materials, and is particularly notable for the assistive technologies they offer including software to assist with Braille transcription and Braille translation - all available for a cost. 

An interesting yet expensive product they offer is a set of “Tack-Tiles” which are a set of plastic blocks much like Lego toy blocks, and have raised dots on top specifically for use in teaching students to read the Braille music code.  They can be arranged in different combinations as needed.  These are only a few of the Dancing Dot products. Visit the website for more information:

Dancing Dots Company

While not music related, an important stop for information regarding services and products for the visually impaired is the National Federation of the Blind. In addition to the national federation website, each state (including the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico) has an affiliate that may be contacted for information and support:

National Federation of the Blind

Colleges and Universities should all have an office or center specifically charged to assist students with disabilities.  Many students will arrive on campus with learning assistive technology, and other assistive devices and should already be registered for assistance. If they are not registered, you may direct them to the appropriate office through a quick search on the college or university webpage. These offices can also be very helpful to instructors who are learning about services.

If you are interested in learning more about assistive technology, a quick visit to the Perkins Products website will lead you to information on embossing machines, and other products that may be useful in the studio:

Perkins Products Company

If you are interested in having a favorite teaching piece transcribed into the Braille music code, it is possible to gain permission through a publisher. At one point, I contacted a major educational music publishing company to inquire about resources for students with visual impairments. While they did not keep braille music/text items in stock, they said that they were happy to grant permission for pieces to be embossed for accessibility.

This post contains a mere beginning start to find resources for music study for the visually impaired. An internet search can turn up many others that may be of use and interest. And of course, our students are always our best teachers when we need help serving their needs. Many of them will be able to help us navigate resources as we partner with them to meet their educational needs. Join us for our next post that will be about how our piano studio and educational process needs to be adapted to best serve our students with visual impairments.

Thank you for reading, and we hope to see you back soon. The National Conference on Keyboard Pedagogy will include workshop offerings on teaching students with special needs. The next conference is scheduled for July 26-29, 2017 in Lombard, IL (a suburb of Chicago). Information is available at:

National Conference on Keyboard Pedagogy

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by Dr. Beth Bauer

‘Tis the season for recitals.  To prepare our studios for the recital, it is common to pick the date and venue, decide on the type of recital (duet, theme, holiday), plan the reception, and pick repertoire for our students.  Many of these same things occur when preparing for a recital with our students with special needs; however, there are also other things that need to occur for our students with disabilities to have a positive recital experience.  Some of these things require extra planning on my part. 

One question I am often asked is whether or not my recitals are inclusive or do I separate my students with special needs from my students who are typical.  My recitals are inclusive with all students participating together.  I spend time teaching my students who are typical about what they could see at the recital.  I also write social stories so that my students with disabilities know what will happen at the recital and what is good recital behavior.   Beginning in January before the May recital, I start discussing a recital checklist that each student has in their assignment notebook (see below).  This checklist and the social story about the recital help to ease possible student anxiety about what is unknown or unfamiliar in a recital.  Many students will often bring this checklist to the actual recital and follow it.  For a first year piano student, the parents and I discuss student participation in the recital.  If the parent or I do not feel the child understands what the recital is - or is not ready to participate - I suggest that the student come to the recital and watch it.  By the next year, the student who watched a recital will now perform in it.

Another area for preparation is to allow my students to see the actual recital space prior to the day of the recital, which helps to ease anxiety.  One of my students scripts about geometrical shapes whenever he is nervous.  Prior to the day of the recital, we scheduled several study sessions where he visited the recital venue.  On the first visit, he scripted the organ pipes at the front of the recital hall into geometric shapes and walked around the space.  We scheduled a second study session because he was very anxious at the first session.  At the second session, he walked into the space and again scripted the shapes but was willing to walk to the piano and play his piece.  On the day of the recital, he walked straight to the piano, took a bow, played his piece, took another bow, and walked back to his seat.  There was NO mention of shapes on the recital day because he had time to get comfortable with the recital venue.

When working with students with disabilities, it is important to be consistent.  This is also applicable to recital day and recital preparation.  I try to keep as many things in the studio space similar to the recital venue.  For example, to prepare for recital day I have an X marked with duct tape on the floor where students are to bow before and after playing their piece.  In the recital venue, I use the exact same type of duct tape and place the X in the same place.  This is not only to create a similar consistent environment, but to also ease anxiety.  I also regularly show the student his or her place on the recital program.  The students learn their order on the recital program two weeks prior to the recital.  Several students ask to have the exact same place number each year and I accommodate those requests.

Another area where I often receive questions is about memorization.  At my studio recitals, you will see students who play by memory and some who use scores.  I base the memorization answer on each individual student.  There are several students I work with who cannot memorize; we have tried and tried but it does not happen.  In those cases, students are allowed to use their music.

My studio recitals do not last longer than one hour.  This necessitates me dividing the studio into two groups.  I ask parents for their recital time preference and try to accommodate all requests.  The rationale for keeping the recital to around an hour is the attention span of many of the students.  If a parent is concerned about his or her student not being able to handle an hour-long recital, the parent brings quiet activities to keep the student engaged during the recital.  There have not been problems with behavior or attention spans because the students are looking forward to receiving the awards they have earned.

Recitals can be stressful for students.  It is also very rewarding to see the smile a student has after a successful performance.  At last year’s recital, there were several firsts for me as a teacher.  For one student, he followed his recital checklist.  He walked to the piano, took a bow, sat down on the bench, and turned to the audience to announce to them, “I hope you are ready because this is going to be good.”  He performed his piece very well.  His parents and I were shocked because we didn’t know what to expect from his pre-performance announcement.  Another little boy followed his checklist and performed his piece.  When it was time to go back to his seat, he announced “Mom, I did it.”  The audience was in tears.  For the student I previously mentioned who would rearrange the performance space into geometric shapes, he performed a very advanced movement of a Beethoven Sonata.  He did a great job!  What made this recital different than the last ten years was that he had the courage to verbally invite his classmates and teachers from school.  Sometimes the value of the recital is not the musical performance itself but the nonmusical accomplishments.

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 Board Maker Checklist:

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