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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/