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by Dr. Scott Price

Students with disabilities will come to your studio with all sorts of labels – autism, high/low functioning, visual impairment, ADD/ADHD, Down syndrome, etc.

Although they come with labels, the label does not define the person – it informs the pedagogy. The student is a person capable of learning and doing remarkable things. The label helps us form a pedagogy that allows for successful learning. The special need label becomes the doorway to teaching and discovery of a wonderful nature.

When approaching the basics of music reading and building the skill, students may not be ready for abstract concepts or may not find them useful. Basic reading can be achieved by using pedagogy informed by the students’ special needs. The following points may seem over-simplified or even redundant, but I try to never make the mistake of assuming that my student knows these things, or understands everything I say, or will make connections without help. Melissa made some wonderful points and connections in her post, and I will echo some of them here and add my own.

Some things that are important (we will address some of them in more depth in future postings):

Vocabulary – make sure the student knows the words being used in your instruction of reading, and understands what they mean, and the relationship/context.

Key names – Don’t assume a student knows their alphabet letters, or that we use only 7 letters, and that we don’t continue on the keyboard with H, I, J, K, etc.

Flashcards or printed music notes - Be sure the student associates a note on the staff with a key on the piano. This may seem simplistic, but we can never assume the student makes the connection on their own. “When you see this? Play this.”

Hands – Be sure they understand right and left and can identify which hand is the right and the left. Some students may need color coding in the music, or other visual aids, to help them track the hands used for various notes.

Finger numbers – We can’t assume that our students know numbers, or can apply numbers in different contexts. Be sure they can label their finger numbers and do not become confused by the mirror image of the hands (4 and 2 often seem to be the most confused of the numbers).

Note and note value – Once a student can identify the note and find the associated key with the correct finger, then make sure they know how long to hold the key down to make the sound. If confusion occurs between finger numbers and note values, then use directive words like “play, play, play-hold” for a quarter/quarter/half-note pattern, or “C, D, E-hold.” This helps separate concepts and threads of understanding.

Chain of events – Students often need a routine or procedure to follow in reading. Try following an activity list of 1) Note, 2) Key, 3) Finger number, 4) Length of time held, and then chain these together into small and progressively larger bits of music.

This short listing may also be used as a lesson routine to help facilitate reading, and may be used at home as a practice routine.

Other considerations:

For students with vision impairments – see previous IPT blog postings on resources and studio procedures.

Does the student need to write in note names? I allow them to do so, but only after they have correctly identified the note and proved to me that they know it. I have had students write in every note name – not because they don’t know them or can’t remember them, but because they need them to help their eyes track the music and to maintain their attention.

Does the student need to write in finger numbers? Again, I allow them to do so but only after they have correctly identified the finger number and proved to me that they know it. I have also had students write in all of their fingerings for the same reason as they did for their notes.

Does the student need color coding? Color coding notes or finger numbers may be helpful for some students. Consistency is important and colors should remain the same for each student. One of my students experienced synesthesia and learned his scales by having his mother print out lines of scale letter names in the colors he told her they “sounded like.”

Does the student need smaller portions to learn? I often assign small groups of measures, or only two lines, of music to be learned. The students will often tell me very honestly how much they can do. I would rather they worked on a smaller bit of music and learned it well and felt validated, than learn a large amount very poorly and have to experience more weeks of correction. Of course, some students may be able to learn an entire piece, or single pages of music, at a time – we do what each individual student can do.

Does the student need repetition? I am happy to repeat the passage or instruction as many times as needed for the student to absorb what they need to learn. Even if you feel ready to give up, allow one more week – the student always comes through with flying colors.

Does the student need social stories? Descriptive stories about the reading process from outside their own experience can serve them well in observing how someone else learns. They can then apply that story to their own learning.

Does the student need art projects? Students can be wonderfully creative in how they turn their music into instructional designs that help them learn. These art projects can also be a window into how they learn and how they experience their world. Colors, lines, faces and other drawings can help them navigate the concepts.

Does the student need validation or rewards? Tablet or video game time can be a motivator for good behavior or attention during the lesson. Other students need “fidget time” or other stress and anxiety relieving devices. I find one of my best rewards is to talk to them while they learn and continually say “Yes! Correct,” or “You are doing well – that was good,” to alleviate anxiety about the process and help them build confidence.

The key is making sure they understand explicitly what they need to learn, build a routine or schedule for learning, work in manageable bits, and give them a framework for working on their own at home.

The process may unfold with much more rote learning, but will lead to reading as the student learns more and more patterns, and has more practice in the skill. The start may be slow but the momentum builds over time, and we end up learning more about our own teaching from our students. Remember – they are master instructors. We need to watch and listen while they show us the ways they need to learn and be successful.