by Dr. Scott Price

Our use of vocabulary when teaching our students with special needs can be a confusing thing on both sides of the piano bench. Why?  - a good question fraught with challenges.

When teaching a traditional neuro-typical student, we assume that they possess a vocabulary. We expect that they know the basic words we use during instruction, and that they know the associations between those words and objects and actions. If they don’t know them, we expect that they will attend to an explanation, or that they will create the associations by themselves, or do further study to understand the vocabulary that has been used.

In further abstraction, we assume our students are capable of using and understanding analogies, metaphors, and other descriptive words and phrases that aid us in fostering artistic music-making at the piano.

But what if your student is non-verbal or possesses a very limited vocabulary? Or what if your student is not able to understand or follow complex grammar structures in sentences? What if they think and use words in very literal ways, and analogies and metaphors seem like nonsense to them? What happens if they have visual or auditory processing challenges, or attention challenges?

It is always best to know our students as well as possible. Just because a student is chronologically 14 years old does not mean that they are 14 years old in their intellectual development, or 14 years old in their emotional development. Their level of development may be unequal in these respects, and their possession of a working vocabulary may differ from their outward appearance.

The answer to these communication challenges may often be found in the use of concise, specific, and literal vocabulary and language constructs.  Our students are wonderfully intelligent and have a lot to teach us about communication. Here are a few of many lessons about communication that I have learned from my students:

1) Assumption is problematic at best, and destructive at worst. I must never assume that my student understands what I have said, or understands anything that I am thinking and trying to express in spoken language. I also must never assume that I fully understand what my student is communicating to me until I see the result in our repeated interpersonal communication, or in the piano playing or music making.

2) Always teach the student what a word means. If I say “black key,” I must be sure that my student knows his or her colors, and that he or she can label a piano key as a “piano key” and that it is “black.” Not every student needs this level of instruction, but it is always good to start at a basic level, make sure the student truly understands the concept vocabulary, and is ready to move on to more advanced use of language.

3) Don’t layer concepts and vocabularies. “Why is that called count 2 when it gets 1 count?” This thinking happens because students are not ready to comprehend and layer the concepts of cardinal numbers (counting numbers – 1, 2, 3, 4) and ordinal numbers (placement numbers – 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th). Add in finger numbers and we have too many layers of information for some students to process. Concise language usage would be “Use finger number 2 and play the A-key and count like this – play/hold, or A/hold.” The language is specific, and the process of playing the key is clearly articulated in step-by-step instruction.

4) Be consistent in the use of words. Many of our students understand things in different ways. If we use specific words for specific students, always keep those words the same for that student. I once had a student who thought the black keys were green, so we always called them green – he made it clear he wasn’t going to change his mind about the matter.

5) Avoid slang. “Dude, I was chillin on that Chopin.” “That Beethoven is dope.” “That Rachmaninoff broke my brain.” Students may not be able to understand those idioms. Try instead “I enjoyed that piece by Chopin because…” “I think Beethoven’s music is wonderful.” “That piece by Rachmaninoff was emotionally overwhelming.” Concise and specific language is always a good choice.

6) Analogies may be nonsense. “Meter is like a heartbeat.” Meter is meter, and a heartbeat is a heartbeat. One is something we create with intent from time to time in our music making. The other is an autonomous function of our bodies that we do not consciously control. A student may not be able to link those two concepts together into an abstract way of thinking about beat relationships in music, or in expressive music making. That does not mean they cannot be expressive in their music making. It just means they need a different and more literal and concise explanation of the concept.

7) Metaphors may be nonsense. I often say to students “Who is that note” and explain that notes are just like people in that they can have different personalities and voices, etc., that help us express musical ideas. I once had a student who shouted at me that “NOTES AREN’T PEOPLE!” and we had a lengthy discussion about that fact and how silly it was for me to say something like that to him. He was right and I was wasting his time in the lesson with a concept that was impeding his already successful ability to sight-play notes.

8) Avoid synonyms, or exercise caution in their use. If a student is able to understand a sound as “loud,” then it is best not to refer to it in successive lessons using different synonyms – strong, noisy, thunderous, harsh, hard, etc. – unless one of those words is specific to another facet of piano playing such as technique, etc. If I use a different word, then the student has to learn a new and different word and spend time working through extra vocabulary.

9) Be cautious about the use of homophones. Some students may not be able to contextualize words. It is best not to use homophones in the same sentence – “play count #2 with your finger two, too.” A better choice might be “Play this count with finger 2 each time you see this note pattern.”

10) Don’t use contradictory language. “Good, but...” “Yes, but...” “Not bad.” It is better to use absolute language such as “Yes,” “No,” “Good,” “Not correct, try again.”

11) Always review, and ask students if they understand what you have said. Be sure that they have had time to hear, process, and comprehend what was said, and that they have learned the vocabulary, the word associations, and can actualize the concept. It is also important to always smile, use positive tone, and do your best to help the student know that extra time is ok; repetitions are ok; doing it again next week is ok; and non-comprehension is ok. Their process may need to unfold over a longer period of time than is needed by a traditional student, and the teacher may need time to reflect and compose different language for the concept or task.

12) Tone of voice is important. If you don’t think tone of voice is important, address your significant other without being mindful of the tone in which you speak. A positive and warm tone of voice can help a student overcome anxiety, and to open up to instruction. A sharp or harsh tone of voice can result in an emotional melt-down or shut-down for some students.

13) Don’t despair if understanding has not been achieved, and never let the student despair. Sometimes it takes several weeks to achieve understanding, and that is ok. It is also important to be sure the student understands that it is ok if they don’t understand, and that we’ll try again and that they have done nothing “bad” or “shameful”, and that there was no failure.

Examples of confusing teaching vocabulary:

“You can use your left hand, right?” What was the last word the student heard? The last word I used may have given the student a cue indicating the opposite of what I desired. I may have created confusion, and set up the student for failure.

“Use your finger number 3, too.” Homophones – words that have different meaning but sound the same – 2 (two), too. The importance is in the context of the use of the word. Again, if the student understood “2 (two)” instead of “too” as the last word I used, I may have given the student a cue indicating something different from what I desired. I may have created confusion, and set up the student for failure.

“Let the phrase grow.” In concise, literal, and specific language in the context of piano playing, sounds cannot grow. Each tone we play begins an immediate decay in sound. If you think about it, grass grows, animals grow, people grow. If I want for the student to create a crescendo, then they need to know that each successive note must be played with increasing finger strength to create a louder sound. The words “soft, louder, louder, loudest” or “gentle, stronger, stronger, strongest” equal crescendo.

“What would that note name be?” If I was pointing to a “C” and said “What would that note be?”, the last thing the student heard was “be.” Was I telling them that the note was “B”? It is better to say “What is that note.” – avoid teacher-generated confusion.

“Play count three with two.” Again, teacher-generated confusion. “Play that count with finger number two.” Concise, step-by-step language is a better way to communicate the concept and its actualization.

“Pretty good. Not bad.” Think about what I just wrote and that it may have very little meaning for a student, or may have devastating meaning for a student who hears and understands those words in a literal manner. Pretty. Good. Not. Bad. Did I tell the student he or she was pretty? Did I tell the student he or she was good, not and bad all at the same time? Was “bad” the only word the student remembers hearing? It is better to say “That was correct!” or “Good job!”

“Use a good hand position – no broken wrists.” It is better to say “Use a good hand position and a good wrist position.” If the student has broken wrists, he or she literally cannot play, or the teacher may be informed “I DO NOT have broken wrists!” Figurative language in instruction is not always the best choice – literal language is better.

These are just a few examples of how things can go very wrong in a lesson, and it is usually my fault as a teacher. I would also be remiss if I did not stress the importance of clear pronunciation and enunciation, and the need to sometimes speak in different tempi for different students to allow them time to process my speech.

Lastly, and most important: I always give my student as much time as he or she needs to process what I have said, comprehend the vocabulary I used, and to turn those words into understanding and associated actions. The students know best how to communicate, and we need to listen to them with our ears, eyes, minds, and hearts as they respond. And remember that we are always teaching them vocabulary as well as piano playing and music making. If a question or problem in communication seems insurmountable, always go to the parents. They communicate with their child on a daily basis and can be your best resource on which communicative words or devices work, and which do not work.

In the end, our students will teach us the communication tools they need and it is our responsibility to learn and respond in like manner. Our students are very, very smart if we let them show us the way forward in their learning.