The Inclusive Piano Teaching Blog

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by Dr. Beth Bauer

As mentioned in the previous posts on teaching reading, our students come to us with various labels or diagnoses.  However, one student with the label of autism or Down syndrome is just that.  One person with the label.  As piano teachers, we all have training in piano pedagogy.  As teachers of students with disabilities, we also have training and knowledge in special education that directs how we approach learning strategies.  However, the way I teach one student with autism may not be the same way that I teach a second student with autism how to read music. 

The way I approach teaching reading to my students is individualized to each child’s needs.  Many of the strategies I use are built off of strategies used in school when teaching the child how to read text.  In the book Teaching Reading to Children with Down Syndrome, Patricia Oelwein talks about four steps in the learning process for all students.  I have found her processes and steps work well with all students and not just students with Down syndrome.  The first step is input of sensory information through seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, or smelling.  Second is perception of organizing and interpreting the sensory information to give meaning to objects or events.  The third step is the storage of the information.  Finally, there is the output or response of retrieving and using the stored information.  These steps are also relevant and present for students with disabilities; however, they might have difficulty with each of these processes.  This will require us as teachers to provide more repetitions to learn reading.  We also need to be patient as it could take longer for our students to master note reading.

These steps are very influential in the way I approach teaching note reading to students with most disabilities.  For example, input of sensory information is the first exposure to note reading through games or flashcards that are used several weeks before a student ever sees the note in a music score.  Perception of organizing and interpreting the information is done during the weekly home practice.  Games or flashcards are sent home from the lesson to be done at home.  Storage of information occurs during practice and is assessed at the weekly lesson.  Retrieval and using the stored information is when we see the student reading actual music.

In addition to steps in the learning process, Oelwein also discusses stages in the learning process of reading.  These stages are acquisition, practice to fluency, transfer, and generalization.  These stages are also applicable to the music reading process. 

Acquisition refers to a student’s first exposure to the topic.  In the case of music reading,  the student does not know the staff, letters of the music alphabet, lines or spaces, and the symbols of treble or bass clef.  During this stage, I break each of these concepts down.  For example, let’s use the example of the staff.  I show the student a flashcard of the staff, tell him or her this is a music staff, ask the student to match the flashcard of the staff to another flashcard of a staff, and help the student to name it.  This would be repeated for clefs, line notes. and space notes.  This could take several weeks.

Practice to fluency is after a student has been introduced to the word staff.  The student has matched it, selected it, and named it with prompts but now the student needs to practice this during weekly practice to become fluent.  For this stage, I will send home a picture flashcard of a staff as well as a flashcard with the word staff.  The student will practice matching the two flashcards during weekly practice.  I would also include the same style flashcards of clefs, line notes, and space notes.

Transfer is the ability for the student to name staff, clefs, line notes, and space notes in a variety of presentations.  In addition to the flashcard games, I will see if the student can recognize staff, clefs, line notes, and space notes in a score or other music games.

Generalization is when the student can read these symbols in ALL situations.  I love when I receive an email from a student’s parent telling me that the music teacher at school was shocked that a student recognized one of his or her flashcards in music class. 

This approach works in teaching ALL music symbols.  When a student can recognize the symbols of staff, clefs, and lines and spaces confidently, I move on to actual note reading of letters on the lines and spaces.  When teaching letters, I draw the staff and clef in black on the flashcard.  So the student is focusing on the letter on the staff, I delineate the note in color.  There will be a flashcard with the note drawn on the staff and a separate flashcard with only the note letter.  Examples of flashcards can be seen below:

IPTstaff.JPG IPTnote.JPG

All students are capable of learning to read music.  It may take longer and your student may become frustrated, but the reward comes the day the student tells you, “I did it!”. 

Oelwein, P. L. (1995).  Teaching Reading to Children with Down Syndrome: A Guide for Parents and Teachers.  Maryland:  Woodbine House Publishing.