by Dr. Scott Price

Numbers seem integral to music study, but they can be very problematic for our students with special needs.

We use numbers to assist us in our process, but meter and rhythm are beat units that are heard and felt. Our fingers are all different shapes and lengths, and we use them in groupings to manipulate the piano to make sounds. We use numbers as labels and to keep track of our fingers, and as a reminder of which fingers to use in certain spots, but those numbers may be thought of as place markers to help us organize our thinking. One person’s finger numbering practice for a particular passage of music may be different from another person’s usage.  The use of finger numbers may also create an additional layer of abstraction in thinking that may not be useful or may be confusing for our students. 

Additional problems with numbers are the varying roles we assign them in everyday life and education. We use numbers for basic counting (1, 2, 3, 4, - cardinal numbers), ordering (1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th,- ordinal numbers), we use numbers in different ways in all levels of mathematic study, use of money, and in discerning the time of day. We also have different numbering systems such as Arabic numbers, and Roman numerals. And we haven’t yet taken into account the use of numbers in measurement systems. 

Our students with special needs may not understand numbers, their varied uses, or how to separate those uses into different ways of understanding the world around them. Trying to understand the context of the number usage may be overwhelming or just not possible.

If numbers aren’t confusing enough, we make use of homonyms. Students may not be able to understand words in context. They may have trouble distinguishing the difference between the word sounds of “two,” “too,” and “to,” and the connection with the printed and spoken numeral “2.”

Layering the use of numbers onto fingers may create another level of abstraction that confuses or overwhelms our students. We cannot assume they understand what we are teaching them, or that they bring to the instructional setting an understanding of context or the ability to transfer knowledge between tasks. 

Traditional pedagogy may be confusing even for our neuro-typical students. We often expect our students to come to us with a working knowledge of numbers, be able to attend to instruction, remember and reproduce the task at home, and transfer it to other pieces they are studying.

Here are some things I try to remember and observe about my students as I frame my pedagogy and begin to teach any concept including finger numbers:

  • Some students may not possess a vocabulary. They may not know or understand the words we are using to instruct them. They may not respond to instruction simply because they do not know the meanings of our words or the relationships of those words to objects or actions in our instruction. What we are saying may be gibberish to them.
  • Some of our students may be non-verbal. They may not speak or may make use of limited verbal communication. 
  • Some of our students may have auditory processing issues. They may need repetition in our speaking, or they may need more time to sort out the sounds we are making with our mouths, and more time to conceptualize what we are saying.
  • Some of our students may have developmental delays that render abstractions in our instruction meaningless, irrelevant, or counterproductive.
  • In the case of students with autism, metaphors and analogies may not be useful teaching constructs. They will need for us to use more literal vocabulary and concept delivery in our instruction.
  • Students with fine motor skill deficits may need more time to control and move their bodies to accomplish the task we set for them.
  • Other students may be non-desirous of physical touch.
  • In the case of a student with a hearing impairment, we need to be sure we are looking directly at them while speaking, and enunciating clearly, and being sure they can see our mouths so that they may read our lips. We should also remember to not play and talk at the same time so that they may hear clearly if they have assistive devices like hearing aids or cochlear implants.
  • For a student with a vision impairment, visual models of instruction and tasks are not useful. We need to make sure to explain that hand-over-hand instruction will be happening, that they are comfortable with that mode of instruction, and that we ask permission before initiating the contact to avoid startling the student, and to avoid any misunderstanding or miscommunication regarding the touching.

Realizing which of these things apply to a student’s learning ability has impact on how I frame my instruction to create a learning environment where my student can be successful. Once I have a good measure of my student’s instructional needs, the following steps may be useful in teaching a concept – in this case, finger numbers:

  • Set up a learning schedule or routine – let the student know that they will be learning about finger numbers at a certain point in the lesson. Perhaps they need to know that they will be learning about finger numbers next week, or later in the lesson. A written or icon schedule may be needed for some students. This framing of instruction is particularly important for students with autism.
  • Teach the vocabulary that will be used – I always make sure that my students understand the words I am using. If they don’t know a word, I go to any length necessary to show them the meaning and how it applies to the concept.
  • Explain the process – Saying to the student “Next we are going to do….” is a good way to start. I tell the student what we will be doing, and the instructional steps by which we will do it. “Today, we are going to learn about finger numbers on our right hand. We are going to look at our fingers and call each one a number. Then we are going to practice learning those numbers.”
  • Always ask the student if they are ready to do the activity. If I get a “yes,” then I know we are ready to begin. If I get a “no,” then I need to ask if my student needs more time to get ready or needs more time to process what I have said. If I ask again and get an additional “no,” then I need to determine if my student isn’t ready or if I am dealing with an avoidance tactic.
  • Practice – I always send my student home with a very clear and detailed listing of what they need to practice and how. This may also include a short video that is taken on their phone or their parent’s phone or is sent via email.
  • I always smile and encourage them in a calm tone of voice. Sone of my students may need a longer period of time to process the instruction and that is fine. I take as much time as needed to ensure that they have been able to learn and achieve success.
  • Repetition – I believe it is better to do the activity 20 times over and have success than to do it 19 times and give up if the student does not understand. 
  • APT acronym – I also use an acronym in my teaching. Auditory processing, pacing, and tracking. If I give my student time to process my words and instruction, move at a pace that is appropriate for their ability, and use my body language or fingers to help them track visual instruction with their eyes, then they are more APT to learn and my pedagogy is more apt to be effective.

Lastly, I always give positive affirmation at all times during the process if a student has done something correctly or shows understanding. If they have made an error, or need extra instruction and repetition, I always smile and say something like “You made a great try! Can we try it again?”

The following are some teaching techniques that I have found to be successful in teaching finger numbers to my students:

  • I often use as little vocabulary as possible and avoid lengthy abstract explanations. An example of a script might be: 

“Next, we are going to learn finger numbers. Are you ready? Look at my right hand. This is my 1 finger. This my 2 finger. This is my 3 finger… Look at your right hand. This is your 1 finger. This is your 2 finger. This is your 3 finger…”

Then we do drills to make sure they know the numbers of each finger.

  • For a non-verbal student, I may ask them to hold up or show me their fingers as I call for them – “Show me your 1. Show me your 2….” I usually do them in order and then ask the student if we are ready to do them in different order.
  • For a student who doesn’t wish to be touched or for a student with fine motor skill deficits, I may ask them to put their hand on the closed fall-board of the piano and I point to their fingers and they tell me the number.
  • For a student who needs help remembering which fingers to use in the score, I may write all of the numbers in the music or allow them to write in the numbers. I usually only do this after they have told me the correct finger number to be sure they are learning and applying the concept.
  • Other students may need reminders for correct finger number usage by assigning colors to numbers. If they need to use finger number 2 in a troublesome passage, I color that note green or use some sort of colored tape or write the number in that color. It is important to be consistent with the colors for each student.
  • In one case, I began the lesson to find that the child’s therapist had written the numbers on the child’s fingers using non-permanent marker so that the child could see them. While I usually do not do this, it worked well for this child who was marvelously successful with the concept. If I needed to use this technique again I would ask permission first from the parents and explain what we were doing and why. I would also ask permission from the student and explain what we were doing and how it was part of the learning process.
  • For a student with a visual impairment, hand and over hand instruction works very well. I always first explain what we are learning, explain the process, and then ask for permission to touch the student.
  • In the case of instruction for a student with a hearing impairment, I use the same process as I do with the student with a vision impairment, but without the hand over hand touching. I need to remember to make sure that my student can clearly see my face and mouth while I am speaking, and that I am enunciating very clearly in my speech.

First and foremost, I always remember that students with special needs are just like any other student: they desperately want to learn and want to succeed. Whatever teaching technique I use is usually constructed and guided by their needs, and often with their invaluable input. And sometimes, that input is not verbal but may be signaled by attentiveness, eye contact, a smile, or just jumping in and doing. The students truly are the teachers in the setting and observing and learning their way of understanding makes all of us better teachers.