The Inclusive Piano Teaching Blog

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by Dr. Melissa Martiros and Mrs. Michelle Bastien, Guest Blogger

Follow-up from The National Conference on Keyboard Pedagogy

Several years ago, I worked in-home with an adolescent boy who had a tough time staying seated.  And by tough I mean every three minutes he bolted off of the bench.  And by bolted I mean he ran figure eights inside, outside, upstairs, downstairs, and everywhere else but inside the room where his lessons were held.  His mom was frustrated, I was frustrated, even his sister, who was often charged with chasing him down, was frustrated. In an effort to remedy the situation, I turned to behavioral psychology and, with the help and guidance of an Advanced Behavioral Analysis (ABA) expert in my special education program at the University of Wisconsin Madison, I was better able to understand the function of this particular student’s behavior and transform our lessons into something more positive for all of us.

For those of you who were unable to attend our special needs pre-conference seminars at the National Conference on Keyboard Pedagogy (NCKP) this past July, you missed a fantastic session on Preventing and Managing Challenging Behavior in the Piano Studio. Mrs. Michelle Bastien, an expert on behavioral intervention strategies in the K-12 school system, provided a highly practical and informative session for piano teachers who struggle with managing negative behaviors in their studios. Since behavior is a most common AND most commonly misunderstood studio challenge, we have asked Michelle to provide her insights on behavioral intervention strategies for our IPT Blog readers. She and I have teamed up for a series of posts related to behavioral strategies in the piano studio.  Please direct any follow up questions to: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Common Behaviors in the Studio: Possible Causes


Let’s face it, piano teaching can be challenging.  For all of our training, practicing and expertise, communicating what we know to our students, passing along a love for music is at once one of the most rewarding and challenging things we do. This is made more challenging when we include children who display challenging behaviors, especially those students with special needs who may also require other accommodations.  The list of challenging behaviors includes: difficulty focusing and paying attention, difficulty making eye contact, difficulty staying on the bench and being still, bolting, tinkering on the keys, carelessness, impulsivity, stubbornness, self-injury, stimming and scripting, low frustration tolerance, negative attitude, extreme withdrawal or refusal to respond, emotional outbursts, and physical aggression.

Often times, these behaviors are misunderstood and misinterpreted by teachers, which ultimately makes the problem worse.  The list of possible causes includes: attention seeking, lack of interest or boredom, the need for choices or control, being overwhelmed by a difficult task, the need for self-regulation, the need for sensory input, hurt feelings or physical pain, a lack of understanding or misunderstanding, needing help, and fear of failure. Teachers can unknowingly reinforce and contribute to these negative behaviors by not understanding the function of the behavior, displaying inconsistency with teaching and management techniques, reinforcing the wrong behavior, displaying irritability or over-reliance on punishment, holding inappropriate expectations, giving up, providing nonfunctional, irrelevant and/or inappropriately paced  instruction, and exhibiting inflexibility or unwillingness to try new strategies or seek suggestions from other sources. We offer a list of preventative measures below:

Be Proactive

The first question most people start with when coming up with the best behavior management strategy is “where do I begin?”. Many people wait until they encounter their first intense behavior episode to start strategizing, but to truly be successful with students who exhibit behaviors, it is important to take a proactive approach and prepare for the worst, while expecting the best! Some really amazing proactive strategies could include using visuals for schedules and expectations. Anxiety around the unknown is a huge stressor for our students on the autism spectrum. Knowing the schedule and the routine of the lesson will help them know what they have achieved and prepare them for what is coming next. For some students using a “First/Then” board with pictures is especially helpful, and pairing it with repetitive language such as “first we will work on notes, then we will play a game” helps them get cognitively prepared.


Another way to be proactive is to arrange your environment for success. I worked with a teacher once who came to me so frustrated because she had a math student who tipped over the math cart and threw the materials on the ground. Everyday. “Well,” I said to her, “have you considered moving his seat, or the materials, where he can’t get at them?” Such a simple solution, but when we are struggling with a behavior we can’t always see outside the stress of the situation. But planning ahead can help stop a behavior before it has a chance to occur. When arranging the environment, it is also important to know what your student’s triggers are. Is there a demand that typically will set them off or an area of the lesson that they find particularly difficult? If there is, find a way to recondition that negative into a positive. This could be as easy as breaking it down into smaller, more manageable chunks or situating it right before a “student chosen” activity that they prefer.

Motivating factors are another huge way to be proactive in your lessons. Do you know your students’ likes and dislikes? Are you utilizing positive reinforcement? Knowing what will motivate your students to comply with directions and follow through with instructions will help keep the lesson moving in a successful direction! Along the same lines, it is important for you to stay positive in a lesson (even when you are feeling anything but)! Anxiety creates anxiety and a great deal of children who are on the spectrum read nonverbal cues to a tee so if you aren't feeling it, they aren't either!

One of the best practices when it comes to teaching is to build a relationship with your student. It doesn't matter if you're teaching piano or the Pythagorean Theorem, the best way to support your student is to know how they act on a typical day, so you know when something seems a bit wonky.  For example, I was processing a particularly intense behavior episode with a teacher one day and she said “I don’t know what happened. He went from 0-60, he was fine one minute and then the next he was tipping desks and throwing pencils.” While I understand behavior can seem very sudden, it does not occur in a vacuum, so I asked her what happened right before he tipped his desk. She responded with “he refused to complete his math paper and ripped it up.” So I responded again with “what happened before that?” She then gave me a list of behaviors that happened within the classroom until she finally got to “I don’t know, he came in this morning with a pout on his face and in a really bad mood.” “Eureka!!!! There is it!!” That is the precise moment she should have interjected herself. As teachers we have more control over preventing a behavior if we start by truly understanding the source. 

To wrap it up, behavior prevention has many layers, and while we will be going into greater detail at a later time, there are a few take-away points I hope you keep in mind when working with more challenging students.  First, and most important, building relationships is crucial to reducing behaviors in the studio. The better you know your students the better chance you have of knowing what will de-escalate them faster, or what to avoid if you want to prevent the behavior completely.  Being consistent is key! Make a set of ground rules and follow them. Kids will test you to see how far they can go and where the lines are they can’t cross.  If you keep changing where the line is they will never learn. Lastly, never assume. Assumptions can bring down a lesson and a relationship fast (whether it’s assuming you know the intentions of the student or whether it’s assuming the student knows expectations without being explicitly taught) and can be so damaging to your understanding that student. It will be a wall that separates the two of you. Using these strategies will help break down those walls and allow you to forward in your studio in a positive direction!

Michelle Bastien holds the position Special Education Teacher at Shepard Hill High School. She has previously served on the Crisis Team at the Grow School, as Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) Specialist for the East Brookfield School District, as a Graduate Research Assistant and Advanced Behavioral Analysis (ABA) Teacher at the New England Center for Children, and as the ABA Coordinator at Webster Middle School.  She holds a MA degree in Severe Special Needs from Simmons College. She may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.