Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Adapted Piano Lessons: Teaching Piano to Special Learners

I didn’t learn to play piano until college, which was a terrible way to learn piano. However, when I was in private practice, I was contacted by a piano studio that kept getting requests to teach piano to children with various learning differences. This studio used the Faber method and I had enough piano skills to teach the primer level, so I adapted this method for my students.

One of my first students was an 8-year-old boy with Autism, who was quite active, fixated on routines and doing things the same way, and loved music. His parents wanted something “normal” for him to do, rather than another therapy. I added material to supplement Faber so he could work on the same skill without doing the same piece for an extended time. I changed expectations for his hand position, because his fine motor skills were different than a typical piano student. I helped him keep track of the notes by pointing to music, and was eventually able to stop doing this for him. I attempted to set up practice routines so he could be independent and stressed to his mother that piano practice should not be something to fight about. She encouraged him to practice and set up the music he was assigned, but then let him do what he did and I worked on the routine in lessons. I gave clear practice instructions and practiced the practice routine in the lesson.  For a recital, we worked longer on how to bow and going through the steps, including the waiting for his turn. I sat next to him on stage and whispered note names to him, as needed. For the first time in his life, his parents got to applaud his efforts as he bowed.

I adapted the Faber method using strategies suggested in Music in Special Education by Adamek and Darrow.

Participation: Change expectation of level of participation — The studio I worked for had practice challenges where students could set goals for practicing to get prizes. I adapted the level of participation in practice challenges to suit my students’ abilities. Be careful to not make your student appear “too special” by highlighting the learning differences and adaptations.


Input: Adapt the way instruction is delivered — Give instructions that are concrete and simple, with just one or two steps. Repeat your simple directions using the same words as often as needed, so that students with processing difficulties are only having to process one direction at a time. Provide cues to help them focus, like pointing or color-coding.


Modalities: Use several, like visual, auditory, kinesthetic — The more senses you can use in the learning experience, the more chances your student will have to learn the material. For example, when teaching quarter notes, count verbally while pointing to the notes when the student is clapping or marching to the beat.

Output: Adapt how the students can respond to instruction — Instead of requiring the student to count and play at the same time, perhaps the student can demonstrate understanding by counting first and then playing the rhythm while you count. Reduce the requirements or skills needed to pass the song. Give the option of responding verbally or through movement or demonstration of the skill. Also, use augmentative and assisted communication, like picture symbols or communication devices.

Difficulty: Adapt the skill level, type of problem, or the rules on how a student may approach a task — Color-coding or writing out the letter names over each note can help students learn to read music. You may also need to adapt the arrangement of the music by simplifying the rhythms or giving additional structure or cues, like singing the note names in rhythm while the student plays.


Time: Adapt amount of time allotted for completing a task, taking a test, or learning a new skill — allow for additional time to complete tasks and add supplementary material to continue learning the concept on different songs.

Alternate goals: Use the same materials, but adapt the goals — The song might call for a specific hand position or fingering, but your student might benefit from a goal of playing the rhythm correctly, rather than playing with the correct fingering.

Manage the physical space: Adapt the lesson environment to suit the needs of the student — As much as you can, remove distractions from the learning environment. You might also build in some time for fidgeting or distractions. So after the five-finger C-position warm up, the student can play any notes for 10 seconds, while you find the song in the lesson book. Or after playing and saying the letter names, the student can stand up and pace while you write out practice directions.


Level of support: Offer opportunities to make choices and take risks — Let the student choose which song to play first or whether to start with letter names or counts. Give the student a choice of two songs for a recital. Students with disabilities or learning differences may need additional time, additional support, or other adaptations to complete a task, but there are many things that the student should be able to do rather than having everything done for him or her.

These strategies work for regular classrooms or other lessons besides piano.