By Adrianne Duncan
It’s not uncommon for private music teachers to get requests to teach differently-abled students, and this can be intimidating at first. However, in the end, our strategy in teaching them can be the same as for any other student: get to know them, their strengths, their challenges, and their learning style, and adjust our teaching to best meet their needs.
Below are three personal anecdotes from piano teacher Andrianne Duncan on how she did just that when faced with new teaching challenges. The names of each student have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals.
I remember receiving the call from Milena’s adult daughter. “Hi,” she said, and I could hear her anxiety and excitement through the receiver. “I’m calling for my mom. She has some physical issues but used to play the piano, and we were hoping that maybe lessons could be therapeutic for her?”
Milena had multiple sclerosis, which had been exacerbated by a car accident following her diagnosis that had left her more or less housebound. Since MS is neurological, the accident had apparently hastened the already inevitable spread of the disease, affecting her speech and motor ability. It seemed cruel that someone should suffer from both a disorder they didn’t ask for and an accident on top of it. Although I had no training in medicine or music therapy, Milena’s daughter didn’t seem to mind.
I’m not nervous when I go to a student’s house for the first time, but I was when I went to Milena’s. She turned out to be a lovely, warm Armenian woman in her early 60s; Los Angeles has a large and proud Armenian population. As we got to know each other, she would offer me hot tea and pastries after our lessons; later, when we got into jazz and I taught her modes, she exclaimed with patriotic (and tongue-in-cheek) delight that the modes must be Armenian since “they all end with -ian!”
Our initial lessons were relatively typical, since Milena had studied piano before. Her MS had caused a tremor in her right hand, though, which was incredibly frustrating for her. As we sat having tea after our lesson one day, I noticed that when she held the teacup, her hand did not shake. I tried to figure out why. Was holding the weight of the cup steadying her hand? It took a few pots of tea, but one day I noticed that, when she held the teacup, she rested her hand on her leg. I wondered if similarly supporting her arm at the piano would stop the tremor.
We came up with a system in which Milena would put a pillow in her lap, cross her right leg over her left on top of the pillow for extra elevation, and rest her arm on her knee. This artificial position immediately stopped the tremor.
That experience gave me my first window into the satisfaction I would get from working with people for whom playing the piano presented extra challenges, and by figuring out those solutions on an individual basis using my musical and technical expertise only.
Later, I taught a child named Lucy. The initial phone call with Lucy’s father went more or less like this:
Lucy’s dad: “Hi, I’m the parent of an autistic six-year-old, and we’re looking for a private piano teacher to supplement her other therapies.”
Me: “Wow. I’d love to help, but I have no training in autism or special-needs children and I’m not sure I’d be a good fit for you.”
Lucy’s dad: “We don’t care about that. We want her to learn music, and you look like a great teacher.”
Well, okay then! I researched as much as I could about autism before her first lesson, including watching the wonderful documentary Autism: The Musical. I still had no idea what to expect.
Lucy was an adorable kid, with tangled curls and glasses held on by a strap in the back. She was highly verbal, sweet, affectionate, and incredibly smart, although I didn’t quite realize just how much at first. Our initial lesson was basic—explaining the difference between high and low ranges on the piano (“The left side of the piano is low, like an elephant. The right is high, like a mouse!”), showing her finger numbers and note names, and concluding with me teaching her “Mary Had a Little Lamb” in C position. As I sent her home with all I’d written in her children’s notebook of staff paper, I thought, “This is going to be easy. What a great teacher of autistic kids I am!”
On our second lesson, Lucy asked such intelligent questions about the rhythm and structure of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” that I realized I would have to write it out using notation to answer her properly. As I started writing, I said, “Lucy, I know we didn’t talk about the notes on the staff yet, but I’ll explain after I write this out.” She pointed at what I was writing. “That’s a quarter note, and it gets one beat,” she said.
I looked at her dad, who was reading a book on the sofa. “I thought you said she hadn’t had music lessons before?”
“She hasn’t,” he said, not lifting his eyes from the page.
I turned back to Lucy. “Ummm. . . how did you know that, sweetie?”
She took the notebook of staff paper from me and turned it to the inside cover, with all the preprinted information that no one reads. “See? A quarter note gets one beat, a half note gets two beats. . . .” She had read and memorized all the information printed on the inside covers of the little book I had given her after one lesson.
Our lessons quickly progressed to over an hour. Her appetite for musical information was insatiable. We often had to coax her off the bench because she simply did not want to stop. Her incredible intellectual abilities did often blind me, though, to her difficulties. Lucy had floppy body syndrome, also called hypotonia, which can be common with autistic children. It involves low muscle tone and hyperflexibility, which meant that in our lessons she would often start to slide off the bench after sitting upright for a few minutes. Since she was so affectionate and physical, I made sure to hug and keep my arm around her to keep her secure.
Lucy’s comprehension of musical concepts, ability to sing and replicate rhythm, and understand music theory at a high level exceeded her ability to play the instrument because of her hypertonia. We had stuck to playing simple songs in C position for many months. One day I decided to introduce a new chord: G7 for the left hand. This chord is commonly voiced as B-F-G, with the pinky of the left hand moving down one note.
“Hey, Lucy, listen to how cool ‘Ode to Joy’ sounds with this new chord. Let me show you how to do it!” I placed her left hand in C position. “Let’s move your pinky down to B.” I moved her fingers to the G7 position and helped her press them down. She immediately wailed, flapped her hands around, and collapsed in a flood of tears into my lap.
“Oh, my God! What’s wrong, honey? What did I do?” I frantically looked to her father for assistance, who was, as usual, sitting behind me on the sofa reading a book. He raised an eyebrow.
“No clue. I’m sure you can figure it out.” He smiled sagely and went back to reading.
I could not imagine what had caused such distress. I hugged Lucy and rubbed her back, feeling awful that I had been the cause of this. “Sweetie! What’s wrong? Can you tell me? What happened? Shh, shh, shh.” I tried to soothe her.
She shuddered, took a deep breath and sat up. “I’m – I’m scared of the – the e-e-elephant,” she said, her voice shaking and tears running down her cheeks.
I was stunned. “Elephant? What elephant?” I looked at her dad. He shrugged.
I turned back to her. “Lucy! What elephant are you talking about? There’s no elephant, honey.”
She looked at me. “You said – you said that the low notes were the elephant. And I don’t want the elephant to come!” She collapsed into my lap again.
With her incredible memory, Lucy had internalized that very first lesson, almost a year ago at that point, when I had used the metaphor of the elephant and the mouse. She had taken it literally. Because that’s what a lot of autistic people do. They take things at face value. They assume you’re telling the truth. I had told her that there was an elephant, and by moving her finger one note lower, she logically assumed that would summon the animal.
“Lucy. There’s no elephant. I was just trying to show you – to show you about the low notes. . . .” I trailed off. How do you explain this to someone whose brain is fundamentally different from yours? The burden was not on her, but on me. I’d made an assumption that she saw the world the same way I did. But she didn’t.
She sat up. “There’s no elephant? Then why did you say that there was?”
I held her hand. “It’s hard to explain. It’s my fault. I’m sorry. But I promise you, if you put your pinky on the B, no elephant will come. Do you trust me?”
She nodded and put her hand back. We played the G7 in the elephantless room.
Ben is a current student who has just turned seven and is a great and active kid. We play notation flash card “soccer” on the top of my piano – I put the lid down and flick him each card, which he catches, answers and then flicks back to me to score “goals.” He also has a neurological disorder that affects his ability to articulate his fingers independently.
When I first started working with Ben, he was unable to play in a five-finger position. If I placed his hand in C position and told him to push down a specific finger, his hand would contract in on itself. He could, however, play with his index finger. I thought – let him play with one finger. He’s making music, he’s enjoying himself, and he’s learning. So, for a year, we played songs with one finger. We learned rhythm and notation. Ben’s family is dedicated and extremely involved with his lessons – most of the time both parents are there, and often one grandma (and sometimes both!) are too.
One day Ben came in and asked to play the Moonlight Sonata – he’d heard it on the radio in the car. Obviously, most young children aren’t capable of playing it as written, but I could simplify it and at least teach him the first few measures. I started to write it out in a simpler key, but then reconsidered.
I’d always rather keep something in the original key if possible. Many people have excellent pitch recognition and I’d rather not alter a familiar composition. But then, after I’d decided to keep it in the original key for musical reasons, something else occurred to me. As I looked at the shape of the first chord – C# minor in second inversion – and how the shape of it looked on the instrument, I thought of Ben’s hand and how it looked. The way it tensed up and contracted that I was by now so familiar with. I took his hand.
“Hey, Ben. Let’s make your hand like rubber. Shake it around. Shake it, shake it!” I shook his hand and we laughed. I put his right hand, fingers now relaxed and extended, on the first chord: his thumb on G#, his middle finger on C# and his pinky on E. His pinky was the main culprit as far as the contraction went; I thought, if his stronger fingers were elevated on the black keys and his pinky could rest on a white key, maybe, just possibly, he could play the first three notes using his whole hand.
“Ben, I’m going to tickle your fingers – push down the fingers I tickle.” I tickled each finger; 1, 3, 5. 1, 3, 5. He pressed each note down. His hand did not tense or contract. I looked at his parents and could not stop my eyes from welling up.
“Guys, he just articulated his fingers for the first time,” I said quietly, not wanting to make a big deal out of it. My voice shook anyway. “Stop,” they said, their eyes tearing up as well, and not wanting to make a fuss either. “Don’t make us cry. We know. We’ve been through this for years.” They smiled, and Ben happily played, innocent of the milestone he’d just conquered.
He can play in the five-finger position now.
Adrianne Duncan is a pianist, singer, composer, songwriter, producer and arranger based in Los Angeles. She is the daughter of renowned classical guitarist Charles Duncan, author of the Alfred publication The Art of ClassicalGuitar Playing.