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Adaptive Piano Lessons: An Incredible Adventure

According to, to adapt means "to adjust, or modify fittingly to requirements or conditions."1 Although the demands are many, piano teachers routinely adapt instruction to meet the needs of their students and should consider three ways of adapting piano lessons to the individual student. First, recognize when a student has a unique situation that calls for modifications to the normal piano lesson design. Next, have the resources and knowledge to adjust lesson plans for each student. Finally, be willing to try new things, putting them into action on a weekly basis.

In order to recognize when adaptation must occur, teachers must recognize when deficiencies are present. Music therapists have defined five domains where deficiencies may occur in individuals:

  • Cognitive
  • Communication
  • Socio-emotional
  • Behavioral
  • Physical

As we examine these domains and how they can apply to piano lessons, it is important to remember that the techniques and strategies suggested for each area can also be used across the domains. By applying this knowledge to each student who walks through our door, we are able to adapt to their needs and meet the student where they are.

Domain: Cognitive

The cognitive domain has multiple facets. There are the students with normal and exceptional cognitive ability, as well as those with cognitive disabilities and learning disorders. For students with disabilities, it is important to streamline the learning process.

Music therapists have had amazing success helping individuals with cognitive disabilities to learn skills needed to function through the use of music. It is important that piano teachers also be equipped with the knowledge of how to best teach these students as they aspire to learn music. "Children with intellectual disabilities develop skills in the same way that children without disabilities develop skills, only they develop these skills at a slower rate."2

Teachers are likely to encounter:
  • Limitations in motivation, attention, and memory
  • Learning hindered by too much stimuli
  • Directions only understood when given in short steps
  • A need for structure
  • A lack of social skills and self-esteem

It is also important to understand and accommodate the three major learning styles—visual, auditory, and tactile.3 Some students will best benefit by seeing what the teacher's hands are doing (visual), while others will best benefit from hearing the teacher play the music (auditory). Still others will need to march in place to the beat or rest their hand upon the teacher's moving hand to fully understand the concept (tactile). This may seem daunting due to difficulties in learning style identification, but using a combination of strategies will give all students the ability to learn in a holistic manner. You will also have more fun!

Resources are plentiful for students with cognitive disabilities. Some methods designed specifically to help struggling students include:

  • Pianimals (large letters and numbers, moves at a slower pace).
  • Playing with Colour, by Sharon Goodey (specifically for students with dyslexia, matches a color to each note on the staff).

Methods designed for younger students who move at a slower pace include:
  • Music for Little Mozarts (Alfred)
  • My First Piano Adventures (Faber)
  • Wunderkeys Series (

Other helpful approaches or resources include:

  • Learning by rote, which allows students to play intricate sounding pieces, practice specific techniques, and explore new sounds without the additional task of reading notes.
  • Lead sheets and EZ Play music limits the amount of information needing to be processed at one time.
  • Schedules and visual charts such as individualized pieces of paper or a large hanging chart in the studio can be created.
  • Multisensory learning can include:
    • Play dough—Practice molding together notes and music symbols, and then practice the different touches learned on the piano.
    • Legos—Fantastic to use for rhythm!
    • Stickers and various visuals
  • Repetition is also critical, and can be varied with:
    • Flashcards—with flyswatters and a timer! Lay the flashcards on the floor and call out a letter to see how many the student can hit with the flyswatter before the timer buzzes.
    • On- and off-the-bench games—can include checkers for practicing steps and skips, the Ice Cream Cone Matching Game (see, and Trouble (when you roll a 5, you have to play a fifth interval on the piano as part of your turn).
    • All games focused on interval reading and playing!
    • iPad—Staff Wars is one example of a fantastic note recognition game, perfect for your video game lovers ($.99 in the app store)
    • Fictional stories can be attached to the task they are supposed to complete. Have students search the room for hidden treasure (flashcards of middle C in a sea of other letters). Be creative!

Domain: Communication

Music can be used as a mode of communication or can be used to teach and enhance a student's verbal and nonverbal communication skills. Language contains numerous musical aspects: melodic contour, timbre variations, and rhythm.4 When we learn music, we can also refine our language skills!

Creating opportunities for musical exchange in the lesson can enhance both musical and verbal communication. Practicing dialogue exchange through question and answer phrases, call and response, and "repeat-after-me" melodies and rhythms are enjoyable ways for a student to practice the dialogue exchange needed in everyday communication. "Are You Sleeping, Brother John," often found in beginning piano books, is a wonderful example of a piece that uses dialogue to create its melodic structure.

Sometimes, students with speech and language disorders simply need someone willing to find different ways of communicating with them. There are four different ways that communication can be adapted and streamlined in a lesson:

  • Input—When changing input, the piano teacher would adapt the way the instruction is delivered. This can be done through using visuals, speaking
    slower, and by allowing more time between concepts, allowing the student more time to understand.
  • Output—This refers to adapting to a student's response through giving more time for a response and by encouraging more than yes or no answers.
  • Time—This refers to the amount of time allotted for completion of a task. With individual lessons this primarily relates to the teacher's patience. In a group situation, time will need to be adjusted to fit the needs of all students.
  • Level of support—This refers to the amount of help given in communication, such as giving more hints, or giving half the answer to help the student fill in the rest.5

Finally, music can be used to communicate nonverbally. A composer often writes a piece to convey a message, meaning, or emotion. By teaching students to communicate emotion or meaning through their music, piano teachers are empowering their students to learn even more than words.

When a student has deficiencies in communication, typically the difficulties are tied to another disorder or disability such as Down Syndrome, cerebral palsy, hearing impairments, developmental disabilities, autism, etc.6 Although this domain is tied to a wide variety of special needs, students often make great improvement by seeing a piano teacher once a week, working to improve their communication skills in a safe and affirming, one-on-one setting.

Domain: Socio-Emotional

There are expectations to consider when working with a student who needs social or emotional support. First, some people are shy, which is a character trait, not necessarily a disorder. Piano (and music in general) has the power to bring a student "out of his or her shell."

Social discrepancies are sometimes the result of behavioral disorders. Undesirable behavior that interrupts class and affects other students may have labeled this person as the social outcast by peers.

Students with cognitive or developmental disabilities often show socio-emotional deficiencies. Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder typically have some difficulty with social perception. Understanding basic rules of eye contact, nonverbal cues, and the appropriate times to express emotions are frequently difficult tasks.

Music lessons have a unique ability to foster healthy social engagement since teachers can create safe and rewarding places where students can thrive. This can be done in a lesson by using hello and goodbye songs, simple songs to cue the next activity, having conversations about nonmusical activities, connecting current repertoire to aspects of life, encouraging eye contact, and enabling the student to communicate practice expectations to parents. The last five minutes of a lesson are great for talking to parents!

Even more ways to encourage appropriate emotional expression include:
  • Offering choices that are not yes or no answers. Example: Would you like to clap or stomp this rhythm with me?
  • Improvisation gives the student a safe place to play unwritten notes and freely make mistakes. Improvisation can start at a very young age and grow through their entire musical lives.7

Piano activities that contribute to a more rounded musical experience and enhance socialization are duets, group lessons, peer teaching, and recitals. Hodges and Sebald believe "… the social bonds [between musicians] are so strong that members of a musical group are like members of an extended family."8 Social and emotional interactions begin to thrive, even amongst the most unlikely students.

Domain: Behavioral

The behavioral domain has a wide range. Some students are just wiggly and need help to focus and stay on task. Other students have a diagnosed behavioral disorder. There is debate as to what actually constitutes a disorder. When diagnosing a child, there are three criteria to evaluate: chronicity, severity, and pervasiveness of the behavior.9

As a piano teacher it is important to recognize and understand the criteria. Our job, however, is not to diagnose, but to teach students as efficiently as possible. Adamek and Darrow point out that, "Nearly all academic and social activities require interpersonal interactions; therefore, a behavior disorder can affect every area of a student's development: intellectual, educational, and social."10 Piano lessons can be one place in life that the student can feel accomplished.

Helpful ideas and resources begin with exercising consistency and kindness. Have a lesson plan that keeps the student engaged and move to a new activity when they begin to lose focus. A visual schedule or chart—simple sticker charts or a stop light system—can work wonders for a student who needs visual cues to reinforce or modify behaviors.

Other ways of encouraging appropriate behavior include:

  • Challenges – can a student stay on task until the end of the lesson? Practice challenges can be set to help focus during the week. How many times can the student catch the teacher's (purposeful) mistakes in the lesson?
  • Rewards – tangible such as candy, stickers, or something from a treasure box.
  • Set long and short term goals through discussion
  • Teaching practice steps and problem solving that can help prevent frustration.
  • Off-the-bench activities – keep them moving, but learning!
  • Piano yoga – students stretch into music symbol positions. I've also used it to simply get the wiggles out and the blood circulating in their hands!
  • Duct tape staffs
  • Musical twister or memory
  • Rhythm instruments
  • iPad games – Staff Wars (note reading), Blob Chorus (ear training), Music for Little Mozarts (early concepts into note reading), etc.
  • Sensory items to keep their hands busy and minds focused while learning new concepts! The list is endless!

It is important for teachers to realize that there are usually reasons for each behavior a child exhibits. Finding the reason behind behavior will help the teacher identify solutions more quickly. Working with parents, schoolteachers, and aides also creates a strong team of people who can help the child reach their fullest potential. 

So far, the discussion has focused on teachers adapting to their students' needs. However, benefits to teachers are numerous as they must practice patience, plan more effectively, organize materials, and stay on task in the lesson. Adamek and Darrow finished this list by posing this question: "If students with behavioral problems can affect us in these ways, how can teaching them be negative?"11

Domain: Physical

The physical domain is as wide and far-reaching as your imagination. You may see a missing hand or limb, blindness or vision impairment, deafness or hearing impairment, a short-term broken arm, or difficulty with fine or gross motor skills.

Many have learned to play the piano with missing hands or fingers. No two students are alike, except in their desire to learn. Students in wheelchairs may be able to have a separate button they can push for the pedals. They may not be able to move and support themselves with  their lower body, but they might be able to develop impressive finger dexterity.

Students with visual disabilities can learn to play the piano through free access to braille music from the Library of Congress by showing documentation of their vision loss. Larger print music may be sufficient for some who have low vision, and Pianimals is a great tool for students who need larger notes. Some students may need their music reversed: black music with white notes.

Those with hearing impairments are also capable of learning to play piano through the use of hearing aids, sign language, and visual aids. Since I have hearing loss, I have learned the importance of focusing on how correct technique and tone feel instead of only how it sounds. The student may not be able to hear the difference between slight changes in tone quality, but can learn to feel subtle changes. After all, Beethoven was still composing after he had gone deaf!

Piano lessons can help students with fine motor difficulties to gain control that cannot be obtained in any other way, although progress may be slower. Piano games can also increase fine motor skills while teaching or reviewing important musical concepts. Checkers can review steps and skips. I have written questions on every block to create Musical Jenga. Trouble can review intervals. Candy Land—music edition helps students through grasping and moving the game pieces. Twister can develop gross motor skills.

Not all physical disabilities will be permanent. When a student has a broken arm, instead of a six-week break, this time can be used for duets and improvisation with the teacher playing along as needed. One-hand music is also readily available at all levels. Knowledge can be gained through study of theory concepts or music history (Alfred's Great Music and Musicians). For ear training, my young students love the Blob Chorus app.

Teaching strategies are as endless as the variety of students who will walk through our doors. The piano teacher who looks at each student with possibility and promise will impact the lives of their students. As a piano teacher, I know the road isn't always easy. Day to day challenges can be overwhelming, but the reward is great. The most important aspect of working with any student is to show them they can learn and to give them self-confidence. This gives them the desire to work and progress in music and all aspects of life. Through our love for music and for each student, we can achieve great things!

1"Adapt,", accessed November 09, 2018,
2Mary S. Adamek and Alice-Ann Darrow, Music in Special Education (Silver Spring, MD: American Music Therapy Association, 2010), 163.
3Jeanine Mae Jacobson, E. L. Lancaster, and Albert Mendoza, Professional Piano Teaching: A Comprehensive Piano Pedagogy Textbook, 2nd edition (Van Nuys, CA: Alfred Music, 2015), 29.
4Donald A. Hodges and David C. Sebald, Music in the Human Experience: An Introduction to Music Psychology (New York: Routledge, 2011), 42.
5Adamek and Darrow, Music in Special Education, 187-188.
6Ibid., 184.
8Hodges and Sebald, Music in the Human Experience, 312.
9Adamek and Darrow, Music in Special Education, 138.
10Ibid., 142.


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