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Perspectives: Why I love teaching learning-challenged children

As a piano teacher, I love working with students who catch on to new concepts quickly, who are respectful and obedient, who are able to give polished performances, and who progress rapidly. Yet, over my two-and-a-half decades of teaching piano lessons, I feel my biggest success stories are students who did not do any of these things. My biggest success stories came from working with children who had physical, mental, behavioral, or learning challenges. Why? Because music lessons made a bigger difference in their lives than they did in the lives of the bright, talented, well-behaved children I have taught. And making a difference in someone's world is the reason I teach.

Everyone deserves the chance to learn to play a musical instrument because, as Berthold Auerbach said, "Music washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life." But music is especially beneficial to children who have learning challenges. Parents of children with disabilities usually do not think of signing them up for music lessons. Parenting is a great deal of work and expense, and with a disability added into the mix, those factors multiply. Why add the time, expense, and pressure of weekly music lessons to all of that? As teachers, we can encourage these parents to offer this opportunity to their children as a way to help them achieve their potential. And we can accept these children into our studios and elevate their quality of life.

Learning music is the only activity that has been found to benefit every area of brain function simultaneously. People who started music training at a young age have been found to have more powerful neural networks in the area of the brain responsible for learning, thinking, planning, language, mathematics, and emotional intelligence.1 These are the very areas in which children with challenges may need improvement. Research at Harvard in 1995 revealed that the corpus callosum, which allows for communication between the two hemispheres of the brain, was significantly larger in people who started music lessons before the age of seven.2 Follow-up studies verified "no pre-existing neural, cognitive, motor, or musical differences;" the music study itself was the apparent cause.3

It follows that children who study music have greater academic ability. The 42nd Street Development Corp. launched a program for teaching music to kindergartners in New York City public schools in the late 1990s. In the second year of the program, they conducted research on 160 children (half of them ESL students) from two schools to study its effect. The children were randomly divided into either a twice-weekly forty-five-minute music class or a twice-weekly language arts class. In the music classes, children sang, practiced rhythm, listened to music recordings, learned to read music notation, practiced finger exercises, and played electronic keyboards. In the language arts class, the children were read dozens of age-appropriate books. They acted out plays, made puppets, drew pictures about the books, and discussed the content. All children were tested at the beginning of the school year and again at the end. Although test results were identical at the beginning of the program, at the end the scores showed "statistically significant results favoring the music students."4 They were superior in calculation, in reading, in spelling, in standardized testing, and even in English as a Second Language testing. This program, dubbed "Music and the Brain," is now used in many areas of the United States and in other countries throughout the world.

When Swiss primary schools experimented with substituting music lessons for academic core study time, they found that the music students did equally well in mathematics and actually performed better in reading than the other students.5

Kraus tested forty-four six-to-nine-year-olds enrolled in The Harmony Project in Los Angeles, a program which offers free instrument lessons to economically disadvantaged children. Over a two-year period, she found a significant improvement in language processing abilities. At the same time, their reading scores stayed constant, while the scores of those outside the project dropped.6 An astonishing ninety-three percent of Harmony Project 2011–2014 graduates enrolled in college.

In a 2006 study by Fitzpatrick, children who learned music were superior "in every subject and in every level." By the end of their public education, the children from poorer families who received music training excelled over wealthier children without it.7

Although IQ is an imperfect measure of intelligence, studies repeatedly show that a higher IQ predicts a more successful life. This is unwelcome news for children suffering from intellectual disabilities; however, studies by Schellenberg suggest that, when started early and continued for at least six years, music learning can boost a child's IQ by an incredible 7.5 points.8

Gardiner and associates conducted a study in which children who were deficient in mathematical skills were given music lessons with remarkable results: they actually surpassed the other students in test scores.9 And according to a 2011 study led by Brodsky, training in rhythm in the preschool years predicted a decrease in the incidence of dyslexia (difficulty comprehending written language) and dyscalculia (difficulty comprehending arithmetic) in kindergartners.10

Study after study shows that learning music improves life skills in children as well. For example, a 2011 study of forty-eight Canadian preschoolers found that ninety percent of the children with musical training had better ability to "plan, organize, strategize and solve problems" than others.11 Multiple studies show that musically trained children also have enhanced social skills and empathy for their peers.12

The practice of music can improve general wellbeing. A physician and mother of three, Leonie Callaway wrote of her experience returning to piano practice as an adult. As she spent an hour working to relearn a Beethoven sonata the first evening, she found that her mind was completely occupied and she forgot her daily cares. Although worry usually awoke her at three a.m., this night she slept until dawn. "Night after night," she wrote, "I discovered that if I spent an hour with my piano before bed, I was consistently rewarded with high-quality sleep. This translated into a sense of calm during my working hours… Why, I wondered, in all those years of learning about stress management techniques for my patients, had no one ever mentioned the value of playing an instrument?"13

A four-month study conducted at McMaster University supports this. The emotional wellbeing of babies assigned to participate in a music learning group improved more than babies assigned to other groups, including those who simply listened to classical music.14

My twenty-five years' experience as both a piano teacher and a parent of nine piano students has taught me that musical skill can increase self-esteem, even when more talented children outdistance the learning-challenged student. When my daughter with learning disabilities pointed out that she couldn't play nearly as well as her musically gifted brother, I simply replied, "Is that any reason why you shouldn't get to play the piano? It is good for your brain, and you love it!" With that reassurance, she was satisfied. Outside of her short practice time, she sometimes spent hours playing the piano for sheer joy. When given the opportunity to create an oil-on-canvas painting in her seventh grade art class, she painted a piano keyboard.

Learning to make music allows a child to identify himself by his skill: "I am a pianist." This can provide a feeling of achievement that can become a catalyst for achievement in other areas. One of my former students who is now twenty-eight years old had significant intellectual, behavioral, and physical disabilities, including severe vision impairment, high-functioning autism, ADHD, and poor motor skills. He began piano study at age five and progressed slowly over the next eleven years, but his music lessons still provided a huge boost to his self-esteem, especially when he gained the ability to play hymns in church. He has, since graduating from high school, completed a church service mission, won silver and bronze medals at the International Special Olympics competing in both South Korea and Greece, completed a college life-skills program, and is successfully employed. It took a tremendous amount of creativity, patience, research, and flexibility to help him learn to play the piano, but it was a highly rewarding experience. His weekly piano lesson was a bright spot in his frustrating world of managing himself appropriately in a classroom, struggling to learn academic subjects, and understanding how to negotiate social situations successfully.

It is tempting to accept only students who are talented, who pass auditions brilliantly, who are easy to teach, and who will make us look good when they perform. But all children are born deserving and desiring music. As piano teachers, we are uniquely equipped to offer children with challenges the one "truly democratic opportunity that unlocks the potential of every child who engages in it."15 And what could be more rewarding than that?

L. Henriksson-Macaulay. (2013). The Music Miracle: The Scientific Secret to Unlocking Your Child's Full Potential. Earnest House, ch. 2.
2 G. Schlaug, et al. (2014 Dec. 6). "Using Music Making to Facilitate Improvement in Language and Communication Skills in Autistic Children."
3 A. Norton, et al. (2005). "Are there pre-existing neural, cognitive, or motoric markers for musical ability?" Brain and Cognition 59, 124-134.
4 Music and the Brain. (2014). The 42nd Street Development Corp.
5 Henriksson-Macaulay, ch. 3.
6 J. Lipman. (2014 Oct. 10). "A Musical Fix for American Schools." The Wall Street Journal.
7 Henriksson-Macaulay, ch. 3.
8 Henriksson-Macaulay, ch. 14.
9 Henriksson-Macaulay, ch. 3.
10 Ibid.
11 Lipman.
12 Henriksson-Macaulay, ch. 2.
13 L. Callaway (2014 Mar/Apr). "The Twenty-Five Year Interlude: An Amateur Returns to the Piano. Clavier Companion 6(2), 55-56.
14 Henriksson-Macaulay, ch. 7.
15 Henriksson-Macaulay, ch. 4.

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Piano Magazine is the leading resource for pianists, piano teachers, and piano enthusiasts. We bring you informative, interesting, and inspiring ideas on all aspects of piano teaching, learning, and performing. The official name of Clavier Companion magazine was changed to Piano Magazine in 2019.

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