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Special Needs, Special Gifts: Case Studies

"Carla, you're so enthusiastic about what you do, and you are obviously so happy doing it. Wouldn't it be wonderful if Kendall could take piano lessons from you?" said Mary one morning at our church's coffee hour.

"Why not?" I asked.

Mary gave me one of those have-you-taken-leave-of-your-senses looks. "But, Carla, you know how bad her walking has gotten. And she really can't see anything—only the difference between light and dark now. How could she play?"

"She still has ten fingers that move doesn't she? If she wants to do it, she can. I have taught deaf and emotionally impaired students. I would certainly be willing to try a blind student. Your home is near my office (at that time, in the middle of a recession, I was holding down another job, for the money), and I could use Monday's long lunch hour to teach her at your home."

"Oh, Carla, do you think you could?"

"Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Let's ask Kendall."

With that Sunday morning conversation, I began a two-year association with a truly wonderful young woman who had suffered for sixteen years from the damage caused by brain cancer, and whose years of remission had now ended. She had recently gone blind, had had to discontinue her work in a law firm, and had little to do with her time. Piano became the mainstay of the remainder of her life. My lessons with her became a high point of each week for her and especially for me, more than worth skipping lunch on Mondays!

The turning point

Kendall is but one of a number of students with special needs whom I have taught over the years. She represented a turning point, however, in my teaching: when I began to teach her, I realized that I had found an area that no teachers I knew were addressing, that I felt very comfortable teaching those students, and that my rewards for teaching them were somehow even greater than those I received teaching the students who did not fall into the "special needs" category. I, at this point began actively to seek them as students.

Giving individual piano lessons to a student with physical, mental, or emotional limitation is admittedly a challenge. The students I will describe in this article are not usually ones who are considered for piano lessons. Those who have visual impairment, hearing impairment, gross motor dysfunction, epilepsy, learning limitations, severe attention deficit disorders, personality disorders, developmental challenges, or terminal illnesses are not children or adults one usually thinks of as candidates for instruction in playing the piano. The biggest surprise for me (and often for them) in teaching such students has been that they can play the same music as, and sometimes progress faster than, my students without such limitations. And teaching these students has sharpened my perceptions of what is needed to emphasize with students who are without limitations, students who have comprised the vast majority of my studios over the years, students with the same problems, the same failures, the same successes that you have all encountered in your work as teachers. My students with special needs have had many more difficulties to overcome in order to get through each day, let alone play the piano successfully. And I emphasize the word "successfully" because that is the goal I set for each of my students, those with limitations or those without. I have concluded, from many years of observation and study, that the keys to their success lie in motivation, determination, and self-discipline—qualities I have routinely found in greater measure in students with limitations than in many of those without—qualities you and I wish we could instill into every student.

In my sixty-two years of teaching, I have taught many students with challenges. Because I am married to a retired corporate executive, we changed locations several times over the years, causing some major disruptions in my piano teaching, but sometimes allowing me to change my focus more easily when a new opportunity arose.

Let me tell you about a few of my students and what they have accomplished.

Sonya, emotionally disturbed, developmentally challenged

Sonya was the second of six children, five girls and one boy, in a family of bright, successful, musical people. Sonya was different in every way, and she knew it. All the children were platinum blonds except Sonya, who had dark hair and glasses. All the children were bright and sparkling except Sonya, who was seriously emotionally disturbed. Sonya saw a therapist once each week, but was still found regularly, when it was time to depart for school, hiding crumpled and in tears, behind a door. The first three girls in the family—Marlene, Sonya, and Deborah—all started lessons with me at the same time, at the ages of 12, 10, and 8, respectively. Marlene and Sonya had had some previous piano lessons. I did not know the family before the girls started lessons, but we had a mutual friend. I did know, however, that the mother was the organist in a local church. When I interviewed the family in their home (my usual practice), I was not told, nor did I detect in our brief "audition" (about five minutes for each child), that Sonya was a special needs child. In the first few lessons, it became obvious that Marlene was every parents' delight—an attractive, personable, intelligent young lady, and very musical. Deborah, although younger and just beginning piano lessons, was very quick, and was responding easily and successfully to the new situation. Sonya was another matter. Although she smiled, even if somewhat nervously, she was far more shy than the other two girls, and much less comfortable. When she came for her lessons, it quickly became apparent that Sonya felt far more than typically threatened whenever a new concept was presented. She would retreat completely into a private world where she could not hear or see me. Not wishing to confront the parents without some further information, I called our mutual friend. "Oh, didn't they tell you?" was her immediate response. What we concluded, even before I talked with her parents, was that Sonya's parents had watched her fail in many situations where teachers, or other adults, might have been prejudiced by prior knowledge of Sonya's problems. Although it might not have been a good decision, the parents wanted—just this once—to see if they were setting Sonya up for failure by telling teachers in advance that Sonya was "different."

At this point, I took a deep breath and decided that I would try to fulfill the parents' wishes and teach Sonya in approximately the same way I taught every other student at this level: weekly private lessons, forty-five minutes in duration, and monthly, one-hour repertoire classes (performance and theory classes). I gave Sonya the same assignments as other students who were working at the same level, and I made sure that she understood that the expectations for her were roughly the same as for the other students. It turned out that Sonya was quite musical (not a surprise in that family), and that she was as responsive to genuine praise as any other student. I was perhaps especially careful to see that Sonya's public experiences were successful: I spent a little more time with her than I might have with another student on the piece she would play in the next repertoire class or recital; I asked her in repertoire classes to answer only those questions to which I was certain she knew the answer; I touched her regularly to see that I had her full attention when I was making an important point or asking her a question.

In the two years that I taught Sonya (with my corporate husband, I moved to another city), we made a great deal of progress. She became more talkative and less reticent. She progressed on the piano with far greater speed than she did in her schoolwork, although not any faster than the average diligent piano student. When we did ear training exercises, Sonya excelled: her grades on the ear training tests were among the highest of all of my students even though her grades on other kinds of tests were only barely in the middle of the grade range. My final evaluation of Sonya's progress was that she had progressed at least as well as, and, in some areas better than, the "average" student. Postscript: some ten years later, I ran into Sonya and her family. Sonya, I was saddened to learn, did not continue her music lessons, even though they were the most successful thing in her life at the time. Her school experiences continued to be mediocre or worse. As a young adult, she has been diagnosed, in addition to mental illness, as being developmentally disabled—learning challenged. At least the two years of piano lessons remained a bright spot.

Carol, severely hearing impaired

The next student I want to tell you about is Carol. Carol was another transfer student who was twelve years old when she started lessons with me. Carol was severely hearing impaired: she wore two hearing aids connected to substantial battery packs. She and her younger sister came together for lessons, and for some time one of my biggest problems was keeping Carol focused on musical activities rather than wandering around outside of the studio waiting area and getting into things while Ellen took her lesson. Another problem for me was learning not to shout at the top of my lungs at the student whose lesson was just after Carol's. It was difficult for me to tell just how and how much Carol heard. I could not talk while she played. I had to touch her to get her to stop playing or to look at me so that I could give her instructions or discuss musical concepts with her. Carol was working at early intermediate levels during the time I taught her, and she too was asked to play the same music and do the same assignments as other students working at her level. At this level, I have my students play eight-hand music at two pianos. I did not make any exception for Carol. The only compromise in her case was to make Carol the quartet leader so that the other students would have to follow her. Carol could not hear well enough to be directed or controlled by the sounds of the music coming from other players. My great advantage with Carol was that she had very high expectations of herself, so success pleased her (as it does every student), but did not particularly surprise her. My final evaluation of Carol's work on the piano was that she progressed at least as well as, and in some cases better than, the "average" student.

Kendall, visually impaired

Kendall, the student I mentioned in my opening paragraphs, was twenty-eight years old when she began piano lessons with me. She had had four years of piano as a child, before the onset of brain cancer at age twelve. She had not played the piano since then. After a relatively long period of remission, Kendall's cancer had now returned to the active stage, and she had considerable brain damage from the tumors and from the many operations and therapies. At the point at which she began study with me, she had very poor gross motor coordination, moderately poor small motor coordination (particularly in her left hand, which was extremely awkward and difficult to control), and she was nearly completely visually impaired—she could still distinguish light from dark and certain shapes, if not held more than about three inches from her eyes. She was quite intelligent, although emotionally somewhat childlike and, of course, very dependent.

Kendall was amazed and delighted that I thought she would be able to return to playing the piano successfully. Although I used many of the same materials I had always used with students, I did change some materials and methods to teach Kendall. Lessons tended to be at least one hour long, perhaps longer, partly because we spent some time in each lesson discussing her current medical/emotional problems, and partly because we made extensive, but very selective, use of the tape recorder (that now seems so old fashioned, but was the technology of the time) in her lessons. Rather than simply tape the whole lesson, I turned on the tape recorder for only two purposes: when we had agreed upon the instructions for study of a certain piece or exercise, I taped my summary of those instructions together with my playing of the beginning of the piece or exercise, or, in a few cases, the whole selection; the second instance was Kendall's final performance, which was recorded on a separate tape so that she could listen to herself play her entire repertoire as it grew. By not taping the entire lesson, we saved Kendall a tremendous amount of practice time—she had, of course, to listen to the taped instructions before she tackled any of her new assignments, and it was already sufficiently difficult for her to find the correct place on the tape that we certainly needed no extraneous material. Kendall, also, was relatively uncomfortable with the idea of having her responses or my instructions or her first efforts at new material on tape. Kendall was not asked to play in recitals or repertoire classes. I chose her exercises with an eye toward developing her small motor coordination, particularly in her left hand. I used largely a group of warm-up exercises that John O'Brien had developed years ago and made available to teachers in a workshop at Goshen College. I also used pieces that could be taught by rote and by sound, such as the rote pieces from Frances Clark's adult piano course, which are particularly good for experience on the whole keyboard (I did not want to keep Kendall from that experience simply because she couldn't see the keyboard—we did a great many of what Frances Clark called "blind flying" exercises). I used pieces which are descriptions in sound: Jon George's A Day in the Jungle and A Day in the Forest and pieces which use both hands equally, often in parallel intervals (octaves in the Diabelli Melodische Ubungsstucke duets, sixths in Tansman's "Running Along").

Because of the enormity of Kendall's difficulties, she practiced two to three hours per day to accomplish what would have taken a sighted and coordinated student about thirty minutes per day. Her progress was remarkable. Her small motor coordination improved dramatically in just a few weeks, and her playing was largely indistinguishable from that of an average student—often it was better than average. Sadly, Kendall died after two years of lessons.

Monica, with grand mal epilepsy

Monica has grand mal epilepsy. She is learning challenged and suffers incremental brain damage with each seizure. Although the seizures were, at that time, supposedly controlled with medication, the dosage of such medications during the early teen years was extremely difficult to regulate successfully. Monica studied with me for three years after a few lessons with another teacher. After testing her, I started her in Music Tree B (now Music Tree 2A) using Music Tree A (now Music Tree 1) as a review. Monica knew a great deal about learning disabilities, and about the treatment in schools of the learning challenged. She was finding very little success and earning very little praise. She was discouraged, and her self-image was poor. Monica, however, was a very self-disciplined child.

I started our lessons together by telling her that I knew that she could play the piano successfully (even though her neurologist had told her that she could not do an activity that required different simultaneous movements in each hand). I told her that I would not give her anything to do that I was not sure she could do, and that this was the same instruction plan and the same musical program that I gave to every student working at her level, which was true. I told her that I would tell her when she was doing well, and that I would tell her when she was not doing well. Because she knew that she was learning challenged, Monica followed my instructions to the letter, and she worked very hard to do exactly what I told her to do, exactly the way I told her to do it. If only all of my neuro-typical students would do this, I would have only exceptionally fine pianists for students!

Monica, in three years of piano study (no summers), progressed from beginning levels to the middle of intermediate level 2 in the Frances Clark Library: in other words, she progressed at the same pace as the rest of my students, and faster than some. Monica took the prize for three years for the student with the longest up-to-date repertoire list of any of the students at that level during those years. She had much to be proud of, and I told her so regularly.

Monica had started lessons in August before she entered seventh grade. After roughly three months of lessons, Monica's teachers in school began asking Monica's mother why her performance in school was so completely changed from the previous several years. Her mother explained that Monica had a piano teacher who told Monica that she could do things, and do them well, who gave Monica honest praise and honest respect. Monica's neurologist, who treated Monica's epilepsy, was also amazed at the progress Monica had made neurologically—doing coordination tests that she had never before been able to master. Monica's self-confidence soared, her reading improved (although that was already Monica's strong area), her math improved (her weakest area), and, ultimately, Monica was able to be mainstreamed in all of her classes except math, rather than remaining in all special education classes throughout high school.

There were more

Other special needs students included Bob, who had congenital cataracts and could see the music only if it were so close that you hit his nose when turning pages for him if you did not bend the page enough. There was Ruth, an Asperger's student with total body muscle weakness so severe that she could only press the piano keys with two fingers at a time. With a piano foundation, I ultimately taught her to play the ukulele, and she became the pitch quizmaster in repertoire classes, but, with so little strength and coordination, she could play only ukulele chords that involved a single finger at a time. There was Zeke, an ADHD student so easily distracted that we spent a great deal of time walking around the room looking for notes under the sofa to dissipate surplus energy before he could attack each new skill or piece.

Frances Clark: "There is music in every child."

These students, and others with different challenges, have come to me by word of mouth. They have heard about me through my church and from their friends and neighbors. I have succeeded in teaching them, or, rather, they have succeeded in learning to play the piano, for several reasons. They are an unusually well-motivated group of students. I have been patient with them without compromising either my musical standards or my goals for their progress. They know that I have been honest with them: a piece that does not meet the standard within the allotted time does not go on the repertoire list for them, just as it would not go on the repertoire list for any other student. As a group, they are so pleased with their successes that they continue to be successful. With the exception of my terminally ill adult student, all of my special needs students have been required to play in repertoire classes and recitals with the same frequency as my other students.

I want to make it clear that I am not a music therapist; I am a piano teacher. I have no extra training in teaching children with special needs. Although only one of my students with special needs has reached an advanced level of piano performance, all have been successful within the range of their capabilities, and they have often stretched the assumed limits of those capabilities.

I dare say that I have learned as much as I have taught, and I know that I have received at least as much joy as I have given. The secret: tell them they CAN!

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