Have you ever been approach by a parent about teaching a child or young person with special needs?
One of the joys of my teaching week is the time I spend working with my special needs pupil. Let’s call her Sam.
The first time she ever came to a lesson was memorable for the fact that she wouldn’t be tempted to sit at the piano let alone play it!
Instead she sat on a chair and insisted that she wanted ‘to go home now Mummy’. It was a bit of an unpromising start. However she came back the following week, went straight to the piano and was happy to play me one or two of her favourite tunes.
Sam is a teenager at a special needs school. Her parents approached me about teaching her as she was going to the piano and picking out the melodies that her younger sister was learning. The thought was that she would enjoy and benefit from a more structured approach.
She is able to read and write, although think KS1 rather than teenager. Her physical movements are quite large and uncontrolled on the whole which as you can imagine make some of the finer points of playing the piano quite challenging!
Sam could indeed play a number of tunes, all with one or two fingers! Jingle Bells was a particular favourite. I quickly discovered that she has an amazing ability to pick out a melody; I just have to play something once and she usually gets it 98% first try.
Piano Safari seemed to be the perfect match for her with its appealing of combination of technique, musical rote pieces and systematic introduction of notation. I also introduced some songs that were unknown to her, for example, Autumn Leaves.
Like many special needs pupils Sam likes routine. I quickly established one which involved starting with a warm up such as Lion’s Paw or Zechariah Zebra followed by a piece and or a song. She loved saying ‘1 2 off we go’ before every single piece and would remind me if I ever forgot it! In fact she still does.
The first focus was Sam remembering to ‘sit like a pianist’ and after a few weeks this began to become the norm. The second area to be worked on was using more than 2 fingers. Looking back at my notes of these lessons I have written ‘She plays with random fingers. Everything is very loud and she doesn’t know her own strength’. I’ll leave you to imagine the resulting sound.
Luckily Sam likes repetition so there were many, many opportunities to work on producing a better tone and using different fingers. For example Zechariah Zebra was the start of lessons for several months and by March last year I commented ‘brilliant fingers’ in my notes.
GETTING TO KNOW SAM
As I got to know Sam I found out about her likes and dislikes. I discovered she loves songs that I was able to personalise to her. Recently we were singing and playing Love Somebody and I changed the last line to ‘Sam’s the one that I love best’. Hearing her name sung just makes her giggle and giggle.
Sam can have her off days. Although she’s never refused to sit at the piano again there have certainly been times when engaging her in anything has been very hard work.
She’s also very happy for me to do the work for her if she can possible get away with it. ‘Don’t know’ is just about Sam’s favourite thing to say although I believe from Mum that this isn’t just limited to the piano. Usually I like to ask pupils lots of questions in the lesson but with Sam these can fall on stony ground with ‘don’t know’ as my response. I haven’t worked out a full solution to this – yet.
It’s been interesting to consider the idea of progress with Sam. Making progress in the usual sense with piano pupils just doesn’t seem to apply. Yes, her fingering is better than it was and she is able to play more gently when encouraged to do so but these small achievements have taken over 18 months.
Instead I prefer to think about us moving forward together, taking our time and enjoying every step of the way. And I have to say what a real treat that is in this life that is so full of pressure and progress.
EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED
I have learnt so much through teaching Sam and the rewards of teaching any special needs pupils are indeed rich. I have learnt to expect the unexpected, that everything takes lots of time and that’s just fine. I have also had to practise what I preach and be persistent and consistent.
So if you’ve ever considered teaching a special needs pupil or been asked to teach one do drop by the blog next week. I will be having a look at some of the websites and resources that are available.
This blog post was written by Dr Sally Cathcart Co-Founder & Director of The Curious Piano Teachers