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.

special needs

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.


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.


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


  1. Rhoda

    Thank you for posting this! I am teaching a student with learning delays, and it is very encouraging to hear what you said about progress. That’s something I keep need to reminding myself!

  2. Marion Paterson

    Sally – thank you so much for this. My granddaughter has difficult to control epilepsy. However the ketogenic diet has been a miracle reducing seizures from 60 per day to none. She is now classed as special needs but she has her favourite place when she comes to visit – my clavanova! At the moment she’s not as drawn to the other two acoustic pianos but I’m working on it. I put a post up in the lounge a while ago but no replies. Maybe this kind of special needs is not really thought of as a possibility for teaching piano. She comes up to sit beside me at the piano and I do get response from her. She is only two but I am already thinking & planning how to teach her. So this is a very timely blog for me.

  3. Ann

    I have taught several children with varying degrees of additional needs. I’ve taught children with visual and hearing impairment, autism, adhd, disylexia and dispraxia.
    I’ve had supportive parents and parents in denial! I spent weeks with one child with obvious dispraxia just helping him sit on the stool.
    Thinking ‘outside the box’ of conventional teaching is key. Getting to know the Pupil as you described is also vital so lessons are tailored to fit like a glove.
    It’s the most rewarding and demanding part of my job but I wouldn’t change it for the world.
    I’m also a mum of a 14 year old autistic daughter who plays her cello and feels ‘cursed’ to have perfect pitch!! And I make sure I keep her cello teacher up to date with relevant information. She’s been wonderfully supportive, nurturing and understanding with her.

    1. Sally

      Thank you for sharing your experience Ann – I agree that it is both rewarding and demanding and such a privilige.

  4. Madge Woollard

    I really want to learn how to help my special needs students more. At present I have 2, 7-years-olds who have keyboard lessons with me at school: a girl who had a brain tumour and several months off to have surgery in America, and the other a lad with suspected autism and dyspraxia whose parents refuse to get him diagnosed! These 2 are really struggling, although they are lovely kids and appear to enjoy their lessons. The girl struggles with reading and has sight problems too, so yesterday I colour-coded her music with highlighters. That seemed to help a little. The boy has co-ordination issues and great difficulty with his hand position. Thanks!

    1. Sally

      Madge, we’ll be publishing a list of useful websites and organisations this week on the blog so keep a look out.

  5. Jennifer Farr

    I’ve been teaching a young man with Aspergers for around two years and this has been a really interesting and rewarding (though challenging) experience for me. I knew from the start that I would have to assess his mood on lesson day carefully, as some days for him are much better than others. I’m a patient teacher anyway, so this has helped. He can get quite upset if he feels that he’s done anything wrong and even the smallest mistake in his theory work makes him feel that he’s failed, so it’s important that I use lots of encouragement. His progress has been good, although practising at home doesn’t seem to appeal to him much! He did a theory exam last year (Grade 2), which was a really big step for him, and he did brilliantly (95 marks), but he still talks about how there were lots of ‘young kids’ taking the exams and I think that mad him feel discouraged. He is able to play several pieces very well and we need to go back to those when he is having a difficult lesson. One really nice thing is that his mum sits in on every lesson and she is so proud of him.

  6. Judith Bogod

    I am not a teacher. I am now a senior but I have had small neural deficits all my life, e.g. I am slow to process new concepts and it takes me much longer to absorb mentally and physically complex things. I had a memory problem in childhood spending more time in the school hallways than in the classroom, relegated there to re-learn the week’s poem for in-class recital. I have poor fine and gross motor skills so team play or ball play is ungainly and slow. I also have poor math skills. At eleven, I sat my level 1 piano examination. The examiner came to the teacher’s house, sat at the corner of the piano next to me. It was obviously snack time and my teacher brought him in a coffee and cake which he munched as I played. His comment through the side of this mouth “Is there anything wrong with your thumb?” has lived with me to this day such is the power of words! In my dotage, I am taking piano lessons and have passed Royal Conservatory of Music examinations, Level 2 to 4, with Level 5 in June this year. As a special needs student, I have got exemption from playing the repertoire and etudes from memory. Cadences and inversions are big problem for me as they involve structuring at speed. About ten years ago, I telephoned the Royal Conservatory in Toronto to ask the Dean of the time is there any training for teachers for students with learning disabilities which is, essentially, what I have and was told ‘”no”. I want to make clear those with ‘learning disabilities’ have IQ’s that are average to even gifted. Many countries confuse ‘learning difficulties’ with ‘developmentally delayed’ where the IQ is below 70. I do not think many music students with ‘learning disabilities’ get to learn music because of these difficulties. Most have math difficulty; math and music go together. Just a few comments from a special needs student.

    1. Sally

      Thank you so much for leaving these comments Judith. It is so lovely to hear that you are continuing your musical journey as a senior and getting a lot from it by the sounds of it. I agree that there are some misperceptios as to the wide range that special needs covers. We’ll be publishing more on the subject next week.

  7. Trish Glover

    I have and still do, teach pupils with various special needs. It’s so nice to know that there are other teachers out there who can share which music they use . I have one pupil, who I have been teaching for some time, and she is now confident enough that she wants to do her Grade 5 Theory exam. That in itself is proving challenging. However, the fact that she feels she wants to do it, with all the social aspects that it involves is a huge step forward for her. I’m so glad to be a part of it.

  8. Sandy Holland at E-MusicMaestro

    Teaching special needs students can certainly be rewarding in unexpected ways. I once taught a lovely teenage girl who achieved a pre-grade 1 standard after about a year and remained at that level. L was a gentle, cheerful girl and I’m very patient, and our lessons were happy occasions for both of us. I wondered whether L’s parents were satisfied with the progress made until mum told me one day that L loved the one-to-one relationship with me as her teacher, enjoyed playing at home and felt a real sense of belonging and of doing something that some of her friends did.

  9. Chris Blake

    Lovely to hear your experience and looking forward to hearing more. As a music teacher specialising in special needs I’m so aware that many of us are isolated, need to invent our own resources and have little support. So great to have your expert advice!

    1. Sally

      Thanks for your comments Chris. I agree we are often quite isolated but it’s good to support each other through the internet isn’t it?

    1. Sally

      Thanks Sally. I’m certainly intending on telling everyone about the great work you do at the British Dyslexia Association next week when we will be publishing a list of useful sites and resources.


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