More than a lesson: Piano study and students with special needs
Students with special needs face unique challenges every day, and those challenges may become pronounced in the intense interpersonal environment of the piano lesson. Many of these students face challenges in learning and processing social behaviors and expressing themselves in forms of social communication. These students often require a learning process that is different from that used by students without special needs.
We take many of these social and communication skills for granted, typically assuming that our students know them before they enter the piano studio for a lesson. In reality, these social and communication skills are difficult for students with special needs to learn and master. Piano lessons for average typical students are about enjoying music and about the performance experience. For the student with special needs, the lesson is also about having a chance to be a real person free from their special need, free from bullying, and free from being ignored because people think they are not able and capable of excellence. The lesson is a place where they can learn and put into practice many things.
The beginning of a lesson allows time for a short chat with the student. This little bit of time allows the student to acclimate to the surroundings, decompress from any oversensitivity to sights, sounds, and/or smells from the outside, and establish a safe space. It also gives students time to regain and retain mental and emotional focus. The various subjects of the chat—such as "How are you today?"; "What did you do today?"; "How was your week?"; etc.—provide opportunities for the student to learn how to listen, respond, and practice other forms of social politeness. The students learn how to form appropriate sentences, make eye contact, and respond with their own questions for the teacher. They also learn the social behaviors that signify the end of conversation and the beginning of work, and when one form of behavior is or is not appropriate.
Some students with special needs may have speech delays, hearing impairments that interfere with speech processing or speech production, or a special need that prevents them from verbal expression. In the case of speech delays, the chat at the beginning of the lesson (and short chats throughout the lesson) provides the student with time to practice speaking words that are important to the student and crucial for the learning process and social interaction in music settings. For students with hearing impairments, an important function of the speech interaction is to establish a pacing of the lesson that includes time for lip reading, signing, or face-to-face verbal instruction that is unencumbered by simultaneously modeled keyboard sound.
Students with special needs often have a need for sameness and routine in their daily schedule and in the learning process. Learning new concepts and skills requires step-by-step detail in the explanation and execution of the new material. This type of specific detail is very different from the traditional form of instruction, but it allows students to feel connected to the material and the learning process—ultimately helping them to gain some level of self-sufficiency in their learning and practice. A fair question to ask is whether the step-by-step and overly detailed routine is feeding into the student's need for it, or if it is a productive teaching model. My answer is that the minds of students with special needs are "wired" for this type of learning and thinking. By using that "need" for step-by-step details and specific routines, we are using their natural "gift" to show them how to learn and how to apply what they experience in their piano lessons to other subjects and situations outside of their lessons.
Keyboard performance is a joyous experience, but it can also produce much anxiety for a performer with special needs. The piano lesson includes time for instruction in the social behaviors necessary for successful performance. This may include sitting without making distracting movements, not talking out loud, waiting for one's turn, learning how to walk on stage, the process of performing pieces (often with duet accompaniment), how to bow, and how to get back to one's seat. Before a performance, students with special needs should be allowed extra time to explore the performance space, to see where they will be sitting, and to learn the program order.
The effect of a performance on a student's family was one facet of teaching that I had not fully considered when involved in the day-to-day (and sometimes moment-to-moment) instructional process of working with students with special needs. Many families face daily situations where their child may not be successful. Watching their child navigate the complexities of a public performance, play beautifully, and take a bow is worth more than gold to these families. Seeing the pride, excitement, and even tears on the faces of parents and family members helps to remind me that the recital experience is about much more than music. It is about victory over a special need, and the fact that a child with special needs can successfully do something that any child could do. In that moment, there is no special need, and the student is no different than any other.
Your Own Education
In many situations, the students with special needs and their families become the teachers, and the teacher becomes the student. The students show us their world and how they need to interact with ours. If we watch and listen carefully, the students can show us much about how their detailed lives work and how we need to respond in the lesson. The parents know their children's needs and can share a wealth of information about what works and does not work in daily life, and what may be used or adapted for the piano lesson.
For students with special needs, the piano lesson is a wonderful opportunity to experience not only the joy of music making, but also to learn how to successfully navigate more of what life has to offer. It is a way for these students to take their place alongside their peers in an activity that recognizes no boundaries.