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8 minutes reading time (1673 words)

Teaching Repertoire to Special Learners: Practical Solutions

Choosing repertoire for our students is often a matter of subjectivity. A desired scenario is one in which a student and teacher both agree on the pieces and the occasion for which they are to be learned. In the case of a traditional neuro-typical student, selection of lesson repertoire typically is guided by musical depth and attractiveness and the teacher's knowledge and application of an appropriate educational curriculum.

For the special learner, other considerations are part of the repertoire decision. What is the special need? Are there developmental delays? Are there fine motor skill deficits? Does the piece lend itself well to stepby-step breakdown in instruction? Does the student express some form of acquiescence or resistance to the piece? Do the pictures on the page trigger an adverse response? Does the student fear the learning of new music? Did the student previously struggle with a piece and present resistance to learning new pieces by the same composer? If a piece has more than one page, will the student feel overwhelmed? 

Special learners may focus well on lists, schedules, and routines. Repertoire selection may be prioritized by a desire to learn the pieces in the exact order they appear in the book. Pattern-oriented pieces that lend themselves well to step-by-step instruction, learning, and task analysis are excellent choices. This does not mean that a special learner is not engaged by aurally attractive music. If given a choice between two new pieces to learn, these students may need to be taught what a choice is and how to choose between the pieces.

Taking these factors into account when combining repertoire choices with adaptive pedagogy is key to success in the process. 

The selection process is only the beginning of the learning adventure. Fitting that adventure into a routine or learning schedule is paramount to the student feeling comfortable with the process, opening up to the learning experience, and adopting learning, practice, and performance routines. To begin the process, both partners in the experience need to start with their feet in the blocks and need to run in partnership to achieve their goals. 

When approaching new repertoire, ask the student's permission to begin a new piece – "Can we start a new piece today?" or, "Could we try an experiment today?" If the student says yes, especially the student with autism, they are inviting you into their world and are seeking communication and interaction. Behavioral outbursts and avoidance tactics will be minimized. Another strategy is to start mentioning to a student, when a piece is almost polished, that in two weeks, for example, we will pick a new piece to learn. 

If presenting the student with a choice, be aware that a special learner may need to learn what a choice is and how to make a choice between pieces. It may be necessary to abstain from presenting the student with a choice. If they are able to express a choice, be sure that they are truly making a choice and not just responding to the first stimuli presented to them. Several tries and requests may need to be made before the student is able to process the situation and truly express a desire to learn one piece over another. As you work with the student, it will become very obvious which approach is best to use. Parents can also be consulted in the process of how to pick a new piece.

The learning process most often needs to have focus on a step-by-step learning routine and detailed breakdown of concepts. Literal vocabulary is necessary, and metaphors and analogies are often counterproductive. One over-arching lesson routine that is useful to incorporate into all lessons is the "Five-Step Plan." By having a routine and process to follow when learning pieces, special learners can realize that their innate capacity for routines and step-by-step capacity may be applied to multiple learning situations. They begin to learn how to be more self-sufficient, and they learn a process by which to achieve confidence and success.

The "Five-Step Plan" for the student is as follows:

Notes: Students achieve success in identifying and finding correct notes by using a process of music reading where the dots on the page indicate which key is to be played. "See that, play this." While it may seem that deeper musical understanding cannot be achieved without incorporating theoretical concepts, the student is still being involved in an aural culture where they will hear various patterns and harmonies (and other musical constructs) and equate them immediately with the keys needed to reproduce those sounds on the keyboard. The lack of ability to identify and label a chord progression or note pattern does not mean that a student does not aurally hear and understand the pattern in context, or that she cannot apply that knowledge in another piece. In the case of developmental delays, students may need to have many or all of the finger numbers written in the music to help them track within their process. This is perfectly fine as long as they first prove that they can identify which piano key is needed to produce the sound indicated in the printed music.

Fingering: Students next need to decide which finger to use to play the key on the piano. A non-verbal student can still be asked to hold up or show which finger is needed. Again, in the case of developmental delays, students may need to have many or all of the finger numbers written in the music to aid in tracking and with coordination between their visual identification and fine motor skill coordination. This is perfectly fine as long as they first prove that they can identify which finger is needed. 

Counting: In the case of counting, a student with developmental delays may not be able to count, may not be verbal, may be confused by finger numbers and counting numbers, or may not be able to work with a multi-layered approach of doing several intellectual tasks at one time. A process of counting using "directive words" may often lead to success. Instead of counting "1, 2, 3, 4" or "1, 1, 1-2" for a quarter, quarter, half-note pattern, try using directive counting words that tell the student what to do with their body to achieve the result: in this case "play, play, play-hold" or whatever words work for the particular student. Some students may come into your studio knowing a counting system from music class. For example, the Kodály systems using ta and ti-ti. Start with what is most comfortable and familiar with the student to build trust in the process. 

Small Bits: Many special learners need to work with small tasks or bits of information that may be chained together into the whole. The definition of a small bit is usually defined by the student's needs. A small bit may be two measures, one measure, half of a measure, or whatever may be indicated by the note pattern. Our students are very adept at telling or showing us how much they can handle and are usually very honest and accurate in their assessments. 

Five-Time Rule: Using this procedure, students must play the small bit perfectly during five consecutive trials. If they make an error at any point, they have to start the process again until they achieve five perfect trials of the small bit. While neuro-typical students may find this process boring or frustrating, special learners enjoy the repetition and work very hard to achieve success. 

Through this process, repertoire pieces may be broken down into small, manageable segments, students learn a process by which they may achieve success, and their learning process also becomes their practice process.

Regarding practicing, special learners do well with a scheduled practice time and set amount of time during each day of the week. They are generally very responsible about doing their tasks. Of course, they are human and may need a break now and then, a day off to relax and recharge, or time to work on other activities. 

When giving teacher workshops, we always tell attendees that, when it comes to adaptive pedagogy, "whatever works, works." Whatever that student needs to achieve a positive and successful result in the lesson is a victory, and each and every victory should be celebrated. 

Many ideas in adaptive pedagogy and for instructing special learners in the repertoire learning process are available in earlier issues of Clavier Companion and in the Inclusive Teaching Blog.

Additional Resources:

Adamek, Mary and Alice Ann Darrow. Music in Special Education, Third Edition. Maryland: The American Music Therapy Association, Inc., 2018.

Bauer, Beth. "Teaching Reading Part III: Tools for Teaching Reading." Inclusive Teaching Blog (2017). http://keyboardpedagogy.org/blogs/inclusive-pianoteaching-blog. 

Bauer, Beth. "Ten Characteristics for Teaching Students with Special Needs." Clavier Companion. July/August. (2010). 

Martiros, Melissa. "Teaching Reading, Part I." Inclusive Teaching Blog (2017). https://claviercompanion.com/ article-details/teaching-reading-part-i. 

Price, Scott. "All in a Day's Routine: Piano Teaching and Autism." Clavier Companion. July/ August (2010): 10–16. Price, Scott. "Finger Numbers (Not Finger Knots!)." Inclusive Teaching Blog (2018). https://www.claviercompanion.com/ article-details/finger-numbers-notfinger-knots. 

Price, Scott. "Repertoire Choices for Students with Autism." (2018). https:// www.alfred.com/blog/repertoirechoices-students-autism. 

Price, Scott. "Teaching Reading, Part II: Framing Instruction." Inclusive Teaching Blog (2017). https://claviercompanion.com/ article-details/teaching-reading-part-ii-framing.

Price, Scott. "Vocabulary Effectiveness for Students with Special Needs." Inclusive Teaching Blog (2017). https://claviercompanion.com/article-details/vocabularyeffectiveness-for-students-with-special-needs.

Webinars on Teaching Special Learners: 

Price, Scott. "Autism and Piano Study: A Basic Teaching Vocabulary." (2018). https:// claviercompanion.com/article-details/autism-andpiano-study-a-basic-teaching-vocabulary

Dr. Beth A. Bauer received her doctorate of music education from Indiana University. Currently, she is academic advisor and instructor for the pedagogy program at the Wheaton College Conservatory where she also teaches Music to Special Learners. Dr. Bauer is creator of Beethoven's Buddies, a music program for children with developmental delays at the Community School of the Arts, Wheaton College.

Scott Price is Professor of Piano and Piano Pedagogy at the University of South Carolina. He is nationally recognized for his work with special learners, and developed and teaches a graduate-level piano pedagogy course in the pedagogy of improvisation. He is President of the Board of Trustees of The Frances Clark Center for Keyboard Pedagogy.

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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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