Parents love to dream about their child learning to play the piano. However, private piano lessons are often regarded as a recreational activity. New-age research now focuses on the value of the training, and how the discipline of the study carries over into teaching functional life skills and academic excellence. Clinicians who apply this methodology do not train their students to become a Mozart-playing concert pianist. Music is not the goal; training in the discipline is.
Music educators (piano teachers) are not trained to work with students who have diverse learning needs outside of the age-old classical tradition; and music therapists do not teach an instrument. As a result, autistic students often do not have the opportunity for their musical gifts to be realized. In many schools, a student with an IEP, enrolled in an ensemble, will be put in the corner to play the triangle. Yet, these individuals are often the most musically talented in the room.
Autistic people benefit from the neural differences in their auditory perception. This type of detail-oriented information processing lends itself to preeminence for fine arts (music) over whole-words (language), often resulting in the phenomenon of perfect pitch, and synaesthesia. With non-verbal students, methods for teaching to their gift must be applied to enhance their educability in all areas of life. This way, the gift allows them to blaze through their journey towards impressive achievements in music, reading comprehension, mathematics and social behavior.
Molly is one such success story. Molly came to me for lessons when everything else in life was falling apart. Molly was being bullied in school by her classmates. At home, she was struggling with her parents’ recent divorce. Alternating visitations is very challenging for people with learning disabilities, who thrive on routine. Molly began acting out in school, and was facing the consequences of failing grades. By the third week of her lessons, Molly was a changed person. Her newly discovered skillsets helped her immensely with her confidence. Empowered by recognition of her creativity, she was able to deal with the bullying.
When quality music is easily created by the perfect-pitch student in the session, the intrigue of the multisensory experience from tactile playing and auditory perceptions combined becomes the motivator for plowing through the lesson. Goals for teaching should be attendance, eye-tracking, fine and gross motor skills, executive function and motor planning, to name a few. This specific method affords the individual the gift of demonstrating their intellect to family, friends and teachers. A school district can easily recognize such competence as indicative of a higher level of sophistication. Then, the educational team can use this demonstration of student competence to justify taking steps toward mainstreaming.
Music isn’t what makes us smarter; it is the process of learning it that does. Working on these goals each week through harmony and rhythm stimulates pattern recognition as translated from symbols. These associations of the musical notes opens up the brain to quantitative reasoning abilities, which carry over to every area of life. This is how music can help bring about both dignity for the student with exceptionalities, and a change in social awareness in peer settings for what that student with special gifts can contribute. In the broadest sense, social change can be brought about through equal access and inclusion for arts and education. Acknowledging neurodiversity in music education is a step toward inclusive education for all.
Henny Kupferstein is a prolific composer, with a degree in Interdisciplinary Studies for Music Leadership in Society. She can be contacted via www.hennyk.com.