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by Dr. Beth Bauer

As mentioned in the previous posts on teaching reading, our students come to us with various labels or diagnoses.  However, one student with the label of autism or Down syndrome is just that.  One person with the label.  As piano teachers, we all have training in piano pedagogy.  As teachers of students with disabilities, we also have training and knowledge in special education that directs how we approach learning strategies.  However, the way I teach one student with autism may not be the same way that I teach a second student with autism how to read music. 

The way I approach teaching reading to my students is individualized to each child’s needs.  Many of the strategies I use are built off of strategies used in school when teaching the child how to read text.  In the book Teaching Reading to Children with Down Syndrome, Patricia Oelwein talks about four steps in the learning process for all students.  I have found her processes and steps work well with all students and not just students with Down syndrome.  The first step is input of sensory information through seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, or smelling.  Second is perception of organizing and interpreting the sensory information to give meaning to objects or events.  The third step is the storage of the information.  Finally, there is the output or response of retrieving and using the stored information.  These steps are also relevant and present for students with disabilities; however, they might have difficulty with each of these processes.  This will require us as teachers to provide more repetitions to learn reading.  We also need to be patient as it could take longer for our students to master note reading.

These steps are very influential in the way I approach teaching note reading to students with most disabilities.  For example, input of sensory information is the first exposure to note reading through games or flashcards that are used several weeks before a student ever sees the note in a music score.  Perception of organizing and interpreting the information is done during the weekly home practice.  Games or flashcards are sent home from the lesson to be done at home.  Storage of information occurs during practice and is assessed at the weekly lesson.  Retrieval and using the stored information is when we see the student reading actual music.

In addition to steps in the learning process, Oelwein also discusses stages in the learning process of reading.  These stages are acquisition, practice to fluency, transfer, and generalization.  These stages are also applicable to the music reading process. 

Acquisition refers to a student’s first exposure to the topic.  In the case of music reading,  the student does not know the staff, letters of the music alphabet, lines or spaces, and the symbols of treble or bass clef.  During this stage, I break each of these concepts down.  For example, let’s use the example of the staff.  I show the student a flashcard of the staff, tell him or her this is a music staff, ask the student to match the flashcard of the staff to another flashcard of a staff, and help the student to name it.  This would be repeated for clefs, line notes. and space notes.  This could take several weeks.

Practice to fluency is after a student has been introduced to the word staff.  The student has matched it, selected it, and named it with prompts but now the student needs to practice this during weekly practice to become fluent.  For this stage, I will send home a picture flashcard of a staff as well as a flashcard with the word staff.  The student will practice matching the two flashcards during weekly practice.  I would also include the same style flashcards of clefs, line notes, and space notes.

Transfer is the ability for the student to name staff, clefs, line notes, and space notes in a variety of presentations.  In addition to the flashcard games, I will see if the student can recognize staff, clefs, line notes, and space notes in a score or other music games.

Generalization is when the student can read these symbols in ALL situations.  I love when I receive an email from a student’s parent telling me that the music teacher at school was shocked that a student recognized one of his or her flashcards in music class. 

This approach works in teaching ALL music symbols.  When a student can recognize the symbols of staff, clefs, and lines and spaces confidently, I move on to actual note reading of letters on the lines and spaces.  When teaching letters, I draw the staff and clef in black on the flashcard.  So the student is focusing on the letter on the staff, I delineate the note in color.  There will be a flashcard with the note drawn on the staff and a separate flashcard with only the note letter.  Examples of flashcards can be seen below:

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All students are capable of learning to read music.  It may take longer and your student may become frustrated, but the reward comes the day the student tells you, “I did it!”. 

Oelwein, P. L. (1995).  Teaching Reading to Children with Down Syndrome: A Guide for Parents and Teachers.  Maryland:  Woodbine House Publishing.

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by Dr. Scott Price

Students with disabilities will come to your studio with all sorts of labels – autism, high/low functioning, visual impairment, ADD/ADHD, Down syndrome, etc.

Although they come with labels, the label does not define the person – it informs the pedagogy. The student is a person capable of learning and doing remarkable things. The label helps us form a pedagogy that allows for successful learning. The special need label becomes the doorway to teaching and discovery of a wonderful nature.

When approaching the basics of music reading and building the skill, students may not be ready for abstract concepts or may not find them useful. Basic reading can be achieved by using pedagogy informed by the students’ special needs. The following points may seem over-simplified or even redundant, but I try to never make the mistake of assuming that my student knows these things, or understands everything I say, or will make connections without help. Melissa made some wonderful points and connections in her post, and I will echo some of them here and add my own.

Some things that are important (we will address some of them in more depth in future postings):

Vocabulary – make sure the student knows the words being used in your instruction of reading, and understands what they mean, and the relationship/context.

Key names – Don’t assume a student knows their alphabet letters, or that we use only 7 letters, and that we don’t continue on the keyboard with H, I, J, K, etc.

Flashcards or printed music notes - Be sure the student associates a note on the staff with a key on the piano. This may seem simplistic, but we can never assume the student makes the connection on their own. “When you see this? Play this.”

Hands – Be sure they understand right and left and can identify which hand is the right and the left. Some students may need color coding in the music, or other visual aids, to help them track the hands used for various notes.

Finger numbers – We can’t assume that our students know numbers, or can apply numbers in different contexts. Be sure they can label their finger numbers and do not become confused by the mirror image of the hands (4 and 2 often seem to be the most confused of the numbers).

Note and note value – Once a student can identify the note and find the associated key with the correct finger, then make sure they know how long to hold the key down to make the sound. If confusion occurs between finger numbers and note values, then use directive words like “play, play, play-hold” for a quarter/quarter/half-note pattern, or “C, D, E-hold.” This helps separate concepts and threads of understanding.

Chain of events – Students often need a routine or procedure to follow in reading. Try following an activity list of 1) Note, 2) Key, 3) Finger number, 4) Length of time held, and then chain these together into small and progressively larger bits of music.

This short listing may also be used as a lesson routine to help facilitate reading, and may be used at home as a practice routine.

Other considerations:

For students with vision impairments – see previous IPT blog postings on resources and studio procedures.

Does the student need to write in note names? I allow them to do so, but only after they have correctly identified the note and proved to me that they know it. I have had students write in every note name – not because they don’t know them or can’t remember them, but because they need them to help their eyes track the music and to maintain their attention.

Does the student need to write in finger numbers? Again, I allow them to do so but only after they have correctly identified the finger number and proved to me that they know it. I have also had students write in all of their fingerings for the same reason as they did for their notes.

Does the student need color coding? Color coding notes or finger numbers may be helpful for some students. Consistency is important and colors should remain the same for each student. One of my students experienced synesthesia and learned his scales by having his mother print out lines of scale letter names in the colors he told her they “sounded like.”

Does the student need smaller portions to learn? I often assign small groups of measures, or only two lines, of music to be learned. The students will often tell me very honestly how much they can do. I would rather they worked on a smaller bit of music and learned it well and felt validated, than learn a large amount very poorly and have to experience more weeks of correction. Of course, some students may be able to learn an entire piece, or single pages of music, at a time – we do what each individual student can do.

Does the student need repetition? I am happy to repeat the passage or instruction as many times as needed for the student to absorb what they need to learn. Even if you feel ready to give up, allow one more week – the student always comes through with flying colors.

Does the student need social stories? Descriptive stories about the reading process from outside their own experience can serve them well in observing how someone else learns. They can then apply that story to their own learning.

Does the student need art projects? Students can be wonderfully creative in how they turn their music into instructional designs that help them learn. These art projects can also be a window into how they learn and how they experience their world. Colors, lines, faces and other drawings can help them navigate the concepts.

Does the student need validation or rewards? Tablet or video game time can be a motivator for good behavior or attention during the lesson. Other students need “fidget time” or other stress and anxiety relieving devices. I find one of my best rewards is to talk to them while they learn and continually say “Yes! Correct,” or “You are doing well – that was good,” to alleviate anxiety about the process and help them build confidence.

The key is making sure they understand explicitly what they need to learn, build a routine or schedule for learning, work in manageable bits, and give them a framework for working on their own at home.

The process may unfold with much more rote learning, but will lead to reading as the student learns more and more patterns, and has more practice in the skill. The start may be slow but the momentum builds over time, and we end up learning more about our own teaching from our students. Remember – they are master instructors. We need to watch and listen while they show us the ways they need to learn and be successful.

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by Dr. Melissa Martiros

This blog post will be part one of a three-part series focused on teaching reading to students with special needs. As with all of our posts, we invite you to implement what you find useful, disregard what you do not, and email us with any questions you have along the way.  Please send all questions to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..  (Side note and a shameless NCKP plug: All three of us Inclusive Piano Teaching bloggers will be present at NCKP 2017 and are hoping to see you there!)

The Reading Process

When reflecting on the topic of teaching music reading, I feel it is important to consider everything that goes into the reading process. It is, for all intents and purposes, extremely complex.  Consider the following:

The moment our eyes fall on a passage of text, a complex set of physical, neurological, and cognitive processes is set in motion, enabling us to convert print into meaning: As the eyes track across the page in a smooth, coordinated movement, nerve impulses from each retina simultaneously stimulate an area near the back of the brain that allows us to distinguish the light and dark areas on a page. A region of the brain farther forward converts the letters and words our eyes see into abstract representations of sounds and translates those representations into language. Finally, another part of the brain converts the collection of words in any given sentence into meaningful ideas. 1

I feel relatively certain that the neurological process behind note reading is similar as students are asked to translate individual notes that correspond with different pitches that combine to create musical sentences and meaningful ideas.  This is further complicated by the simultaneous presence of letters, individual rhythms, dynamic markings, time signatures, and tempo indicators along with fingering suggestions and the not-so-intuitive geographical distribution of the keyboard (up=right, down=left, soft=light, loud=hard, three pedals, two feet, and one bench!). 

It’s quite a challenge.

This process of decoding is further complicated by the high levels of focus, retention, and transference required of us as musicians.  Not only are we expected to execute multiple notes per second, but we must also actively block out all sorts of external stimuli while effortlessly applying musical concepts and physical skills that have taken years to build.  This is truly a miraculous process and one we often take for granted.

Now imagine you have a sensory processing issue, or a learning disability, or a neurological delay.  Not only are you actively working to process, decode, and execute, but you are doing so while also having to navigate the challenges that come from the manifestations of your unique needs.  I believe it is critically important for us as teachers to remain cognitive of this perspective as we work with children in our studios, especially when we coach them through the process of learning to read music. As we teach children with special needs, we must also provide unconditional support by meeting them where they are, making adaptations to incorporate their strengths and while responding to their struggles. And we need to do this while strategically implementing a learning sequence that accommodates their needs.

Teaching The Skills

Routines are important to all of us.  I am, by nature, a creature of habit.  I order the same food at restaurants, follow the same sequence as I get ready for work in the mornings, and, for the most part, all of my Mondays look the same (as do my Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, etc.).  This might be boring for some but I, like many of you, find comfort in this process.  I rely on it for security and, without my routine, the likelihood is high that I would be far less productive.  I believe in providing routine to my students as well, especially my students with Autism who may find the concept of time abstract and frightening.  From the very first lesson, I like to provide a tangible schedule that breaks up the lesson into small tasks.  These tasks may include note learning on the keyboard, rhythm activities, finger exercises, note reading on the staff, games, repertoire, and other musical related activities. I use the same schedule each week, but I allow the students to choose the order at the onset of each lesson.

It is in this context that I teach note reading and I do so carefully and sequentially. Flash cards are sacred to me and, for the most part, I find them to be highly effective, particularly when presented as a matching game.  I first use flashcards to teach keyboard geography—each week, we go through the flashcards until I feel confident that the student has memorized the note letters on the keyboard.   I then use a different set of flashcards to teach reading, one note at a time, until the student is not only able to label the note but also able to find it on the piano. This approach is most effective when previously learned skills are reviewed each week and the focus is on building gradually and building well, not necessarily building quickly.

Some other suggestions: I like to use a system of color coding that helps students more easily identify different notes during the beginning stage learning process. The key to color coding is to make sure you color code consistently, otherwise the student will spend more time decoding the inconsistencies of the color coding system.  Lesson books can be challenge for students who have attention or processing issues because they include pictures and colors that often detract from the notes on the page.  By making black and white copies and cutting out the extra “stuff” you can eliminate these challenges.  If you have access to a smart board or wipe board, have the student practice writing notes on the staff.  This can serve as a strong assessment tool, particularly when working with non-verbal students. As a more advanced approach to application, you may consider using theory worksheets or composition exercises. Finally, technology can definitely be your friend.   I recommend incorporating note learning apps, music theory software, and video recordings, both for at home practice support and as pedagogical tools in the lessons.

Transference

It is entirely possible that your students may develop theoretical understanding and note memorization at a far faster pace then they are able to communicate these understandings at the keyboard.  This is because the transfer of learning is not always guaranteed. For most of us, transference is a subconscious process—we master a new behavior, concept, or skill in one context and are able to apply it to other contexts with ease.  Children with special needs may not have the same knack for transference.  This is especially true for students with Autism or Learning Disabilities who may masterfully recite the notes on the Grand Staff one minute and struggle to find Middle C on the piano the next (two entirely different contexts).  As these students master note identification away from the piano, they may continue to struggle to apply this knowledge through sight-reading at the piano. It is important to keep this in mind as you work with these students in your studios.

Reading versus Rote

So, what to do when you have a student who has a well developed and relies on rote learning while resisting reading? My approach would be to build on the student’s strengths while strategically working to improve their weaker areas.  Rote learning can be easier for students who have good ears but who also struggle with visual stimulation and processing.  I think encouraging the student to learn to read is a good idea, but I would do so gradually.  You may wish to have the student verbally label the note letters before the excerpt for him/her.  You may consider encouraging the student to play hands separate, sight reading before providing a demonstration. Sending the student home with practice videos is a good way to support the student as he/she learns at home.  At the end of the day, you want the student to build self-efficacy and learning independence while also accommodating the student’s needs. And you want the learning to remain enjoyable.  It’s a tough balance but I encourage you to find it.

1 http://www.pbs.org/parents/education/learning-disabilities/types/reading/reading-processes/

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by Dr. Melissa Martiros

Registrations are now open for the 2017 National Conference on Keyboard Pedagogy, scheduled for July 26-29 in Lombard, IL (a suburb of Chicago).  This year’s conference will feature many helpful and engaging sessions related to inclusive piano teaching. The conference program may be found on the NCKP website.  We would like to highlight some of these events and encourage all of our readers to attend NCKP 2017!

This year’s Pre-Conference Sessions on Teaching Students with Special Needs will be held on Wednesday, July 26.  Ms. Kaitlin Cooper, instructor for Beethoven’s Buddies at Wheaton College, will kick-off the event with her workshop Integrating Technology in the Piano Studio for Children with Special Needs. During this session, Ms. Cooper will address strategies for integrating technology into lessons in order to increase student engagement and facilitate the development of reading fluency, rhythm reading and performance, ear training, and other skills. Mrs. Michelle Bastien’s session on Preventing and Managing Challenging Behavior in the Piano Studio will be particularly helpful for teachers who struggle with behavior management in their studios.  Mrs. Bastien serves as Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) Coordinator and is highly experienced with Advanced Behavioral Analysis (ABA).  The final session will be led by Dr. Sarah Bauer, a developmental pediatrician at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago and Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at Northwestern University.  Dr. Bauer’s session To Diagnose or Not To Diagnose: What is The Role of The Piano Teacher In This Process will focus on the diagnostic process and the myths and facts behind labels. The Pre-Conference Session will conclude with a panel featuring all speakers along with all three Inclusive Piano Teaching authors. 

Following the Pre-Conference Seminars will be two exciting days of workshops, panels, and presentations! Dr. Beth Bauer, Dr. Scott Price, and Dr. Melissa Martiros of Inclusive Piano Teaching will present a panel on the main conference program entitled Teaching Students with Special Needs--Your Questions Answered.  This interactive panel was well received at the MTNA 2016 conference in San Antonio and we are truly very excited to present it again at NCKP. Our main goal for this session is to be helpful as we provide evidenced-based responses to questions related to studio management, teaching techniques, repertoire, and performance situations. A call for questions will be sent out prior to the event but all teachers are invited to submit email questions to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

In his session Every Student Can! - Inside Autism and the Piano Lesson, Dr. Scott Price will present a live lesson with one of his students. The lesson will be followed by a moderated question and answer period during which the “invisible” and non-traditional pedagogical techniques used in the lesson will be examined, along with discussion about teaching this very talented and deserving population of students. This will be a ground breaking session for NCKP and one you definitely won’t want to miss.

Also Inspiring will be Dr. Derek Kaelii Polishuk’s PedX 7 session Celebrating The Spectrum: A Festival of Music and Life. A first-of-its kind summer piano festival at Michigan State University is providing advanced music students on the autism spectrum a chance to preview life as a collegiate musician by immersing them in a daily schedule that emulates a week in the life of a music major.  Derek Polischuk will discuss the impact of this festival on the lives of these students, their families, and piano teachers. Dr. Polishuk currently serves as Associate Professor of Piano and Director of Piano Pedagogy at Michigan State University.

The NCKP Committee for Special Needs includes Dr. Beth Bauer, Dr. Melissa Martiros, Dr. Scott Price, and Dr. Derek Kaelii Polishuk.  More information on the NCKP 2017 Conference may be found at the conference website.

We look forward to seeing you in Lombard!

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by Dr. Scott Price

Welcome back to the Inclusive Piano Teaching blog. Today’s entry is part two of a discussion on teaching students with visual impairments. I would like talk briefly about some things to think about when bringing a student into the piano studio.  Some of these things may sound redundant, but can have a substantive impact on the educational experience for these students. 

So much of what we do as pianists depends on sight. We use our sight to read the music, find our way around the keyboard, study related music subjects, and various other activities needed to learn to play the piano in a traditional setting. We also use our sight to observe non-verbal communication such as facial expressions and body language, and visual models of piano playing technique. If you think about it, when we remove sight from the teacher/student equation much of our traditional teaching process is removed as well.

Here is a list of things to keep in the teaching toolbox to help facilitate a positive and meaningful experience for the student with a visual impairment.

1) Collect Information: Be informed about the student’s impairment, and any associated needs.  Most parents and caregivers want the best for their children and will be very open and honest about these things. Some of this information may also be found in the Individual Education Plan (IEP) if the parents are willing to share it with you.

2) Communication: Be honest and communicative with the student and parents about the challenges and procedures for teaching. If you are unsure of how to proceed with aspects of the instructional process, ask for help. Our students and their parents are used to navigating their world and can be our best teachers in the process.

3) Surroundings: Give the student a tour of your studio or teaching area so that they may learn and memorize the placement of furniture and objects.  If anything is moved between lessons, be sure to let them know so that they may adjust.

4) Tone and Clarity: Facial expressions and body language are no longer part of the communicative experience in most cases.  Tone of voice and clarity in vocabulary are important keys to success.

5) Explanations: Be sure to explain the learning and teaching process to the students so they know what to expect and how the process will work.

6) Permission: Where the teaching needs to be very tactile (i.e. hand-over-hand), it is nice to ask permission to touch the student and to explain what you are doing and why.  Unexpected physical contact can be startling for a sighted person, so you can imagine what it must be like for someone with a vision impairment.

7) Follow-Up: Always follow-up and ask if the student understands everything or if they need more instruction on a certain task or element of the lesson.  Developing an environment where they are comfortable being totally involved in the instructional process and the outcomes is very important.

8) Practice Instructions: Stay in communication with the parents regarding practice instructions.  Be very clear in written instructions.  It is always useful for a parent to be present to see what occurs in the lesson and what is expected during the practice sessions. Smart phones and tablets can be very useful in recording segments of the lesson so parents can reference them at home. Additionally, students may use recording devices to assist them in their practice and learning at home.

9) Pacing: Always allow the student enough time to listen, experience and try concepts, absorb and reflect, and to ask as many questions as needed. Sitting back and not saying anything while a student works does not mean you are being a bad teacher. It means you are giving them time to work and understand.

10) Empathy: Perhaps most importantly, see what it is like. Put on a blindfold and take a tour of your studio or working teaching space, experience the environment, and try to go through your technical regimen and repertoire and practice habits.  It will be a very instructive experience.

I always try to remember that some of the best pedagogy teachers are my students. Asking questions of them and observing them in their learning process always makes me a better teacher, and I learn how to serve them better on their musical journey.

Thank you for reading, and we hope to see you back soon. The National Conference on Keyboard Pedagogy will include workshop offerings on teaching students with special needs. The next conference is scheduled for July 26-29, 2017 in Lombard, IL (a suburb of Chicago). Information is available at:

National Conference on Keyboard Pedagogy