Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Special - build on what you know

Many years ago I attended a week-long piano master class at the Peabody Conservatory of Music. One of the presenters was Tinka Knopf, who was leading the Preparatory Program at Peabody and  becoming increasingly interested in working with special needs learners.  She told the story of helping design a prosthetic left hand for one of her students. She didn't know anything about constructing prosthetics, but she knew a lot about what a left hand does in piano literature. When the engineer asked her how wide the hand would need to open, she simply opened her left hand on his desk to the span of octave. When he later double-checked this distance on an actual piano, he discovered that she was 100 percent accurate. She was literally helping him build on what she knew.

As I stated in the first of the Special posts, I'm not an expert on special education, but I can build on what I know. As both an Alexander Technique Teacher and a piano teacher, I have worked with students with a variety of challenges. Here they are, in alphabetical order:  allergies, arthritis, asthma, Asperger's syndrome, attention deficit disorder, auditory processing challenges, Bell's palsy, blindness, broken bones, congenital eye muscle problems requiring surgeries, cystic fibrosis, epilepsy, fibromyalgia with lesions, focal dystonia, Irlen syndrome, leukemia, loss of fingers, Lyme's disease, Meniere's disease, muscular/skeletal injuries, obsessive compulsive disorder, Parkinson's disease,  profound hearing impairment, scoliosis, sliced tendons, symbol recognition challenges, and tendinitis.  Time to hang out my medical shingle, right?

Some of these students were in my studio for a very short time or were students that came to workshops where I was teaching. Some of them were in my studio for extended periods of time. I think in particular of Amy, a bright and talented young woman with cystic fibrosis who played piano and flute well. When she came for a lesson I never thought, "here comes cystic fibrosis," but "here comes Amy, that delightful student." She rarely missed a lesson, and I loved working with her all through her public school career. I did not love sitting in the pew at her funeral, a potential piece of working with students dealing with serious health conditions.

Some of these conditions, dire as they may sound, did not require any adaptations out of the normal. Amy would occasionally cough due to the build up in her lungs, but I knew that it wasn't contagious. She also had slightly clubbed fingertips, but that did not stop her from moving her fingers well. Even though she had a life-threatening illness, she functioned extremely well in her lessons and practice.

Students with symbol recognition challenges are more than likely to live a full, healthy life, but they require accommodations for score reading and hand-eye coordination development. This is the sort of thing you will recognize rather quickly, even if you have no idea what axons and dendrites and neurons and grey matter actually are. Have courage! You will build on that discovery in the best way you know how.

If you are a public school teacher, you will have access to private records about your students that will reveal challenges. Legally you are required to make accommodations for identified students. A private teacher does not have that access, and some parents will not tell you that their children have been identified in the hope that music lessons will somehow be easier than other learning situations. If you are noticing learning patterns that are not close to normal, you may need to go the parent and get more information to make proper adaptations. Or you may decide that you don't have the skills and/or tools to work with that student, which is also fair to all.

The best way to guide your decisions is to place the well-being of the student first. Decide what goals are appropriate and what tools and common sense you can access to reach those goals. Build on what you know as well as what you are willing to learn.

The next part of this series of blogs will be devoted to some of the common challenges you may find in your students and some basic suggestions for each of these. Keep in mind that flexibility is key.

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