If you have never heard Steven Blier perform live, please put this experience on your bucket list. Steven Blier is a co-founder of the New York Festival of Song and coaches singers at the Juilliard School. He collaborates and records with top artists. (http://www.juilliard.edu/journal/portraits/faculty/archive/2011-12/1112.php) His knowledge of songs is bested only by his joyous ability to play them. He gets on stage by riding a mobility scooter to the piano, at which time he gets to the bench with a little assistance. From that point on, you will completely forget that he has a debilitating muscular disease.
Because he learned to play well early in life, he has strong neuromuscular connections already in place. He continues to perform in order to keep these connections strong, and because he loves performing, but he does need some help getting around. Would you want him in your studio?
A student with mobility challenges is going to require a level of access that you may or may not have at present. My studio does not have a ramp, for example, so I would need to build one and make other changes to the entryway. I would probably need to clear some pieces of furniture out of the way, and I don’t have a bathroom with handicap access. This may be a student I would choose to teach at his home rather than in my studio, or I may able to search out a grant for equal access modifications.
However, if I were introduced to a student with muscular control problems who had no past history of pianistic development, I would have to think about the probability of his being able to achieve much as a pianist. In that case, I would weigh both the architectural mobility issues and the determination of appropriate goals.
As you can see, when deciding how best to work with a potential student, it is necessary to understand what your instrument requires and the physical set-up of your studio. I once had a Vietnam veteran in my university piano class. He was a solid percussionist, despite having lost several fingers in an explosion. Could he play the piano? Yes. Did he require modifications to his piano assignments? Definitely. But he could be very successful as a percussionist even with a few missing digits. He also didn’t require any changes to the physical set-up of the piano lab or the percussion room, unlike a student who requires mobility assistance.
Here are examples of some of the types of challenges a student may present:
• Medical: disease, congenital impairment, catastrophic injury
• Social/emotional: interaction problems, behavioral problems, unsupportive family or personal environment, inappropriate response to learning or performing situations
• Processing and perception: limited ability to process sensory input effectively, attention disorders, color blindness, auditory processing disorders
• Cognitive impairment: learning disability (Dyslexia is usually considered a learning disability, although people with dyslexia may be very “intelligent” in the traditional sense, think Warren Buffet), brain disorders, low IQ
• Communication: speech impediments, stuttering, hearing impairment that affects speech and ability to follow directions, low verbal and syntactic skills due to motor limitations or other neurological impairment
Be aware that some students will demonstrate more than one challenge. Also, be aware that the student’s personal motivation is key to success. Reading all you can read about autism won’t necessarily result in your autistic student wanting to learn what you want to teach him or her. For some special needs students, music is the best part of their lives, but not for all.
In the next blog, I will present some ideas about working with students with autism. Stay tuned.
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