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You wish you knew what the problem was. Your student struggles with note reading.
You’re confused, because he seemed to get it last week. Even when he gets it right, you fear that he might be just guessing.
His mother told you he’s autistic.
He tends to "space out" and looks up at the corner of the room instead of at the page.
Sometimes, he stops playing to flap his hands.
Other times, he doesn’t even seem to be trying.
And perhaps most difficult of all - he is nonverbal, so you can’t just ask him what the hard part is.
You really want to help him, but you can’t crack the code. What exactly is the problem?
Does he just not understand the staff? Should you do more flash cards?
You read somewhere that you should try making each note a different color and put corresponding colored stickers on the keys.
Or maybe it’s not a problem of understanding the notes - maybe he has visual processing issues that prevent him from seeing them in the first place? Maybe he understands the notes perfectly well, but he’s not familiar enough with the layout of the keyboard?
He doesn’t even use the correct finger numbers when you ask him to. Maybe he can’t control his body movements enough to play purposefully.
He likes to pick out familiar melodies, though. Maybe you should just have him play what he wants, but only use his pointer fingers.
If you feel overwhelmed by the haphazard, conflicting advice you’ve gotten about teaching students with disabilities, you’re not alone. I used to struggle with the exact same questions. Luckily, a clear, comprehensive path to sight reading for your student with disabilities DOES exist, and I will show you exactly what it is.
Disability Meets Profound Ability:
A Perfect Storm
Teaching students with disabilities can seem a daunting task at first, because such students might interact differently than your neurotypical students do.
The term “disabilities” is a huge blanket term, and even its subcategories like autism and Down syndrome can manifest in dozens of different ways.
For the sake of narrowing our focus, I’ll primarily discuss autism right now. But much of the information to follow is applicable to students with many other diagnoses.
Perfect Pitch: A Hidden Superpower
Since the current prevalence of autism is estimated to be 1 in 54, you’re bound to come across an autistic student at least once in your teacher career.
Many autistic individuals have an affinity for music. In fact, the prevalence of perfect pitch (about 1 in 10,000 in the general population) is significantly higher among the autistic population. Estimates range from half to even all autistic people possessing the gift - it’s hard to know for sure because of the way that perfect pitch is usually tested.
In my personal experience, nearly every one of the 300+ autistic students I’ve worked with had perfect pitch.
Of course, piano lessons have a way of self-selecting for autistic students with perfect pitch. Parents often notice their child is gifted in or drawn to music, and they go looking for a piano teacher.
The profound gift of perfect pitch is often accompanied by deficits in speech and movement. Autistic students may be nonverbal or unreliably verbal, meaning they don’t say what they mean, they echo back what they hear, or they can only say certain words.
They also might have difficulties with gross motor skills (“big” body movements, like climbing or throwing a ball) and/or fine motor skills (“small” movements, like holding a pencil or, of course, playing the piano).
Don’t let appearances fool you, though. Autistic people fall within the range of average intelligence. Just like non-autistic people (“neurotypical” people), there are those who are less intelligent, those who have average intelligence, and those who are very intelligent.
A lack of adaptive skills (what you’d consider daily living skills) is not related to intelligence.
Letting the Gift Shine Through
Many autistic people with speech and motor challenges are highly intelligent individuals whose bodies won’t cooperate with them, or who communicate in a way that you’re not used to.
That is why it’s important to presume competence from the outset.
As teachers, we need to capitalize on our students’ strengths. We need a way of teaching that bridges their gift (perfect pitch, or above-average pitch discrimination) with their challenges (speech and motor skills).
This means we need to teach them in a way that enables them to demonstrate what they know without having to say it.
We need to ensure that visual, motor, and auditory skills are being integrated every step of the way.
We also need to ensure nothing falls through the cracks.
If we don’t, then eventually we’ll hit a roadblock and won’t be able to figure out what the problem is.
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Milestones for Note Reading
If a student has perfect pitch, they will instantly memorize any music they hear, exactly as they heard it. If they have no musical training, they will try to reproduce that music however possible, regardless of technique.
Additionally, an untrained student’s perfect pitch will always overpower visual input. This is why it’s so important NOT to teach a perfect-pitcher by ear if you ever want them to succeed at note reading. We need to immediately begin pairing visual input (letters on the page) with auditory input (the sounds made by the corresponding keys) to achieve true note-reading success.
Perfect pitch is now a springboard for developing technique in the face of severe motor challenges.
Using Perfect Pitch to Jump-start Note Reading
Imagine you’re sitting at the piano with your perfect-pitch student. If you play the note “C” and tell them, “This is C,” you are giving a functional name to a subjective perception. It’s like saving a file on your computer under a name they’ll remember later. They now know what C sounds like.
If you point to the letter “C” on a page and say, “This is what C looks like,” then they will permanently associate that letter with the sound they recognize as “C.” They now know what C looks like.
If you point to their right hand thumb and say, “This is your C finger,” they will understand how to make C materialize. They now know what C feels like.
If you do this with all five fingers on the right hand using the notes CDEFG, the student will realize that each finger has its own unique job. Whenever the student sees a letter on the page, they will hear the sound of the indicated note in their head. They will want to materialize that sound, and they’ll know exactly which finger is the one for the job.
There is no need for finger numbers. In fact, finger numbers are abstract and interfere with the function of each finger. “If the note is D, play it with your D finger.” It doesn’t get any more clear than that.
Why Position-Based Playing is Ideal (For Now)
When grounded in a five-finger position*, students will get the chance to develop fine motor skills in a straightforward, consistent way. They’ll get lots of practice enlisting all five fingers to make predictable sounds.
They’ll also understand aurally the relationships of the first five notes of the major scale. The desire to produce “real” songs (as opposed to 2-3 black key exercises) will overpower their motor deficits and propel them forward, bit by bit.
For now, letters are preferable to note symbols. Like finger numbers, note symbols are too abstract and add the extra step of translating, which can be overwhelming to someone already struggling to make their fingers move.
*I would like to credit Susan Rancer with the idea of presenting position-based pieces in letter format (in her book “Perfect Pitch in the Key of Autism").
Students master one-handed songs in C position and then in G position: first with the right hand and then with the left hand.
Songs are written using letters, with dashes for "holds".
In this milestone, students:
- gain awareness of the whole musical alphabet through CDEFG and then GABCD
- learn to play 5-note songs independently with one hand at a time (with your help and hand support)
- gain a functional understanding of rhythm (without using any note value terminology)
- develop the motor skills to express rhythm.
Rhythm is broken down into the following possibilities, using “G” as an example:
We're keeping it direct and functional. There’s no need to call something a quarter note (or crotchet) if that doesn’t yet mean anything to the student about how it sounds or feels to play.
Students master playing two hands simultaneously using songs in C position and then in G position.
The two-handed songs are designed to improve student’s coordination while using now-familiar positions.
Once they master all of these songs, they have the technical skills to play music well beyond what they will learn to read on the staff at first. This will make the transition to note-reading painless.
The World's Most Painless Introduction to Note Reading
After completing Milestones 1 and 2, your student has mastered songs that are technically quite a lot more advanced than anything they’d learn to play strictly by reading notation at first.
By now, students have developed:
- excellent motor coordination
- the visual skills to play songs by sight
- increased keyboard awareness (where each key is located on the piano, right = forwards in alphabet, left = backwards in alphabet)
- the “logic” of note reading (i.e. RH on top, LH on bottom, read from left to right, beats are grouped into measures).
We know that students have the motor skills, visual skills, concentration skills, and rhythm skills to begin reading notation.
Now we’ll bridge the sounds and finger movements they’ve learned with functional musical symbols.
We’ll do this as simply and directly as possible: using landmark notes.
For now, the student will go back to playing with just the right hand in C position - so easy, right?
Here's the first song in Milestone 3:
All you need to explain is that the sign at the beginning is called a “treble clef”, and it means to play with the right hand (yes, this is an oversimplification, but it’s okay for now).
This black, filled-in note is "G", and the white, empty note is “G hold”.
Your student will fly through this song using the skills and awareness they’ve already developed. It’s just a different way of reading notes for their G finger.
After they complete the G song, explain a little more about the staff.
Count the lines, and point out that the note G is on the second line from the bottom.
From now on, you’ll refer to the landmark note G when helping your student find their way around the treble staff.
Here's the next song in Milestone 3:
Point out the G line again.
Simply point out that the first note in this song is right underneath the G line, so it’s F.
Students will likely apply the rhythmic knowledge from the previous song and understand that “black note = F” and “empty note = F hold”.
The remaining Milestone 3 songs mix and match the notes CDEFG on the treble staff, moving only in stepwise motion. The student will pick up the logic of the staff quite effortlessly using these songs.
The Transition to Method Books
After completing this Milestone (usually in 2 weeks), your student is ready to transition to a position-based method book. I use Alfred’s Basic Piano Library because it mirrors the progression laid out in the milestones: first C position (NOT “middle C position!”), then G position, then expanding to other positions from there.
Note: In the Alfred Level 1A Lesson Book, skip the pre-reading section and start on page 31. This page introduces the treble clef and resembles the songs in Milestone 3.
To cover the bass clef, you’ll need to go back to page 29 and introduce the landmark note F in the bass clef.
After this, you can move forward smoothly through all of the levels. Your student is now fully equipped to begin the note-reading journey. Any time a new concept comes up, you can relate it to what they already know.
Oh, a dotted quarter note? That’s just a “G hold hold”. Not sure what that note is? Let’s count to it from the G line.
Objection! What if they don't have perfect pitch?
You might have an obvious and justified objection to everything I just said.
What if my student doesn’t have perfect pitch?
Firstly, if your student is autistic or has Williams syndrome, they probably do have perfect pitch. It may be difficult to tell at first if the student has motor and speech difficulties. There are several ways to tell, over time, whether your student has perfect pitch or above-average pitch discrimination.
Secondly, this method does no harm if your student doesn't have perfect pitch. In fact, the pacing and presentation of information are still quite beneficial to a student who might need to develop motor skills or take awhile absorbing the information.
However, it IS harmful to a student’s musical development if they DO have perfect pitch and you don’t teach them as such. Perfect-pitchers are notorious for faking their way through note-reading until they can’t anymore (I mean, why wouldn’t they? It’s their strength). By then, it’s usually too late to diagnose the issue and start over.
If you start with a comprehensive, methodical approach from the beginning, while assuming they have perfect pitch even if you’re not sure, you’ll cover all the bases and set them up for success in note reading.
In addition to a solid teaching strategy, make sure you set your student up for success by making your studio sensory friendly.
Want More Help?
Even if you understand the Milestones, you might want some help with knowing exactly when and how to introduce these concepts to your students.
I’ve put together a "first lesson cheat sheet" to show you how to assess, engage, and instruct your student with disabilities. It includes:
- an assessment map based on the four "types" of students with disabilities that you'll most likely encounter
- exact scripts for introducing C for one hand (Milestone 1)
- musical enrichment activities for when students just don't want to sit at the bench
- the first 3 songs of Milestone 1 FREE
- troubleshooting tips
The scripts will show you exactly what to say when you sit down with your student at the piano, and they’ll address some common issues that come up in the process. They’ll also tell you when you can be sure it’s time to move on to the next Milestone.