My Imaginary Standard

STOP!" said the voice inside my head. "You can't just cover up the notes. That's cheating. That's going to give her a bad message. You're preventing her from..."

I stopped myself.

"Hey, Amy," I said. "You aren't going to look at these notes anyway, are you?"

"Nope," she said honestly. "I'm just going to look at the colored tape."

"Cool," I said. "Let's make it WORK for you."

It was finally over. That sense that I shouldn't be making it easier for her. That by keeping things a little too hard, a tad out-of-reach, almost a bit mysterious, I was doing her a favor.

Or was I?

Amy has dyslexia - which means that her brain has difficulty recognizing and processing symbols. It's unlikely she will ever enjoy reading complex scores for pleasure. She loves to play and does it quite well, but part of my job is helping her interpret the written page. She comes to me to learn pieces that she couldn't play without me.

For reasons that elude me, I felt like I shouldn't REALLY help her. Like I should hold something back. I had some imaginary standard that prevented me from turning the written score into something she could actually use.

I take great pride in creating independent learners. I want my students to be able to pick up a piece of music and play it on their own. I want them to be able to improvise, decode a chord chart, realize a figured base. (I just threw that in to see if you were awake. I can't imagine actually spending time on figured base realization.)

Learning differences are something else entirely. When a student has a challenge, it's my job to help them meet it with every bit of skill I have. If I need to white-out bar lines or write in note names and color code the score, then I'm going to be proud of my efforts. And proud of theirs as well.

I realize I had mistakenly believed I could teach the learning difference right out of her. I knew better. Brains aren't like that. They can be challenged. They can grow and change. But to think that I shouldn't help her in the ways that she specifically needed help was ridiculous. And just plain mean.

This belief is something I picked up in the land of "serious music education" where I spent so many years. Somewhere between Counterpoint class and Chromatic Analysis in the Music of Wagner.

I desperately wish there had been a class somewhere in my education called Teaching Children with Learning Differences. It would have been a lot more practical than all that stuff about Opera Seria and Opera Buffa. (If you don't know, count your blessings.) Instead, I've had to educate myself.

After all my independent education, Amy and I are a good combination. And I intend to keep it that way. It may take a little work to keep that imaginary standard at bay.

Clean Up Your Toys!

Every parent on the planet has said it. We always start with a sweeter, kinder explanation, "When you're done with the Legos, you need to put them back in the container, honey." 

Before long it's simply, "Clean up your toys!" 

I use this idea to help me teach hand position.

I ask Gabriella to "clean up her hand" when she finishes playing a phrase. She is typical of a student who has multiple hand issues: collapsing joints, over-involving her entire hand in every task. (In this example she is supposed to be playing all quarter notes, though you'd never know it.)

I let everything else go and work on this one concept.

By holding her 5th finger down while moving the rest of her hand into position, she also strengthens the outside of her hand. This simple "game" will become an automatic part of her playing within a few weeks. 

 It's so tempting to try to work on everything at once. It's easy keep piling on instructions too quickly.

Instead, pick one specific part of a wobbly hand position and address it.

When I ask Gabriella, "What are you doing?" Observe her response.

"Clean up your toys," she says.

It's a sticky, shorthand way to describe this task.

"Please exhibit fine hand position!" will probably not be as successful.

This is especially true if your student has poor auditory processing skills. Some kids have trouble understanding verbal direction. The more linguistically complicated the instruction, the less likely they are to understand it - much less be able to process and achieve it.

  • If you want more information on the subject of auditory processing, I recommend the book Like Sound Through Water: A Mother's Journey Through Auditory Processing Disorder. It's a lovely memoir of a mother coming to understand her son and the way he experiences the world. I read many books like this - about different kinds of learners and different kinds of minds. I find that they make me a better teacher and a more compassionate person.
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Note: I always do preliminary work with the ladybug before asking a child to "clean up their toys."

Do you have a student whose hand position might benefit from a little toy clean-up?

All Behavior is Communication: ABC + Detective

There is no such thing as a typical piano student. No perfect piano students. There isn’t even a “right kind” of piano student.

There are only students.

Each one different, special, just the right kind.

Each and every student will behave in inconsistent ways.

On some days, your student Sasha will be delightful. Some days she will be a challenge. Sometimes she will amuse you with her humor. Others days she may not smile.

ABC: All Behavior is Communication.

One way to ignore the communication is to focus on yourself and your feelings about Sasha’s behavior. For instance, “I think the fact that Sasha is facing away from me and playing with the pencil while I’m trying to talk to her is SO annoying.” 

While it may be true that Sasha's behavior annoys you, as a teacher the only useful question to ask yourself is,  “Why is Sasha facing away from me and playing with the pencil?”

There is no judgment in this question. It’s simple and clear. Sasha is doing something that makes sense to her body at this place and time. Why?

ABC + D

This is when it gets interesting. The ABC’s of All Behavior is Communication also have a D.

It stands for Detective. This is the role you have the privilege of playing.

You must be the Detective who solves the mystery of why Sasha is facing away from you and playing with the pencil. 

Yes, you can cop out and tell yourself a lie like “Sasha is doing this because she’s just one of those kids. She’s a poorly behaved, coddled child. Kids these days.”

You can call your friends and commiserate about the lousy children of today. 

This will guarantee you a life of misery as you find more and more of these poorly behaved, rotten children filling up your afternoons.

Or, you can do the far more interesting detective work of finding out what her behavior means. 

Is she frustrated? Confused? Anxious? Overwhelmed? Hungry? Does she even understand the question you just asked her? Is she trying to distract you so that you won’t notice she doesn’t understand something?

Is she having trouble understanding the words you’re using? Does she do better when you do physical learning using things like magnets, white boards and puzzle erasers?

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The possibilities are many and your job isn’t easy. If you aren’t interested in being this Detective, you might want to explore a career in lawn mower repair. (You'll still have to figure out what the lawn mower is trying to tell you when it won't start, but the lawn mower won't need therapy if you don't get it right.)

Me? I love being the Detective. I savor the thrill of unlocking a series of behaviors that don’t make sense to me. There’s a reason Sasha is doing what she’s doing. It's like she's speaking in code and I need to find the key. 

It would be an amazing world if a child could say, "I am feeling somewhat anxious when I hear you ask me a question too quickly using an overabundance of jargon. Because of this, I find it difficult to concentrate on your actual question and also, I don't like your perfume." 

Unfortunately, kids don't come into the world with those skills. We, as the responsible adults, have to help them unlock their own personal code so they can become the best learners they can be.

The next time your student Tom climbs off the bench and hides under it what will your response be? Will you dismiss him as a badly behaved child? Or will you become a Detective?

If you'd like to find out more about learning differences, I highly recommend the book The Mislabeled Child. It's a brilliant guide to the basics of learning differences and would be helpful to any parent or teacher.