I took piano lessons for over 15 years, and my 30-45 minute lessons looked a little something like this:
Sit at the piano bench for 30-45 minutes.
Study and play music for 30-45 minutes.
I took from AMAZING, concert-level musicians who were professors and teachers through the years and gained SO MUCH knowledge from these intelligent, talented teachers. They instilled in me a passion for playing and knowledge of music that inspired me to study music in college and become a piano teacher myself.
For my first few years of teaching, my lessons were structured similarly as the ones I took during my childhood. And then, I became a mom. I started realizing that the way students are expected to sit still at a piano bench for a half hour, pay attention to my instructions and engage in fine motor experiences wasn’t necessarily reasonable, and really not conducive at all to students with developmental differences and special needs.
My own son struggles with a host of diagnoses that affect his ability to sit still, focus on a task and follow a series of instructions. As any parent of a child with special needs knows, you can’t just enroll your child in whatever extra-curricular activity you think they would like and expect it to go well. However, your child’s developmental differences should NOT keep him from the joy of learning a musical instrument. Read on to find out my tips for helping to make the experience successful and enjoyable.
How to help kids with special needs learn a musical instrument
- Make a careful match of your child and his teacher. As I said, I studied with exceptional teachers who have produced many incredible musicians. But I know that their methods and expectations wouldn’t work for my son or for many of the students I have worked with in my years of teaching. Talk to your teacher about your child’s strengths and challenges. If your child has difficulty sitting still for thirty minutes, find a teacher who is willing to use play-based instruction, perhaps moving around the room and teaching certain concepts away from the piano using large motor activities. Finding a teacher who is compassionate and willing to be flexible and learn about your child is essential.
- Consider a group setting. Some students do well when they are able to observe and imitate the behavior of their peers. If your child fits into that category, you might look into teachers who offer group lessons (bonus – they are often less money!), which can be helpful in allowing your child to hear and see how others in his class are behaving.
- As you practice with your child, break things down into REALLY SMALL SECTIONS. Many of my kids with developmental differences have trouble sequencing, and so I always tell the parents to make sure they are focusing on one aspect of the piece at a time, and working on just a few measures at a time, gradually adding on day by day. What’s the rush?
- Be consistent in practicing with your child. Kids with special needs benefit from structure and understanding what is coming. Use a visual schedule or verbal reminders leading up to practicing — ideally at the same time each day — to help your child develop good habits and have a successful transition into practice time.
- Don’t think the entire practice needs to be spent at a seat! Part of breaking things down (#3) can also be taking apart a piece and working on different elements of the music AWAY from your child’s instrument. For example, I have my youngest students learn the rhythm of a piece by playing it on the drums before we ever sit at the piano bench. Sing the melody of the song using solfege, march around the room to the beat, view a performance of the song on YouTube — all of these things help take apart the piece and make it more accessible to your child, limiting the time you’ll need to work through things at the bench.
- Consider taking lessons yourself. This is my encouragement to ALL parents of students and perhaps my number 1 tip for being a help to your child. I work with the student once a week, but the child is away from me for the majority of the week as he practices and progresses. If you have musical knowledge, not only you will you be so much more able to help your child fix mistakes, but you’ll also be able to think about ways to support his learning and prevent frustration as he takes on new music each week. If you understand rhythm and can read notes, you can come up with rhythm games and note naming activities that will help empower your child to work through a piece. (And if you’re thinking, “How could I possibly have time to take lessons myself when I’m already over-committed? Fear not, and read my bio at the end of this post!).
The benefits to learning a musical instrument are many, and they are lifelong. Just because your child faces challenges doesn’t mean that he cannot and should not have access to these benefits. As a piano teacher, there is truly nothing more rewarding than seeing the confidence and smile that come after a child performs a piece at a recital in front of his family and peers. My hope for you is that you will one day bear witness to this same joy!
–Carly Seifert, guest blogger
Carly is a mother of 2 little ones and teaches piano lessons. She recently launched an online piano lesson site designed specifically for Busy Moms, where subscribers receive affordable, brief, weekly lessons they can view during stolen moments of their week.