Can special needs children learn to play an instrument?

Music lessons for special needs children?

If you ask the average music teacher about special needs children as students, you may get a blank stare. There isn’t much literature focused on this. Children with special needs may include those with learning disabilities, developmental issues, as well as those on the Autism spectrum.

At Park Slope Music Lessons, we’ve had several students with special needs. Our Musicolor Method® has proven to be a great way for these children to learn music where other teachers/methods have failed.


Can a special needs student learn to play piano?  

Absolutely!

“I still can’t believe you got my son to play with all 10 fingers in a single lesson! He is so excited and practicing every day on his own. Our previous teachers were all trying to get him to play one finger the whole time. He was bored and frustrated!”
Parent of a 5 year old student

Take a look at some of the videos of our past recitals, music salons and read our blog posts.  You will see we have helped so many kids learn music in a way that is fun, fast and supportive.  It doesn’t matter if your kld is or isn’t a prodigy, we make learning music an organic process.  And it all activates life skills that are transferrable to school, work and life!

How we use the Musicolor Method to teach special needs children to make music with fun and ease.
Musicolor Alphabet Cards, one of many physical games/tools we use to teach abstract concepts of music

If you have any questions about your child and their specific issues, feel free to contact us.

Inside a music lesson – it’s more than just sitting on the piano bench

Our music lessons are fun!

We not only want our students to learn how to play songs.  We also want them to understand the concepts of music theory which make it easier to transfer to other instruments.  Many of our students have started at the keyboard and then added other instruments like ukulele, guitar, recorder, flute and lap dulcimer to name a few.

In our Musicolor Method® curriculum, around the 3rd or 4th lesson, we introduce solfeggio, which was invented over 1000 years ago in Italy!  How crazy amazing is that?  Somehow, the French word Solfége has become more widely used.  Most people just know of it from the movie the Sound of Music where Julie Andrews teaches the children to sing using do – re – mi – fa – so, etc.

In our lessons we use the syllables, along with hand signs invented in the 1800’s by John Curwen along with the positions created by Zoltan Kodaly in the last century.  If you’ve never heard of them, it doesn’t matter, but they are iconic figures in music education.

Each student begins to use the solfege along with the hand signs to learn every new song going forward.  It helps to internalize the music through multiple modes:  visual, aural and kinesthetic.  And…it’s fun!

And they each go home with a fun poster to help them remember this along with some fun facts.

Here’s Lilah learning the first phrase of the old folk song Lightly Row.

 

American Idol And Finding Your Voice: A Music Teacher’s Perspective

My family loves to watch American Idol as well as The Voice.  These competitive singing shows are fun and introduce a new audience to a lot of great songs, old and new.   The shows are both well produced and fun and get you involved with each contestant’s story so that you care whether or not they make the cut.

One thing that stands out for me is the subject of song choice.

So many of the judges comments on these shows go something like, “That was the perfect song for you.”  But who’s helping these fledging artists make these choices?

Last night’s American Idol had a lot of interesting re-workings of old songs in such unusual ways.  There was a slow, introspective almost morose version of “You’re the One That I Want” – the song from Grease.  There was a female singer doing a version of an Adam Sandler song!  That is probably the first cover he ever got.   So interesting!  Talk about “making it yours.”

A&R is not Accounts and Receivables

In the early days of the recording industry, there were specialists at the record companies.  They called them “guys with ears.”  These Artists & Repertoire or A&R men (they were always men) were the specialists in matching the singer with the songs.  This art of song selection is the true magic behind some of the greatest music stars.   The most famous of these A&R men are guys like John Hammond who discovered Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin and Billie Holiday to name a few.  Other legendary music executives could be considered “guys with ears” like Clive Davis, who discovered Whitney Houston and ran several record labels, or Ahmet Ertegun who founded Atlantic Records.   Clive was a lawyer, so how he came to be a guy with ears was just pure passion, innate talent and personal interest.

Nowadays, most artists are expected to write their own music or have a very specific view of the kind of material they are looking for.  Everyone needs to know what is their “own music.”

So how does this relate to teaching music?

Find the perfect song for the student and you are golden.  You no longer have to TRY to motivate them.  The student is so self-motivated – it’s what they want to do.

To do this, you need to get to know your student.  What makes them excited, not just musically, but in life?  What are their interests, passions, causes, fears?  What do they care about?  Who do they love?  Who loves them?

The material you select together will be putting words/ideas/feelings in their mouths and mind.  It becomes a part of them, their reality.  The choices you help them make become a part of what makes them unique.

When you find that next song, don’t just play it like everyone else.  Experiment to find what is their own way.  Change it up.  Make it faster, slower!  Do it with a reggae lilt.  Do it in a bossa nova style.  Change the key.  Make it a minor key.  Most of all, make it their own.  Play it like it they wrote it!  Find their voice.

The “song” can be more than a song

It’s the same in every subject, whether it’s soccer, physics, macramé or Chinese lessons.  Having a mentor to guide one on a personal path can be the difference between passion and drudgery.

Find the song, and the next, and the next, and the life path will be clear.   At every stage, a different “music” is required to guide, lift and release into the exact place of purpose, whether it’s on the stage of American Idol, or any other field of endeavor.  Every lesson is a lesson in life.

Finding Your LIfe Path, Photo by Des D. Mona @ Flickr
Finding Your LIfe Path, Photo by Des D. Mona @ Flickr

“I am circling around God, around the ancient tower, and I have been circling for a thousand years, and I still don’t know if I am a falcon, or a storm, or a great song.” – Rainier Maria Rilke

Why Memorizing Music Is So Important

By Andrew Ingkavet

With all of my students, I stress the importance of memorizing their pieces, especially for performance at a recital. Here’s some of the reasons why.

Repetition is the Mother of Skill

How many times did Tiger Woods hit a golf ball before ever entering a competition? Apparently he was already golfing at age 2 when he made an appearance on the Merv Griffin show with his Dad. He turned professional at age 21 after winning many competitions along the way. That’s 19 years and probably 30,000 to 40,000 hours of practice! In Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers,  he discusses the theory that it takes an applied 10,000 hours of practice to mastery in any field. No wonder Tiger Woods is the greatest golfer that ever lived!  He’s simply played 3 or 4 times much as anyone else before he even turned pro!

Tiger Woods golfer
Now, I’m not demanding 8 hour practice days for my students, but five minutes the day before the lesson is just not going to cut it. It’s unfair to the student who is going to sound awful and not enjoy the wonderful process and sense of accomplishment of learning a song to a masterful level.

Technique

As we use our muscles to achieve the production of sound, we need to train them to move in specific ways. Fluidity can only be achieved by repetition. By consciously practicing the repeated motions at the same time being mindful of proper alignment of back, wrists, hands, we can create smooth, fluid motions that create beautiful sounds without repetitive stress injuries.

Practicing small bits at a slow speed can produce incredible, exponential results. When pianist Glenn Gould burst onto the scene as a young man, his flawless technique stunned the world, as did his ingenious interpretations of Bach.

Pattern Recipes

The bits of music phrases teach re-usable pieces of the fabric of music. Just like a recipe book or a code pattern that can be re-used in many projects, future songs will surely employ similar melodic, harmonic and rhythmic ideas. Music performance, composing and listening becomes easier as we progress. This is in fact the basic concept of object orient programming for computers. By designing a library of re-usable components, programmers can quickly put together new projects by cobbling together pre-build elements. Learning a later song is easier because the old one had similar patterns. And then, creating variations is now an option.

Artistic Expression

Spencer TracyThe famous actor Spencer Tracy was once quoted,

“Know your lines…and don’t bump into the furniture.”

You could say the same of music.  Know the notes.

How can you make the music your own without knowing it at a deep subconscious level.
When I was briefly an actor, I took a wonderful class in
the Meisner technique. The basic exercise was called the Repetition technique. It consisted of 2 or more actors on a bare stage with minimum set props. It was improvisatory in that each would only repeat what the other said until there was a natural impulse to say something else. What was amazing was that the inane conversation became full or emotion and life immediately as the words were not hindering the emotion. It’s the same thing in music. But, we need to know our parts. Of course, in jazz, improvisation is the raison d’etre, but there is still an agreed-upon structure.
We need to get to the very heart of emotion in the music, and the only way is to memorize, internalize, and interpret as our own. To know the music fully.

Tell A Story

To make your music tell a story, you need to have a physical comfort level with it. You can’t NOT know your parts. Otherwise it’s like the actor who doesn’t know his lines…you don’t believe them.

Instrumental Music is extremely abstract. Pop and folk songs with lyrics provide a narrative focus. But pure instrumental music can benefit in having some kind of narrative in that it can bring a piece to life. Make up a storyline for your piece! Sometimes this is relatively easy as the music is dramatic and narrative by nature.   Disney realized how Dukas’ Sorceror’s Apprentice was perfect in that it told the story.  Take a look.

I’ve been astounded by the difference in performance by some of my youngest students when they add a storyline to their piece. What’s even more amazing is that 6 year stories are all pretty much the same! But the music sparkles!

Repertoire

Having a mind full of pieces to perform at a moment’s notice is a wonderful thing. It’s what makes one feel like a truly accomplished musician. And, you never know when your Aunt Harriet is going to pop over with her friends and ask you to play “something sweet.”

How Memory Works

So how does memory work? Scientists still know only a fraction of how the brain works, but we’re learning more everyday. There is still so much research still to be done. 

So far, it seems that there are some generally agreed-upon concepts.

Encoding – getting the information into your memory. Of course, the information needs to be right from the start. Garbage in does equal garbage out.

Storage – There’s short term and long term. It seems we are similar to computers in that we have temporary space for short term and commonly used information. If we don’t use it, we lose it, unless we consciously store it in an organized way.

Retrieval– Getting the right information out when you want it is possibly the trickiest. Many scientist believe that the human mind never forgets anything, it’s just difficult to retrieve on command. But, repeated retrieval places the keys to a specific memory in a prominent location. So if you want to remember where you put your keys, try saying it aloud when you put them down. And, practicing your piece on your instrument at repeated intervals is like oiling the doors to that memory closet.

How To Memorize Music

In a famous study done by George Miller at Princeton University they discovered that humans can memorize up to 7 discreet bits of information, plus or minus 2. But chunking this into groups greatly increases the amount that could be stored and retrieved easily. We can apply this to music memorization.

Chunking It Down

To start memorizing, I suggest with a small chunk or part, perhaps even as little as 3 to 4 notes. The younger the student, the less notes. As they learn, we can go to the next chunk, and after mastering and memorizing that, we group those two chunks together. By continuing to add to the memory in small groups, and then synthesizing those into a larger whole, the entire piece can be memorized quickly so that a piece with several pages can be played from memory easily.
Some common breakpoints would be first measure, then second measure, then group them together. Then do the next 2 measures that way before you group together the entire first stave. Then A section can be memorized as contrasted to B section, etc.

Listening

An extremely effective way of learning a new piece is by listening to an existing recording. This is, of course, the bedrock of the Suzuki program of music instruction.

At higher levels, this may influence the styling of the performance, but that’s why we listen to great performances! Better to mimic the masters. You can also record yourself playing the piece slowly to listen to it over and over again.

Writing as a Memory Aid

Hand-written music by Mozart
Hand-written music by Mozart

Actors learning lines often write and re-write their lines without punctuation, like a long run on sentence. Why no punctation? By learning the words as raw material, they can add their own punctation depending on the emotion required for the scene. We can do the same for music, though the punctuation is usually dictated by the composer in terms of tempo, dynamics and accents, etc. By copying the music to staff paper, another method of input has been created both visual, kinesthetic and even aural through mental memory of the sounds. As a composer, I’ve gained invaluable details and nuances by just copying pieces of music. The physical act of copying does something that internalizes into the mind and body. It’s why the great painters all learned by copying the masters at the Louvre.

Blind Memory

Another technique to memorize is by relying on the auditory, and kinesthetic only. By blindfolding, or closing one’s eyes, or even turning out the lights, the musician can practice

Ray Charles
Ray Charles

without relying on the visual and play by touch and ear. This will also make the student realize quickly if they are not committing to a fingering pattern as they will be unable to play it blind. And, some of the best musicians in the world were literally blind.

Visualization

I’ve heard of stories where prisoners of war without access to their instruments practice completely in their mind, visualizing the experience completely, hearing it in their mind’s ear and seeing themselves in the mind’s eye performing their piece perfectly. These people return from their isolation playing better than before! I’ve told a few of my students about this and you can see in this video, my student Mitra is actually visualizing herself right before she performs onstage. Wonderful!


My son Alejandro has been working on a difficult piece by Bach and he recently told me that every night before he goes to sleep, he visualizes himself performing this piece. Wow! I don’t even recall telling him to do this!

An Odyssey, A Memory Palace

There’s a lot of wonder at how some of our ancestors could remember stories to pass on to the next generation. One was was through the use of rhythm and sound in the form of poetry, a kind of word music. By linking the sounds with the imagery in the stories, whole long passages could be told and memorized. By singing the melodies of the piece you are trying to memorize, you are using these very techniques and internalizing the music. Glenn Gould would sing all his parts incessantly to the point where he never stopped singing even when performing in public or recording his piano pieces.

There’s also the technique called the Memory Palace, where using the memory of a physical place you know intimately such as your own home, you could “store” information in specific locations. So, to remember things in a specific order, you could then mentally walk through your palace and retrieve the information. I found this book where it taught me all the names of every play by Shakespeare in the proper order, and lo and behold, it works! Now I should really do this for something more useful like song lyrics as I’m terrible at remembering them.

The Benefits of Memorization

Now the greatest thing is that these memorization and learning skills are applicable and transferrable to the rest of your life, forever! You can use them to learn anything like languages, careers, work stuff, school, research, anything! You are basically learning to operate your mind. How to store information, keep it fresh, retrieve it when you need it and then use it to combine, build, mix, remix and synthesize all you want. And to think you got all this from memorizing your little recital piece!

 

 

Teaching Kids How To Read Music Using Solfège, Hand Signs & Kinesthetic Learning

Learning Solfege with Curwen Hand Signs

Teaching young kids to read music is quite a challenge.  I approach through a long process of micro-steps.  It’s the reverse of peeling an onion.  It’s a layering technique of building up from tiny kernels of understanding, expanding outwards. The first lessons are always performance focused – get them excited about playing a song!  It’s fun and within reach to play a song in 5 minutes!  That is so awesome! Then over the course of many lessons, we explore basic concepts of music theory through a series of games.  One of these “games” is learning solfeggio (Italian pronunciation), also known as solfège (French pronunciation).  This is the system of pitches with words that was created in the eleventh century by a Benedictine monk, Guido de Arezzo.    

To make it easier, I always look for ways to engage other learning modalities besides visual or aural.  In this case, an Englishman by the name of John Curwen did this work in the 1800s by creating a system of hand signs to go with the solfège system.   This engages the brain to have another way of remembering these pitches.  Kids love it and it certainly is fun! Another great educator (and composer) the Hungarian Zoltan Kodàly took these hand signs and made it easier by associating a height with each sign to correlate the rising of the pitch with each syllable. In my lessons, I teach my students using 2 hands to make it even easier as it balances both left brain and right brain.  Plus it’s easier and more fun!  Did I mention that fun is important? I created a printout for my students that features…them(!) – to help remember these. You can download this here. Get Download

Learning Solfege with Curwen Hand Signs
Solfege is fun!

  Hopefully we’ll all be singing and signing at our next recital. Here’s a video from another teacher (who also produces wonderful educational tools which I use and heartily recommend.)   After internalizing these pitches and then connecting them with notes on the staff, reading music becomes connected with the aural, visual and kinesthetic.  It has become much easier to move into any standard method book after a few weeks of this.   [button link=”http://themusicolormethod.com/blog/” type=”big” newwindow=”yes”] Click here for more music teaching tips[/button]   http://youtu.be/zCbDD5kfp-g

How To Read Music: Rhythm using Stick Notation

When teaching to read traditional music notation, I separate the 2 parts of pitch and rhythm.  Rhythm is easy to teach using stick notation.

[update-12-3-12] Stick notation is taking traditional notes and removing the note-head.  The note-head is the round dot at the bottom of the stick.  The dot is placed on the 5 lines of the staff and depending on where it is, tells us which pitch to play.  By removing the note-head, we focus only on the rhythm.

The use of hand movements, words and sounds enable us to get the music in our body, mind, eye and ear.  Multiple modes of experience!

This method is created by Michiko Yurko and you can find her and her books/games/workshops at MusicMindGames.com.

Here’s a little video I made with the help of Ava.

How To Teach Rhythm to Beginning Music Students

Teaching rhythm using stick notation & hand signs

I’ve been teaching how to count rhythm to most of my students using Michiko Yurko’s genius method of naming note values with easy and fun to say words.  I highly recommend her book Music Mind Games for all music teachers and home-schoolers and interested parents..

  • For example, a one beat (quarter note) is called BLUE.
  • Two eighth notes are called  JELLO.
  • An eighth note triplet, where the three notes are played in one beat is PINEAPPLE.
  • And four sixteenth notes is HUCKLEBERRY.
This is so much more fun and easier to remember than when I was in school learning, “one -eee- and – ah.”

Practice counting the beats of any song you already know and other new ones as well.  It becomes a much easier task to learn a new piece if you have internalized the rhythm already and can then focus on the pitches and fingering.
This past week, I did just that by having several of my students learn “Go Tell Aunt Rhody” by first counting out the song in this Blue Jello way.  Then, by teaching the distinct hand signals for each, which adds another level of kinesthetic learning, I played the melody while the student counted out the piece.  After 3 or 4 times, the melody and rhythm are so ingrained, that playing it on the instrument becomes just a minor technical matter.  It’s already in the body, brain and ear!  The results?  Everyone learned much, much faster and without the stumbling and frustration.
A book I recently read describes the importance of communication using multiples levels of engagement.  Made To Stick, by brothers Chip & Dan Heath, is a NY Times Bestseller and popular among business and marketing types, but is equally usable by teachers and parents.  Anyone, looking to make their ideas “stick” can benefit.  So one of the main principles of the book is  the concept of CONCRETIZATION.  By making abstract concepts concrete, giving a physical nature to the abstract, it makes it easier to grasp.  So by adding hand signs to the funny words for each note, we add another layer of concretization.  By saying it aloud, making the hand gesture and using the Blue Jello words, we are creating a unique kinesthetic experience of what was just quarter notes, eighth notes, half notes and whole notes.
And besides, how much more fun is it to say HUCKLEBERRY, GOOSEBERRY, JELLO BLUE?

Here’s another article with a video that made about this.

The History of Rock and Roll – 12 Bar Blues

We’ve been doing some great explorations of the roots of rock and roll which began with the basic form of the 12 bar blues.  These 12 measures are like a pattern, a recipe that hundreds if not thousands or hundreds of thousands of songs have been based.  Once you know the “recipe” you can cook up your own or play all of the variations.  Here’s a few of them.

You can view these video clips and read along in the music notation I gave you.

1950’s Early Rock and Roll Clips

Elvis Presley – Blue Suede Shoes

Chuck Berry – Johnny B. Goode

Jerry Lee Lewis – Great Balls Of Fire

Little Richard – Tutti Frutti

Little Richard – Lucille

Little Richard – Long Tall Sally