I am getting a growing number of enquiries from parents of autistic children (and autistic adults) looking for piano lessons*. But how does teaching an autistic learner differ to teaching a non-autistic learner? Or perhaps a better question would be, how does being an autistic learner differ from being a non-autistic learner?
The first thing for any teacher to understand is that autistic students are not a homogenous group. There is no ‘autistic piano method’. As a teacher working with autistic students, you may come across learners who are non-verbal, communicate through echolalia (repeating phrases or sounds), can’t-get-a-word-in-edgeways-chatty, socially anxious, quiet, noisy, sound-averse, shy, confident, instantly good readers, struggle with notation, have great aural memories, have poor aural memories, highly creative, thrive on accuracy and detail, you get the idea…
None of which actually answers the question of learning and teaching.
Except in a way, it does.
Autism still has a lot of stigma attached to it, and a great deal of myths. Language is important too, and many autistic adults (who it should be remembered were autistic children once) are now saying that professionals working with autistic children need to look beyond the commonly used ‘deficit’ or ‘medical’ model of comparing autistic behaviours to non-autistic behaviours and marking anything different as ‘abnormal’ or ‘wrong’ and in need of ‘intervention’. Instead, we should be supporting autistic people where they need support, and understanding autistic ways of communicating, socialising, and self-care, as being different to non-autistic, but not necessarily problematic.
All of which should give a small idea of how to approach teaching through an ‘autistic lens’, i.e. from the viewpoint of the autistic learner, rather than from a point of a professional providing piano lessons with supporting ‘interventions’ or ‘behavioural management strategies’.
The following 10 points may help:
- Autistic children can experience high levels of stress with new environments, and the experience of new piano lessons is one of them. It may take your autistic learner far longer to settle into lessons than a non-autistic learner. If you offer a trial period as standard, it’s worth you considering extending this for autistic newcomers.
2. Also regarding stress and anxiety, your new autistic learner may not learn anything constructive at all in the first few weeks, as the barrier of experiencing new environment and new people (i.e., you) may be a hurdle that they need to get used to before they are able to begin the process of learning. Be extra patient.
3. Autistic children do not always express emotions in ways which non-autistic people do. For instance, I have two students currently who, when stressed with the prospect of being asked to do something that is new and potentially quite tricky, self-soothe by playing glissandos, or playing every note on the piano. This is a form of ‘stimming’ (self stimulating behaviour) and is a way of dealing with emotions. It is important that students are allowed to express themselves however they choose to do so.
4. Autistic children may need frequent breaks during the lessons so they do not become overwhelmed with environment, sensory input, or demands of tasks. For very young children, this may need to be scheduled in with a visual timer app on a phone and a pictorial timetable, so that the child knows they have an upcoming break. The parent/carer, if in the lesson, needs to be on board with this so they do not think the child is simply wasting time.
5. A young autistic child (pre-teen certainly) may need to be taught by ear, either fully, or just temporarily, even if they are perfectly capable of reading notation. This may be because the additional barrier of the notation is simply one barrier too many, on top of an already overwhelming environment of sensory overload, task demands, and very possibly tiredness after a day at school.
6. An autistic child may be unable to handle you sitting near them at the piano, or playing the piano at the same time as them or near them – this is due to sensory overload, either aural or physical. If so, it is worth recording demonstration tracks on a laptop, possibly on a loop, that can be played away from the piano, at a quieter volume that the child is comfortable with.
7. An autistic child may enjoy repetition much more than you do! And they may wish to return to continually pieces that they know well, particularly in the beginning, sometimes repeating them continually throughout the lesson. As their teacher, you need to allow this, as this is your student enjoying the learning process. Mix their repetition with occasional new tasks, rather than barring old pieces completely.
8. Some autistic children are extremely demand avoidant, and some have a diagnosis, or identification, of PDA (Pathological Demand Avoidance). This avoidance of demand means your student becomes extremely stressed and anxious when faced with demands from you (even ones you believe to be mild and completely reasonable) and you may also get reports from their parents/carers that practising is quite a challenge at times. It is absolutely crucial to understand that demand avoidant children are not being manipulative, difficult, or naughty. Instead, they are faced with extreme anxiety and stress when they feel out of control and under pressure of being ‘told what to do’. These children need an abundance of positive reinforcement as their confidence is often on the floor, and lots of choice to prevent them feeling backed up against the wall. For example, rather than giving them a piece to practice, play them 3 pieces and ask them to choose which one they would like to learn. Rather than asking them to play the right hand first, ask them whether they want to try the piece first, with which hand (or both) or whether they want to listen to you demonstrate it again. Choice, choice, choice.
9. An autistic child may not be able to sit well on a piano stool, or perhaps not at all at first. It may be that you start off with the piano stool completely out of the way and your student stands to play, gradually introducing the stool as lessons slowly progress. Equally, your student may feel uncomfortable at the piano without their coat on, or a hat. If so, this is probably a sensory necessity or a comfort, and needs to be respected, even if it looks unusual to you.
10. If your autistic student comes into the lesson when your studio is empty, and that changes due to a timetable change, let the parents know as soon as practicable. Your student may be completely thrown by the presence of someone unknown (another student, and potentially their parent and/or sibling also) coming and going as they get to their lesson, and this might cause significant distress and anxiety.
To create an autism friendly learning environment, we as teachers need to be looking at our teaching through the lens of autism, rather than simply trying to make our autistic students fit in with our usual practices. We need to step into the shoes of our autistic students and walk around in them for a bit, then adapt our teaching accordingly to be as constructive, positive, and supportive as we possibly can.
And in doing this, we can help to create a society with a truly inclusive music education system.
*I have based this on autistic children as the majority of my students are children, but most of what I have written could easily be applied to adults as well.
Another post on exams! (I know, I know, but the number of times the subject of ‘but, but, EXAMS!’ crops up with new or transferring students is, sadly, increasing.) This post originally comes from a private email I wrote to a parent, but has been edited to transform it into an ‘open letter’ to all parents and students.
Exams really are quite useful things, and many (if not most) of my students enjoy preparing for and sitting them, but they are far from the learning method that they are often used as. To give you some idea, at the time of writing, I have nearly 50 students on my books, and only three of them are currently working towards a practical exam (with a further one working towards sitting his Grade 4 Theory in March). The other students are learning repertoire, and developing their skills in this way.
I should mention at this point, that it is not necessary to take every grade exam. Again, with my long term students, you would find that the vast majority of them skip grades (in order to spend additional time learning different styles, genres, and technical skills). It is also worth bearing in mind that, should a student rarely work at music away from an exam syllabus, once they have passed grade 8, most of them haven’t a clue how to work towards anything from that point forward, as their only method of progression has now gone. You may be interested to know that I work with a great many post-grade 8 students who have only rarely learnt non-exam pieces, and they are, without exception, wholly unprepared for how to cope at this point. I appreciate this is not a way of learning that you are used to, but learning repertoire and understanding music is the key to not only progressing, but realising full potential, and perhaps most importantly, really enjoying the piano.
With this in mind, we are really looking at a minimum of 1 year after sitting a grade exam before even beginning work on the next one. It is possible that once this time has passed, a student may be past the level of the next grade up, in which case, we would either begin the one following that, or spend a little more time developing skills to get him or her to that point. A typical progression ‘through the grades’ for my students is often – grades 1,3,4,6 then 8, with the remaining grades skipped.
As a good guide for you to refer to, a student should be completing an absolute bare minimum of one entire book of repertoire ‘between exams’. Bear in mind that for students who skip exams, this doubles. However, this volume of repertoire is rarely taken from one single book, as this, also, is too restrictive. This means that most students have 1 or 2 books on the go at once, and they roughly complete half of each book before moving on. This guide also includes duet books (duets are particularly important for piano students as it is often the only time they learn any collaborative playing skills). For example, I would anticipate that a student who has just taken grade 4 would need to learn roughly half of a compilation book (ABRSM compilations or Lenehan KeyNotes are good for this), and roughly half of something else (possibly a Microjazz volume, or the Walton Children’s Pieces for Duet, which are excellent and great fun to play) before looking at the possibility of grade 5, and more so if we decided to skip this. I appreciate this is very new to you, but once they are over the initial shock of learning non-exam pieces, my students all massively enjoy playing ‘normal’ repertoire, and they learn far more in terms of musical understanding and technical skills than if they were to work towards exams with only brief moments of respite.
I appreciate that parents often wish for their children to sit another exam as soon as possible after their previous one, but if I can draw your attention to other methods of measuring attainment, which you may not be aware of, this might ease your mind. I hold a yearly concert for my students (in the Summer Term), which all students are invited (but not pressured) to perform at, with many students who are not confident about performing choosing to perform a duet with me instead of a solo piece. Last year, this concert was held at Cardiff University concert hall, and was a great success, with nearly 250 students / parents attending. There is also the opportunity to perform at the South Glamorgan Festival for Young Musicians which is held every May bank holiday. Here, there are both competitive and non-competitive classes available. At the risk of repeating myself, attainment can also (indeed it should be) measured by completion of a new piece, by a technical difficulty surmounted, or a new understanding of a musical problem. [Edit… colleague and friend, Phil May, made the additional (and rather brilliant) suggestion that with so many people owning iPads, laptops, and smartphones, parents could record their children performing each finished piece, not just for posterity, but perhaps to send to relatives. This would help in creating a tangible way of seeing progress without the need for exam certificates.]
Unfortunately, the world we live in now has become very much an exam-oriented one for children, with graded music exams being a not-insignificant part of this. But focussing too much on exams in music is hugely detrimental to students, and leaves a great many young musicians, even gifted ones, without necessary technical skills and musical understanding, and often leads to a loss of enjoyment in learning music (which is heartbreaking to watch).
I am happy to answer any questions you may have on this topic – it is one which I discuss frequently so I genuinely do understand parental (and students’) concerns! You might also be interested to know that having students staying away from exams does not mean they perform badly when they do sit them. I have a 100% pass rate for grade exams (theory and practical), and my students have won awards from the ABRSM in the past for achieving exceptionally high marks (my most recent being a young boy of 12 years’ old who achieved the highest Grade 8 mark in Wales for the year, and also won a 4 figure scholarship award from the ABRSM to pay for his studies).
Lastly, I’d like to direct you to my soundcloud account. I have uploaded various repertoire for students. The eventual idea is that this database covers the ‘core’ repertoire books which my students use, but it is very much a work in progress as recording and uploading takes a huge amount of time. https://properpianofingers.com/2015/05/19/the-repertoire-project/ and https://soundcloud.com/lynnephillips/sets/the-repertoire-project_main
Very best wishes,
Another of my ‘in bits’ videos – this one is Burgmuller’s Barcarolle (Op.100, No.22). A beautiful piece which requires a great deal of focus on the cantabile quality in the right hand balanced against a delicate left hand accompaniment.
Soundcloud recording of the same piece:
And if you want to listen to the whole book of Burgmuller etudes (well worth a listen!), with a few exceptions left to record, the playlist can be found here:
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This YouTube video is the second in my ‘…in bits…’ series, a collection of tutorials where I follow the completed piece with hands separate videos, voice separate, slow, with and without ornamentation, whatever I think could prove useful.
With pieces such as the Krebs, it is invaluable to not just go straight in with the ornaments, but to learn the music without any decoration as if that version were a piece in its own right; i.e., the musical equivalent of being able to see the woods despite the trees. I don’t teach this technique because ornaments are scary (they’re not), or because they are difficult (again, they’re really not!), but because they are only ornamentation, and unless a musician can understand the main body of the music in its plainest form, they have no chance of understanding it with added fiddly bits.
What I missed on this collection, and I regret not adding in, was an even more stripped back version which my students have been learning. The Krebs, indeed all music, can be stripped back to basic harmony or simple melodic lines, and it is incredibly useful to learn this unornamented version, rather than just obvious one we read on the page. I might add this in later; it’s certainly been fascinating for me to see how my students have been stripping this piece back in different ways to me and to each other.
This is the first in my ‘…in bits…’ series; a collection of videos designed to be partly tutorial in style, with a full video recording followed by multiple recordings of hands separate, slow tempo, voice separate, or anything else which I think would be useful in learning each individual piece of music.
Khachaturian’s Etude is a complex piece; it appears fast and unrelenting, and yet it is delicate and needs a surprising amount of space to breathe. The difference in articulation between the tenuto right hand and the staccato left is technically demanding, especially for the intermediate pianist that this piece is aimed at, there needs to be careful listening skills and awareness of physical keyboard touch taking place to ensure each voice remains faithful to its line when putting hands together.
This etude is a personal favourite of mine; not just because it is great fun to play (seriously, it really is!), but because it is is so peculiarly gentle inside its world of deceptive freneticism.
This upload of J.S.Bach’s Invention No.1 in C (BWV 7720 is a little different. In addition to uploading the finished soundcloud recording, I have uploaded a video to my YouTube channel, where students can see how to ‘build’ the invention from scratch, (starting with no ornaments and hands separately) into the final performance.
As with all my recordings, it’s really important to understand that these are not meant to be definitive versions, but are more like a tool; something to kick start a student into getting to grips with a musical narrative, or more accurately, one version of a musical narrative.
With the Bach, however, this is perhaps even more important. Bach wrote for harpsichord, not piano. My dynamics and my articulation are my own, and are just an idea to draw on or listen to. In fact, to be totally honest, I’ve been playing this particular Invention for many years, and I think I play it with as many different interpretations as years I have been teaching it. This recording is particularly legato; I’m not convinced I like this (in fact the more I listen to it, the more I dislike the final version) but it’s what I was working on at the time, and so in the spirit of spontaneity, it’s what I have recorded.
Please do not copy this recording, or indeed any of my Repertoire Project recordings. Listen to them, enjoy them, use them for ideas, love them, hate them, do whatever you like, but remember that part of being a musician is being creative; we were never meant to be mimics. There’s far too much interesting music to make to spend valuable time just copy and pasting.
For more details about my teaching practice, including prices, vacancies, and information on distance theory marking, or learning piano as a beginner, intermediate, or a post-grade 8 student, please go to lynnephillipspiano.moonfruit.com