My Autistic Learner is Blind!
by Jacqueline van Eck
(Hopetown, South Africa)
Please help. I am from South Africa, living in a small town in the middle of the Karoo with the name of Hopetown.
I'm trying to help a 9 year old blind, autistic daughter. She is very good when playing by ear and has a lot of familiar songs she can play - using only the right hand.
Is there any way I can teach her the left hand notes?
Thanks for your help!
Jacqueline van Eck
Yes, certainly she can learn the left hand notes.
Prepare her for using both hands by making her do 5-note scales and chords with right hand, then left hand, then both hands together. If she hasn't been using her left hand on the piano, then gradually building skill with her left hand should be your first priority. Get her used to playing broken chords - so lovely and exciting to a beginner - then learning the Secondo part of Greensleeves. Make sure she has the pleasure of using the pedal with the chords.
When the shape of a 5-note scale and the open chord and triad become easy for her, then she will be ready to play around with chord sounds! Perhaps the two of you could make up songs built around chords. She needs to know the names of the scales and chords, and how the two hands will be placed upon the same notes, but an octave apart (ideally - though she will probably not want to limit herself to that, it should be the "home" for her hands, coming back to the same position).
When it comes time to add a left hand to a melody she already plays, I would make use of her ability to play by ear, initially, as that is likely to bring the fastest rewards. Have you taken a look at my page Mary Had a Little Lamb, in which I discuss how to add chords to melodies? Also please look at my Lead Sheets page - please scroll all the way down and look at the examples and descriptions on both pages. Twinkle Twinkle Little Star also has some helpful advice on it regarding the left hand.
With your daughter, I might start with a single bass note that goes with the melody. This means that you need to know what the harmony ought to be, unless you have the sheet music to help you. If you are a practicing musician yourself, chances are you understand chord theory. If not, please study my pages Louie Louie and 12 Major Scales and Chords. Both pages talk about how chords relate to the melody and also to each other, though the discussion is not extensive. A thorough explanation is beyond the scope of today's letter, though I am working on a beginner-friendly Music Theory book to help teachers teach theory right at lessons from the music they already have.
What would probably be best is if you carefully decide, ahead of time, what the left hand will be, and play that part as a duet with your daughter until she is used to the sound of it. She may be resistant and just not want to change her own arrangement. In that case, I'd come up with a different song that she ALWAYS hears already possessing two hands, not just a melody. If she doesn't WANT to add a left hand, you'll have to decide whether it's worth a fight about it.
Teach her to play Louie Louie - it will help train her ear in "the 3 main chords", and if you transpose it, help her understand how to move from one key (tonality) to another. Also, just let her EXPERIMENT with playing the accompaniment part to some songs she knows.
I have had great luck with my students, sitting together at the piano playing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star as a duet.
They figure out the first phrase of the melody, and then we decide together what the choices are for the chords (which are entirely predictable - they are always the I, IV, and V chords of the key we are playing in). With that song, Twinkle, starting on "C" means we are in the key of C, and our available chords will be C, F, and G - chords built on the 1st, 4th, and 5th steps of the scales - the "I, IV, and V chords," as music theory has it. Then, I will play that phrase of the melody which they figured out (over and over again!) as they try out the 3 different chord choices and
determine which sounds best to them. Trust me, this is fun! And when she realizes she is capable of producing big sounds that energize a song, she will keep experimenting.
Best of luck, and I hope to hear how it goes!
I just read your article on teaching students with autism--it's definitely been helpful to me as one student of mine has been diagnosed with it recently. Currently, all he ever wishes to play are certain pieces from Star Wars. Do you have any tips on how to help broaden his interests? If I try to suggest something else, he'll huff and puff and insist he has no interest in learning it.
Any advice would be much appreciated! Thank you so much!
I'm going to disappoint you! If Star Wars is what he will play, then I'd just keep at it with Star Wars. You may have to do a bit of the arranging, as it is difficult to find kid-suitable arrangements of some popular music. Try to find MORE Star Wars music, or Star Wars-like music. Perhaps other movie themes.
You don't say if your student is a beginner or if he plays well. If he's at a low playing level, your work is cut out for you because you're going to be doing a lot of arranging of his music. If he reads well, then you're just stuck listening to the same kind of music over & over.
I've not had much luck "stretching" students beyond the music they listen to at home. There are a few kids who just love ANY KIND OF MUSIC, but most want something familiar, or LOUD and bombastic, or soft and pretty.
He may be stubborn, but you don't have to let him always have his way. You can make certain parts of his lesson non-negotiable - "Now it's time for SCALES!" and just slog through them for a minute or two, week after week. Gradually his technique will improve through sheer finger-memory repetition. Yes, it really will get better.
Also, I find chords of all kinds very useful for kids whose reading skills are still limited, and I always make those an expected part of the routine. With your student, as he gains confidence with the ability to control his fingers (scales) & make harmonies (chords) he'll do more experimenting and venture further afield.
Finally, you can say, "Okay, now it's time for ME to choose what we'll play next, so that I'm not totally bored by the same songs over and over. You don't have to like it." If it were me, I might even say, "Go ahead and huff and puff, it's MY TURN." REALLY?? Would I say that? Indeed I would. What am I, a gas pump or a slot machine that dispenses teaching with the right amount of inserted quarters? Teaching music is only the best job in the world if one is free to be creative...
But I would say this with humor, not anger. Sometimes I think we are fearful to be honest with our students... that won't help them out in the real world.
Good luck... I'd be interested to hear back from you how things go!
Thanks for writing,