How to Successfully Teach Piano to Students with Down Syndrome.
Updated: Jul 4, 2022
“My teacher told my mom that I would never be able to follow directions or follow a routine. My mommy got me a new teacher! That fixed that!”
At the age of 19, Daniel walked into the studio with his family. They wanted to know if I would accept to teach Daniel how to play the piano despite the fact that he has Down syndrome. He had been rejected before and was not feeling optimistic. Daniel was my first student with Down syndrome and I didn’t know what to expect. The only sure thing that I knew very well at that time was that I wasn’t going to turn Daniel down, and that’s how my journey began.
Many more years and many more students with Down syndrome taught me a great deal about these students’ learning styles and patterns and helped me devise specific ways and procedures. I learned with time how to adjust the material that I will be using and how to make it more palatable and more digestible in order to overcome the difficulties we face during the lessons. I couldn’t help but notice that these difficulties were most likely to occur in three major areas.
1. Difficulty in grasping new concepts and ideas:
It takes a longer time than usual for students with Down syndrome to learn new things and it needs many repetitions for new concepts to be understood and applied. This includes even the most basic concepts, such as understanding the geography of the piano and understanding the white-black key pattern and learning the key names. More complicated concepts need more time and more repetition, such as playing with the correct rhythm and playing to a steady beat and with the correct finger.
In order to make the lessons effective, I found myself having to break all concepts into tiny basic concepts and repeat them continuously over the course of many lessons.
In an attempt to make the above clearer I will give you the following example to demonstrate how Daniel was able to learn to play C major scale with the correct fingers:
The process started by introducing the 5-finger scales which was during the first month of piano lessons. This process of learning the 5-finger scales took quite a long time because Daniel was searching for the keys most of the time and wasn’t sure neither where to start, nor with which finger to start. In addition to that, once he managed to start with the correct finger on the correct key, he kept missing the sharps and the flats, this persisted for many months. Many would have given up concluding that Daniel would never be able to manage even this simple task, but persistence paid off and he finally was able to play these 5-finger scales. Once we achieved this goal and Daniel had no problem at all playing his five-finger scales. The next step was to work on the octave scales starting with C. Moving the thumb under the third finger was difficult due to fine motor difficulties, but it wasn’t the real problem that we faced, the problem was that for around a month Daniel would forget to do this and ended up to repeat the process many times before he got it right and remember to shift fingers on both ways, up and down the scale. When it was time to play the C scale with the left hand, the mirroring effect of the scale - beginning with the fifth finger and playing all the fingers first before shifting, seemed almost impossible, for months Daniel wanted to shift after playing the first three notes of the scale. Because I didn’t want to make him feel that he wasn’t grasping it, I moved on to teach the G scale, right hand while still working on the left-hand C and so on. I tried my best not to make him feel that he is having real difficulty, on the contrary, we kept moving on learning new scales with the right hand while fixing the problem with the left hand until we managed. Describing this in writing doesn’t give the full picture of the many months of work and effort we both put in to make it work.
2. Fine motor skills difficulties:
Fine motor skills are a big challenge to most students with disabilities, however, I noticed that it comes in different shapes and forms. Students with Down syndrome, usually have no problems with giving numbers to their fingers nor do they have a problem moving a certain finger on demand. Sometimes, however, they insist on playing with a certain finger every time. They rarely mix up their left hand with their right hand. However, it takes them much longer than the others to learn how to play their scales and pieces with the correct fingers and with a good fluidity of motion and good technique. Playing with the correct hand shape and form seems impossible in many cases, particularly playing with the pinky.
3. Speaking and speech clarity:
Understanding the speech of students with Down syndrome can be challenging at the beginning. However, I realized that after some time, and once I get to know my students for a good period of time, I begin to understand their speech better particularly due to the fact that they are keen communicators who want to socialize.
Since all of the challenges mentioned above are permanent challenges that I find myself having to deal with during every lesson, I discovered that in order to effectively teach my students with Down syndrome piano I need to follow the four main strategies mentioned below:
1. Perseverance and a lot of repetition are very important:
Persistence and continuously going on and persevering even after witnessing some signs that suggest giving up. The first few months are never easy or straightforward and can be very discouraging. Do you know the saying: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result.” ? I ignore it, I repeat and I repeat a lot.
This means that the learning process will take a longer time than usual, but given enough time and perseverance, hard work pays off in the end, every time.
2. Breaking information into small digestible steps:
Starting with a regular piano method book is not a great idea, these books are great for typical students but progress too fast for students with disabilities, especially at the beginning. I prefer to delay using them for later, once I am sure they’ll not discourage, overwhelm and disappoint my student.
I’ll give an example of the following page in Bastiens's primer book and show you how many concepts are included in one lesson and how overwhelming it can be to a student who has just started to learn piano. The concepts that I will mention below are only a portion of the concepts present on this page, but they are the only concepts necessary to successfully play the line at the end. You will most probably be able to find many other concepts.
Recognizing the black-white key pattern.
Play with a steady beat.
Each note written means pressing one key on the piano.
Start counting exactly at the same time when you press the key.
When counting we need to maintain a steady pace between the numbers - Count on the beat not randomly.
Fingers have numbers.
Every finger has a different number that has nothing to do with counting.
The little numbers on top of the notes are note counts, they are finger numbers.
A bar line doesn’t mean we pause. We have to keep going and disregard the presence of these lines.
The numbers written on the piano diagram are the numbers of the fingers that we need to play with.
A student with Down syndrome who has only just begun piano lessons will find this page very discouraging and will want to quit coming to the lessons if everything above is being taught at the same time. Many more lessons and steps are needed before we start to teach these concepts that we have on this seemingly simple page.
3. Color coding solves many problems:
Color coding works so beautifully with all students, it helps with breaking up the concepts, and keeps progress rolling despite the difficulty and the inability to confidently read music, particularly in the beginning stages.
New students will be able to play meaningful pieces that they find interesting and will keep them engaged and willing to put in the effort needed for success. They will enjoy playing a variety of pieces and this, in turn, gives them a great sense of achievement.