Excerpt from Playing It Their Way: An Innovative Approach to Teaching Piano to Individuals with Physical or Mental Disabilities by Karen, Z. Kowalski

The Role of the Family: How to Help Your Budding Musician Succeed

When I was a child practicing the piano, my grandmother, “Bam,” would set the timer for 30 minutes and sit in the living room with me. She did not sit in the room to make sure that I abided by the timer that clocked my daily session. Instead, she sat and listened. She honestly enjoyed listening to me play “Crunchy Flakes” and “Which Witch is Which.” This attention made my time at the piano very special and in a lot of ways this memory continues to encourage me to play to this day. In these days of parents working late, quick dinners and activity/ homework overload, there may not be a lot of time to practice music. The most unfortunate thing is that with limited amount of time also comes a limited amount of opportunities for families to sit and listen to their young musicians play.

I tell all of my students, even those with special needs, that they must make a commitment to practice every day—especially the day of the lesson, while the information is fresh in their memories. This routine ensures that the lesson will stick for the rest of the week. To help establish a routine, the student should set a consistent time each day specifically for music practice. If there happens to be a limited amount of time to practice on a certain day, the child should play for at least 10 minutes to get his fingers moving and to keep his mind musically active. The student with special needs will require more assistance when practicing. For this reason, I encourage weekly contact with the family regarding what was learned in the lesson. For example, in some circumstances, I will invite parents to remain in the room for a lesson so that they can see how I teach the material. In essence, I am teaching them the lesson along with the student. The parents then can go home and reinforce the way that I taught the material. However, there are times when it may be unnecessary—or even detrimental—to have parents at the lesson. In these cases, I will stop the lesson five minutes early and discuss the material with the parents. Another strategy is to have my students give their parents “concerts” at the end of the lesson. That may involve my playing a duet with the student or having the student play solo. The students find this motivating, plus it is a good way to encourage them to work hard during the lesson. A final option is to audiotape the lesson. This allows the parents to learn the terminology I use and understand the way that I present the material so that they can do the same during the week. Since students often are motivated by listening to themselves play, I sometimes will play the recording during the lesson. Many students get so excited that they will listen to the tape on the ride home. And that leads me to concerts.

I highly recommend organizing concerts. Your students will work harder and learn their music better when they know that a concert is upcoming. A very important component of music lessons is learning how to perform in front of an audience, and concerts are an excellent way for students to learn how to cope with anxiety, build social skills (bowing, smiling) and increase self-esteem. Children with special needs have a greater propensity than other children to have low self-esteem. They may realize on some level that they are different than other people or may wonder why their bodies do not work as well as others. Therefore self-esteem is an essential area to address. Playing concerts in front of accepting/familiar entities is a good place to start. Beginner piano students can play in front of their families, their pets or their stuffed friends. For more outgoing or composed students, try scheduling concerts at senior citizen complexes or nursing homes. The staffs are usually very welcoming to anyone who offers to entertain their residents. And, yes, concerts can be performed by people with special needs. All of my students with special needs have participated in concerts, and some are now at the point where they exhibit no nervousness; some even act like hams. Families of individuals with special needs are especially proud when their children are able to entertain others. It is another way of mainstreaming people with special needs into the community. I also have found that such community involvement increases the empathy of “typically developing” music students when they watch and listen to these students play. So my goal for this chapter can be summed up in one word: LISTEN. Encourage parents to listen to their children play. Make it a special time for the family. It is a good chance to slow down, relax and enjoy life. Consider that a special lesson from my Bam.

Mission Possible: Biographies of Special Musicians

Throughout the years I have taught many amazing students-some with disabilities, some without. All, however, have taught me much about how to instruct as well as imparted a few lessons in dedication and persistence along the way. I’d like you to meet some of these special people who have inspired me to create this book for you: Three of my students with special needs ( Justin, Shery and Robert) and Sujeet Desai, a self-advocate who is at the forefront of this initiative to open the doors to music for people with special needs. His story, like the others, is inspirational and a testament to the power of music.

Sujeet Desai, 25, Down syndrome:
Sujeet Desai is an accomplished musician born with Down syndrome. Sujeet plays six instruments: Bb [B flat] and bass clarinet, alto saxophone, violin, piano and drums. In June 2001 he graduated from high school with honors and in May 2003 from the Berkshire Hills Music Academy in Massachusetts after two-year residential post-secondary study in Music and Human services. Sujeet travels around the world to do his inspirational solo performances and self-advocacy workshops. Right after the academy graduation he started working as a teacher’s aide for a music department in an elementary school. Currently he plays his music in churches, nursing homes, senior centers, hospital and various local community events as well works in a library. In July 2006 Sujeet got married to Carrie Bergeron, also a self-advocate. He lives with his wife in an apartment in Rome, New York, and enjoys his independent living. In 1998, when Sujeet started to volunteer to provide entertainment the overwhelming response received from his audience led to his decision to make music his career. Since March 2000 he has performed in many state, national and international conferences, annual events and is booked in advance till 2008. Sujeet is a recipient of seven international awards for his music and self-advocacy.

Besides music, Sujeet has a second-degree Black Belt in martial arts (Tae Kwon Do). He has won gold and silver medals in the World Games 1999 Special Olympics in swimming and numerous medals in Special Olympics in Alpine skiing, cross-country running and bowling. He enjoys writing e-mails to his fans from all over the world who visit his Web site. Sujeet opened his Web site in 1997 in his computer graphic class, which is visited by over 107,000 people from around the world with rave reviews. Two documentaries were done on Sujeet’s life and had many television and newspaper interviews. After his trailblazing marriage to Carrie, they both were featured in The Wall Street Journal [and] The New York Times, and [had their story] aired on the national television shows “The View,” “20/20,” “Oprah Winfrey” and WCNY public channels.

Sindoor Desai, Sujeet’s mother:
During Sujeet’s nine years of school it was a continuous, frustrating struggle with school teachers to advocate for his abilities. Although I was fortunate to locate very good private teachers for each instrument, it was not easy. Sujeet has worked very hard throughout the last decade trying to become the finest musician he can be, while also working to overcome the limitations of his disability.

Music has helped him bridge this gap. With his musical versatility Sujeet has become a role model and has brought inspiration and hope to individuals with disability, their parents, educators and the services that work with them. Sujeet’s family takes pride in him for all that he has brought into their lives. Currently his father and I travel with him to support him during his performances. Our mission is to send a message across the world that individuals with disabilities can, given opportunities for their abilities, “make it happen.” Sujeet’s music is more than just an entertainment. It’s educational, inspirational and focused to make his mission possible!

Justin, 11 years old, autistic:
I was told that children show their talents at a young age. My son, Justin, was diagnosed autistic at age 3. Around this time, I made a special occasion cake for my husband, and Justin, assuming it was his birthday, went to his toy piano and, to our surprise, started playing “Happy Birthday.” A few months later, he played “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” He only would play with musical toys. Through the Very Special Arts Program in New Jersey, I found a teacher who taught music to special-needs kids. At the same time we saw an ad offering pianos at a discount. We decided to make an investment in our son and bought the piano. Justin started music lessons in August 2004- with an adult music book. He plays the piano about seven times a day, from early morning to evening. My heart overflows with joy and pride when he touches the piano keys. He is my everyday miracle.

I believe music is the one universal language, which can penetrate one’s heart and move people to action. Music is especially important in a special education program. It can read into the mind of the unknown and bring forth a calmer, kinder, focused child. Sadly, music is becoming an overlooked teaching tool in the school system. In an environment of cutbacks in the arts, the absence of music classes is a disservice to all, especially special-needs kids.

Justin and my daughter, who is also in the autistic spectrum, play the violin. Music, without a doubt, will nurture and mature my children into wonderful, whole human beings. It is a Godsend to have a music teacher who has the gift of song and a gift to reach children musically where many others may pass over. Music is a key to life.
—Monica Brown, Justin’s mother
Shery Smith, 43, Down syndrome
Playing the piano is one of Shery’s most cherished activities. It increases her sense of self-worth, and she quietly beams with pride at her accomplishment whenever she talks about her lessons. Just a few short years ago, she could not even use her fingers separately to form individual notes. Now, she plays with both hands, uses chords and reads music. She has progressed through at least 15 books covering show tunes, the best of John Denver, the Beatles and even some simplified classical pieces. It’s a joy for our entire family, not just because she has learned the technique of how to play the piano, but more because of what it has done for her physically, mentally and, most of all, emotionally. The fact that it is something special to her, that she can “own,” was certainly clear the day she offered to have her father sit down while she accompanied him on a song he seemed to be having trouble singing! Finally, she could be in charge; she could be the helper instead of forever the one being helped. It was a wonderful moment watching her and knowing that she took another step toward realizing her own value.
—Doris Smith, Shery’s mother
Robert Louison, 14, Down syndrome
If someone would have told me that 13 years ago when my son was born with Down syndrome, he would be able to read and play music, I probably would have doubted them. To my surprise, he can read music and play the piano. Music is a very important part in his life. He loves to listen to music and loves to perform. Music has always been prominent and important in our family, and it makes me very proud to be able to watch my son express himself through music.
—Lynda Louison, Robert’s mother

Even though a child might be physically or mentally disabled, he should not be deprived of music. Many people think that disabled children don’t have the time or the ability to concentrate on music. However, just like studies show that music helps non-disabled people with their studies and work, this is true for disabled children as well. I have evidence to prove that.

My little brother, Robert, was born with Down syndrome. This results in a mental and physical disability including low muscle tone. However, with the help of Robert’s occupational therapist, Karen, he is able to take weekly lessons practicing the piano. Fortunately for us, Karen has worked with many students with disabilities and has also taken on her passion of piano playing on the side. This enables her to provide the best learning experience for my brother. He is very comfortable with her as well, since she is his favorite teacher. Robert takes one piano lesson a week for about an hour. They work on 50 the names of the notes and where you place your fingers. Just recently, he’s been progressing more than ever. He has performed in a couple of recitals with Karen’s other students.
We always talk about how it would be if Robert wasn’t disabled, and how he would be yet another member of the Louison family passing through the band program at Randolph High School, giving my mother four more years of high school band. However, he has shown us that he has the music gene and is very passionate about it. This proves that children with disabilities can have the opportunity to learn music just like the rest of us.
—Michael Louison, Robert’s brother

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