I’ve often had fellow piano teachers tell me that they’re not ‘able’ to take piano students with disabilities. And I regularly get students who tell me they were let go by their previous teacher because he or she couldn’t teach them. It always baffles me to hear how willing music teachers are to excuse themselves from Inclusion. And with most music lessons taught through private studios, there is nobody to regulate accessibility for these students. When I ask them more about their experiences with kids with disabilities, it usually comes back to them just not knowing how to teach students with specific needs. An educated teacher-parent team who understands what the child is struggling with and how to address it is much more likely to create an Inclusive music learning environment.
Music reading is one of the most common barriers that many children with disabilities face when learning to play the piano. But reading music allows the musician to be independent when playing, which can be such a freeing experience for any child; it’s like losing yourself in a good book.
A huge proportion of music reading challenges have to do with a student’s visual perception and eye movement (oculomotor) difficulties, especially for students with learning disabilities. Visual perception is different from what we usually consider to be having good or bad ‘eyesight’. And it doesn’t mean that you need glasses, either. It’s how our brain makes sense of what we see.
Here are some signs a student’s difficulties reading music might have to do with their visual skills:
- They lose their place while glancing between the keys and the music or ask you to point to each note on the music to help them follow along as they play.
- They have a hard time telling intervals between notes or noticing if the music is ascending or descending.
- They might forget which side of the staff or instrument is for high notes and which is for low notes.
- They often try to ‘count’ from a known note every time either on a keyboard or in the music, or rely heavily on mnemonic acronyms like “All Cows Eat Grass.”
If these sound familiar, you might get to be their music reading hero if you give them a little visual support. Some kids just need specific instructions to know where and how to look at music, but it’s not often taught, it’s just expected. Teaching the spatial relationships of notes with simple verbal descriptions or having the child physically place the note on a music staff is a positive way to support learning for auditory and kinesthetic learners.
Most music method books usually only show (pretty small) black notes & lines. That would be like if we only taught the alphabet with a small, serif font. Meanwhile, kids are learning the alphabet by tracing it in play-dough, reading illustrated alphabet books, singing the alphabet song, playing with alphabet refrigerator magnets, etc. Every kid is offered multisensory education opportunities to make sure they catch all the kids’ unique learning styles. There’s no reason all music students, including those with different learning styles, shouldn’t have the same variety of avenues for learning!
Top Five Vision and Note Reading Ideas
Some kids do better when they’re able to see only the part of the music they’re working on. Cover the other parts with a blank paper or even create little window cutouts in a notecard. You can make different size windows for different kids’ needs, depending on how many notes they can handle seeing at one time.
1. Play Musical Eye-Spy and hunt for types of notes (like all the middle C’s, or all the half notes)
2. Make it bigger! Show them very large notes, and I mean like really big. Sometimes kids need to work off sheets that have only a few notes per page.
3. Try coloring in the notes in rainbow order starting on C (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, pink). Use it just as a game to reinforce note names or keep the colors on as training wheels while they work on note reading skills.
4. Learn music through FableNotes stories by reading a book that introduces the notes with colorful music note characters. Decorate a music staff felt-board with the notes and talk about what makes each one unique.
5. Use the whole body for kinesthetic learning! You can mark 5 tape lines on the floor and stand with your feet on a space or line and talk about which note you’re standing on.
It’s our job as music teachers to bring music to life and to make music fun and accessible for all our students. So many music students feel like failures because their visual weaknesses aren’t being supported as they learn music. We have such a special role in helping our students gain self-confidence, learn important life skills through music, and develop a life-long love of music.
Marin Marka, MS, OTR/L is a board certified pediatric occupational therapist who’s been adapting piano lessons to include children with disabilities for 7 years. She created the FableNotes© curriculum as an evidence-based way to make music learning multi-sensory and accessible. The FableNotes learning materials teach music reading through stories, laminated resources, and interactive felt-boards with the 12 lovably memorable music note monsters.
She graduated summa cum laude with a BA in child study and human development from Tufts University. She then went on to receive her master of science in Occupational Therapy from Boston University. Marin currently works as an inclusive music teacher and a pediatric occupational therapist for a public school. She has a passion for making music accessible for all.