Updated: Feb 18
As private music teachers we have the ability to connect with our students in a profound way. Because we have the luxury of one on one time with each student we have the ability to learn about them in a way a classroom teacher could only wish for. I like to say that I get that child’s best 30 minutes of the week. It’s long enough to really dig into an issue, but not so long that the child will get bored – that is if I do it correctly.
The nature of how we teach private lessons to individual students lends itself
personalization. Every student who walks through our studio door is going to get a personalized experience just because they are all different. I remember learning about “special education” back in my undergrad when I was a music education major. It was an overview class – like intro to education or something really vague. The things we were learning in that unit were things I do naturally as a private teacher any way.
This brings me to the point of my post for this month. I have, over the years, worked with only a handful of students that were autistic. Better put some of my students were students with autism. Language matters. We don’t use the term anymore. People first language is the standard now. We wouldn’t say “autistic student.” Put the person first then the diagnosis. They are a person, not a condition. This goes for all areas of life, too. Let’s be kind, people!!
The first student I taught who had some issues (as reported by their parents) that made them neuro-divergent came toward the middle of my first decade as a private teacher. There were several different diagnoses reported about the student right from the start. It was the first time a parent had spoken to me about their child’s learning style and perceived limitations. That student (I’ll call them Allegro for the purposes of this post) turned out to be the most satisfying student/teacher relationship I have had ever in my career. Allegro changed my life. They gave me a new perspective on teaching and learning and the purpose of music lessons for all learners.
Allegro was literally shaking at their first lesson; they were so excited to begin lessons. We started off very well. Allegro practiced what I asked them to, and we started to make some really great progress. As the years passed, however, it became increasingly difficult for Allegro to continue to practice to the level they did in the beginning. School was becoming more serious and time-consuming. Once they began junior high the learning style and other considerations suddenly became an issue. Our comfortable rhythm of assignment, practice, lesson was no longer working.
So, I improvised. I used my instinct to change how I introduced concepts. Allegro was a violin student. We were having trouble learning third position. Allegro could understand it only if all the fingerings were written in, but they made many mistakes trying to write in all those fingerings. If I kept them on the same simple exercises in the book I used to introduce the concept of 3rd position they would have gotten bored and eventually just memorized the notes without understanding the concept.
I switched my focus to finding pieces Allegro really wanted to learn. Some were outside the classical canon of pieces, but it didn’t really matter to me what they were learning as long as they met the standards I had set. Allegro needed to understand 3rd position. So, we started with a piece where the fun, exciting part was all too high to reach from first position. It was like magic.
This is the sort of accommodation private music teachers make on a regular basis. It’s just the nature of what we do. The nimble, always changing instruction that is how music is taught. I’m sure there are other disciplines where this happens as well, but it really struck me that what we do naturally is what they literally teach classroom teachers to do for children with special needs.
Allegro kept learning violin and thrived in their high school orchestra program. We enjoyed a close relationship that has continued after they graduated a number of years ago. I became like a member of their family. Of course, Allegro’s parents were amazing people, too. How could they not be?
Not all students will be like Allegro, nor do we need them to all be. We can connect with every student though regardless of who they are. It just might look different with different situations.
The first thing to do when presented with a student who has an autism diagnosis or even a suspected (by the parents) diagnosis is to ask questions of the parents. Get a sense for the student’s learning style. The parents might not have a lot of information about what works because they might not even know at that point. If there aren’t any clear guidelines after chatting with the parents you will need to meet the student next.
Try age appropriate questions to get a sense of how comfortable the student is. Then start where you would with a neuro-typical student. Always start exactly where you would with any student of that age and experience level. Then make small changes as you go.
Throughout my research on this topic I have not found any special tips or tricks that we do not regularly employ as music teachers already. That’s the secret we all knew this whole time, right? Music lessons with an effective teacher (such as everyone here at Dynamic Music Studios) can enhance any student’s learning experience in and out of lessons.
Photo by CliftonMarie Photography