Taking on a new task or skill in life requires adjustment. This can be applied to our journey early in our life when we first learn to walk, or first learning to ride a bike. These skills take time to learn the correct approach to give our bodies the correct sequence of instructions for movement, but also to learn the balance needed for success. That same learning curve can also be applied to teaching. When we first begin to teach, we begin by taking what we know and try to communicate it back to our students.
Over time this regurgitation of information from our personal experiences and learned pedagogy becomes more developed. This allows us to present our ideas to students in the most efficient ways as we grow as teachers. What if it a student has difficulty learning? What if a student is physically not capable of processing what you are telling them? These kind of questions are ones that I recently had to address when taking on a student with special needs.
My student was one who had been diagnosed with Autism. This disorder effects people in different ways depending on the severity of their diagnosis. What I noticed in my student's disability was that she lacked an ability to retain information from week to week, and often applying what we were addressing in each lesson. A secondary issue was that she had difficulty creating expressive ideas beyond what was on the page. Until this time, I had never had instruction on how to deal with a student who was diagnosed with a mental disorder, but I wanted to provide the best instruction I could for her. So I began to do research.
In the beginning, I started by giving her simple instructions and creating small phrases such as "Big Belly Breath" and "Blow out the Candle." These phrases began to slowly work their way into her responses to many of my questions and I began to see progress in her air support and connection. I utilized the basic progressions of note to note movement that James Thompson's Buzzing Basics presents. This enabled us to begin tackling a decent majority of the register from week to week. The main issue of information retention from lesson to lesson was still a problem.
I reached out to Dr. Ryan Gardener, Professor of Trumpet at Oklahoma State University. Dr. Gardener is an artist coordinator for the Music For Autism Program that presents musical concerts and events for students with autism all over the country. He also is a fellow Eastman School of Music alumni that I have had the pleasure of knowing for several years. His guidance was pivotal in helping to create a lasting instructional method that my student could slowly begin retaining and building upon from lesson to lesson. The main aspect he presented in his work with students with autism was that movement played a large part in musical instruction retention. So, I began to develop a new way of teaching just for my student while using many of my traditional methods I had used in the past.
I first began to incorporate hand movements and directional leaning into our work in the Stamp and Thompson books. This allowed her to get a sense as to when and how to move her air depending on what part of the register she was playing. This addition to instruction allowed her to make huge progress in just the first lesson, but quickly expand upon from lesson to lesson. My next step was to begin talking about dynamics and style through literal dancing. I used many of the Bordogni etudes to show her various types of styles physically on the page as well as how to dance to them. Staccato styles were presented walking around on her tip toes, while a more majestic or heroic theme was presented with a stately march around the room while showing off our muscles. With each different style, I developed or showed a new way of moving so that when we saw that same style again I just mentioned the dance or movement and she was able to play in a way that matched our movement. Not ever movement was easily transferred back to performance, but overall this gave her a huge advantage in playing in a more emotional way than before.
The step we are currently working on is to begin transferring feelings into her performance. I am showing her clips on Youtube from movies that evoke various emotions and asking her how they make her feel. Then once an emotion is established, we begin to find ways of moving that relate to those emotions. This way we can connect those movements and emotions in the same manner that the styles are connected to the music.
Overall, this has been a fantastic music journey for myself both as a teacher, and performer. Being able to see joy in a student when they know they have done something great is an awesome achievement. Finding a way for a student to perform on a level that many thought would not be achieved is a milestone for myself. Since our first lesson together, my student has placed in the top 3 best students in her All-County Band, but also in the top 5 of her All-District Band. We are currently preparing for her All-State audition next week, and with the progress she is showing now I have all the confidence she will continue to show others how amazing she really is!
*If you have any advice on how I can further help my student - Please leave a comment below or contact me directly. I am always looking for more way to help my student acheive their goals.