The Way We Learn: Teaching A Blind Student to Read Music

I have not written a blog post in quite some time, but I am going to turn over a new leaf this year (I can still say that even though it’s April, right?) and get back on the blogging train with a several part series called “The Way We Learn.”  Having various jobs teaching piano throughout the Greater New Orleans Area allows me many different opportunities to hone my teaching skills and meet a wide variety of students from different backgrounds.  A few of those students have inspired me to re-evaluate my teaching approach, and I would like to share those experiences.

The student I will be writing about today is an adult private student who I met this year at the local community college where I am on staff as an adjunct professor of music.  This student has given me permission to write about our experience working together, but he prefers that I not use his name, so I will be referring to him as “Darren” throughout this post.

I first met Darren as a student in my Piano I class, a group piano class designed for beginner students that is usually comprised of about 16 students all playing digital keyboards…. at the same time.  It can be a challenging class to teach, as it consists of both music track students and non-music track students, some with experience, some with none.  The object of the class is to teach students how to read music and prepare them with the technical skills needed to work through more challenging literature, theory, etc. in subsequent classes.  As this class focuses on basics such as staff reading, rhythmic values, and musical structure, Darren and I quickly learned that this type of class structure would not work for him.  The class is fairly fast-paced, and I have minimal one-on-one time with the students, as we only meet twice a week.  As a result, we obtained permission from the Dean for him to take private lessons in place of Piano I class.

The first thing I will say about Darren is that he is extremely talented and already had a solid background in theory before beginning his private lessons with me.  He had studied with other teachers in the past but had been taught to play mostly by ear.  This background has been essential to our ability to work together with the methods I have chosen.  It should also be made clear that I am not a big “planner” when it comes to private lessons.  I find lessons plans constrictive and usually subscribe to the “trial and error” method of teaching, as it’s important to be able to change your approach according to how each student learns and how well your approach is working to begin with.  Admitting defeat and scrapping the plan is a huge part of how I have developed my skills as both a teacher and student over the years, so I stick with what I know.

This method of trial and error has proven more successful than both Darren and I anticipated.  I love finding new ways to do things, and Darren has luckily been the type of student who enjoys walking that path with me.  As I said, Darren does have a great deal of training in music theory.  He had already learned several scales, all of his key signatures, and was familiar with I, IV, and V chords before he started lessons with me.  On the other hand, Darren had no formal training in note values, time signatures, intervals, or musical structure, so we started there.  As Darren’s teacher for Piano I, it is my job to teach him how to read music.  As he is unable to see the music on the page, we worked by descriptions of the page.  Through detailed explanation, I was able to explain to Darren how music is structured, based upon measures (boxes with notes in them), bar lines (vertical lines between the boxes), staff (lines and spaces on the page that show us where notes sit on the piano), grand staff (two staves stacked on top of each other with space in the middle), etc.  All of this description gave him a reference point from which we were able to build the structure of a piece through verbal and auditory clues.

We started by learning and clapping basic rhythms involving quarter notes, half notes, dotted half notes, and whole notes. From there, I would explain the key signature and structure of a piece. i.e. “This piece has 8 measures, is in 4/4 time, and in C Major.  We are in C position, and we will learn one measure at a time starting with this rhythm….”  I would dictate the rhythm of the piece one measure at a time, followed by us tapping that rhythm on our legs using the right hand for the treble clef rhythms and left hand for the bass clef rhythms.  Once he memorized the rhythm of one measure, we applied the correct notes to the rhythm we learned.  I usually played it for him first, as well.  After we learned one measure of the piece, we would then go on to the next and do the same.  Upon completing the second measure, we would go back to the first and do the first and second measures in succession, repeating that process until it became too much to remember.   Depending on the piece, we might go through 4 measures or 8 measures at once.

The unique part about the way Darren learns is that he has an incredible memory.  This technique that we use to learn new pieces is essentially the same technique many classical pianists use to memorize their pieces.  The major difference is that Darren is memorizing AS he is learning while most pianists have already practiced the piece approximately 1,000 times before they begin the memorization process.  The amazing part?  It’s still there when we comes back the following week.  Darren uses a tape recorder to record each of our lessons so he can replay the description of the piece as many times as he wants when he is at home practicing.  He comes in the next week and plays what we had worked on the previous week, and we pick up where we left off.  Using this technique in combination with learning scales, 5-finger positions in every key, and intervals in every key has actually allowed us to progress more quickly than if he were learning through the standard “page by page” approach that I use in my classes.  After 10 weeks of lessons, we are currently learning a one-page piece in 6/8 time that is in the key of D minor and changes positions about five or six times.  He learned 75% of the piece in one sitting, and it has made me rethink my approach.  How much do we rely on sight at the expense of our other senses?  Is our reliance on looking at our hands and following the page preventing us from really using our brains?  Has Darren developed a better sense of memory because of his inability to see, or do most students just not develop their memories well enough to begin with?

I may never get the answers to those questions, but working with Darren has allowed me the opportunity to ask them in the first place and hopefully seek them out over time.  I have also learned a tremendous amount about people from my lessons with Darren, namely that the most incredible people are often the ones who have had the most difficult roads to travel.  Talk to Darren for 5 minutes though, and you would never know. He is excited and prepared for every lesson, and he never backs down from a challenge.  He indulges my every question and laughs it off when I say things like, “Well, that went better than I thought, and I don’t really know what I’m doing next, so I’ll get back to you on that in about 20 minutes.”  He has made me a better teacher and a better person by allowing me to know him.  With Darren, I truly feel like our lesson are a team effort.  The line between teacher and student has been blurred beyond the point of recognition, and for that, I am grateful.

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