Piano, my oldest friend. I have known you since my seventh year. My first instrument loaned from a neighbor's, while they were far overseas. I used to go to their home and treat myself to your black and white keys, as if you were a candy treat. I chose you, my oldest friend, but little did I know that this was going to be a life long friendship, like the 2-colors of your ivory keys. Or maybe, it was you that chose to help me find my path: to help me express things without having to find words, without labels, without making things fit into boxes. Not even needing to see pictures in my mind, I only need to hear your resonating sound, and my spirit is ever uplifted.
How could I not share music with my kids?
Growing up, I always thought that when I have kids, I would of course teach them to play the piano. Having taught piano lessons for over twenty years (hard to believe how fast those twenty years have flown), it seemed even more natural for me to want to do that. With Jake's autism however, it wasn't going to be that straight forward, as nothing usually is with autism. Even teaching the basic recognition of the two different colors of the keys, and that the black keys were grouped in alternating groups of twos and threes, was not so simple as it typically was when teaching others' kids. If I ever encountered behavioral challenges of young kids, it was mostly because they didn't want to sit through a lesson. With Jake's autism, it wasn't an issue of him not wanting to be there. It was the challenge of finding a new unfamiliar way, that would work for him, to teach him what I have taught for years.
Piano For AutismI decided that I wanted music to be a part of Jake's ABA therapy. I have his therapist use a toy baby grand piano as well as our upright acoustic piano, to have him repeat short basic rhythmic patterns that she plays. This develops pattern recognition and aural skills. Through his therapy and music being taught in an ABA manner (Applied Behavioral Analysis is the most common autism therapy that instructs with lots of short repetitions) I figured that he would build some tolerance to eventually sit through a real half hour long lesson with me. I also did a bunch of experimenting, to see how long of an attention span I could get from him.
I did a lot of hand over hand instruction, so that he could feel the keys move under his fingers; tapping into potential muscle memory. I tried to not speak a whole lot, since his attention span was short already. When I did speak, I would do so in a consistent rhythmic pattern. For example, I took the pattern of short-short-long while simultaneously saying "2 black keys" at least two times in a row. I positioned his index and third fingers to make a V shape/peace sign, and with hand over hand did the "2 black keys" exercise with him. He eventually followed along and started chanting those words in that short-short-long rhythmic pattern. Since then, he has on several occasions, sat on his own at the piano, and did this pattern by himself while using his words.
I used the same type of teaching with the twins, even though they are not living with autism. Using ABA teaching techniques can be used to teach anyone. Kids living with autism will benefit from it the most, because they don't pick up on many things as naturally as their neuro-typically developed piers, especially social things (but that's saved for another blog post). The teaching style of breaking a task down into several smaller/shorter steps with many many repetitions, is what gets optimal results.
The twins are only three years old, so their attention span is not very long. They just mostly want to play on the piano for a few minutes and move on to somethings else. I don't push it on them or Jake. I want to expose them to music and have them take interest by seeing me playing the piano. I then have them play at their request and just interject brief spurts of teaching moments. The other day, they were both fighting over playing the piano. They both wanted to show me that they can do the "2 black keys" in rhythm. So far, they have not differentiated between the groups of 2s and 3s, so they chant "2 black keys" while playing on the 3 black key group with an open hand. Forget that peace sign Mom. I don't force correcting them very much, because they want to be independent so much.
For now my old friend, I'll keep exposing the kids to your two-toned steps, and as their attention and tolerance develops, more teaching will take place for the musical Roses. A moment of reflection puts things into new perspective for this one student. Just as the two black piano keys repetitively resonate for my kids and unlock a world of possibilities; with one key turn I wave goodbye to my childhood piano lessons. The second key turns, unlocking a door to a hope with new possibilities. Once again, I am ever uplifted.
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