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Repertoire Choices for Students with Autism

By Dr. Scott Price | June 23, 2018

Repertoire Choices for Students with Autism

One of the most frequent topics teachers ask about during my workshops and lectures on teaching students with autism centers on which pieces I use with my students.  This is an excellent question and I usually frame my answer by talking about what my students have taught me about the types of pieces they need and more importantly, how they need for them to be taught. I think the key is not so much in the specific piece that is chosen, but in the type of repertoire chosen, the learning process that is created for the student, the vocabulary used in the delivery, and the need for creating a positive and supportive experience that moves at an appropriate pace.

Let the Student Be Your Guide

My students with autism amaze and humble me at every lesson with their amazing way of thinking and processing information. The autistic mind has a wonderful gift for routines and schedules, detail, and step-by-step breakdown of tasks. They focus with great intensity on the relevant objectives in their music making while often dismissing things that are not meaningful, relevant, or productive to their progress. I think it is important to recognize this ability as a talent and aptitude and not as a deficit in learning. The student with autism’s gift for routines and schedules, detail, and step-by-step breakdown of tasks frames our pedagogy, and informs the choices we make in engaging with beginning and elementary repertoire for their study. These students are wonderful teachers if we allow them to reframe our thinking, understanding, and pedagogy into the way they view the world.

These students also think differently about their learning and in their understanding of concepts. In communicating with them, analogies and metaphors are often confusing and meaningless. They need for me to use literal language with exact vocabulary usage. Instead of saying “staccatos need to be played like popcorn,” say “staccato means play the key and take your finger off of the key very quickly.” The former asks the student to create an imaginary sound concept with an assumption that they will equate that concept with body movements while the latter tells them exactly in step-by-step instruction what to do with their body to create the desired sound using the piano keyboard. Both types of communication engage creative music making. The student who functions with the autistic mode of thinking needs for my pedagogy to change to the second form of communication to meet the literal and procedural needs in the successful execution of the task.

How and What to Teach?

As I enter the teaching process, there are two parts of the question: 1) how I teach, and 2) what I teach. The first part of the question dictates that I must create a learning process for my student that welcomes and utilizes their gifts for routines and schedules, detail, and step-by-step breakdown of tasks. This usually involves a routine or schedule of activities for the lesson. An example of this type of routine is as follows, and would be given or spoken to the student at the opening of each lesson, and/or available as a visual chart either in written form, or as visual icons as necessary:

First, we are going to do RH and LH.

Then we are going to do finger numbers.

Then we are going to do key names.

Then we will do Lesson Book.

Then we will do Performance Book.

Then we will learn Bamboo Leaves.


The 5-Step Plan

Then each part of the lesson will be broken down into step-by-step tasks. The key to success is directing attention to small details, giving them labels, and explaining what to do in very literal language. I always ask my students to learn and use the “5-Step Plan” in their learning and practicing:

  1. Notes
  2. Fingering
  3. Counting
  4. Learn a Small Bit
  5. 5 Time Rule—Play the small bit perfectly 5 times

In learning this way, my students have a process to follow and their learning process is also their practice process. The procedure is step-by-step with clear goals and outcomes. The repertoire that is chosen fits this process. At the beginning levels, pieces are chosen that contain very clear meter, rhythm, harmonic patterns, and level-appropriate melodic construction that may be utilized in a step-by-step way of learning.

Sample Lesson: "Bamboo Leaves"

The following piece is “Bamboo Leaves” from Premier Piano Course, Performance Book 1A (click the image below for the full sample page). This is an example of a pattern-oriented piece that works well in helping our students with autism not only learn a new piece, but to learn a process to use in approaching other pieces. As you look through the first measure, you will see that every portion of the measure may be broken down into step-by-step instruction. For my student with autism to be successful in learning this piece, I need to address the relevant concepts. In this case, black keys, finger numbers, alternating RH and LH movements, and keeping a steady beat. The drawings and title on the page may not be relevant to the student, and they may not be ready to comprehend a time signature or it may be too much of an abstract layer in their thinking. Many parts of the music may be taught through sound and without accompanying abstract vocabulary and conceptualization if that is not appropriate for the student.

Bamboo Leaves Sample Image

To address the mode of communication needed by the student, and the step-by-step process in the instruction, the following type of script may be useful. I have used this type of script for this piece, and various iterations of this script in teaching my students over the years:

  • Next, we are going to learn Bamboo Leaves.
  • Can we learn how to play the first measure? Yes? Good!

(If the answer is “no,” ask again or wait until the student is ready)

  • Show me your RH. Great!
  • Show me finger number 2. Show me finger number 3.
  • Can you play this black key with finger number 2? Great!
  • Can you play this black key with finger number 3? Great!
  • Play this key with finger number 2, then this key with finger number 3 with no stopping. Great job!
  • Do it again. Terrific!
  • Can we do it with steady playing? (Count by steadily saying “play, play”)
  • Can we do LH?
  • Show me your LH. Great!
  • Show me finger number 2. Show me finger number 3.
  • Can you play this black key with finger number 2? Great!
  • Can you play this black key with finger number 3? Great!
  • Play this key with finger number 2, then this key with finger number 3 with no stopping. Great job!
  • Do it again. Terrific!
  • Can we do it with steady playing? (Count by steadily saying “play, play”)
  • Can we do all of measure number 1?
  • Do RH first – play finger number 2 and then 3.
  • Then play LH – play finger number 2 and then 3.
  • Can you do it with steady playing and no stopping?

Make sure the student’s hands are ready, give them a prompt—1, 2, ready, go—and then say in rhythm “play, play, play, play” or “right hand, left hand” or “2, 3, 2, 3” or any other combination of words that will direct the student’s attention and thinking, depending on what you feel is the best choice for the process. The student may or may not attend to a teacher model, so that is also your choice to use in the process. It may also be necessary to point to the fingers that the student needs to use while they are playing.

I would then use this same type of script and teaching for each additional measure. I also usually ask the student if they wish to do more, or if they need to stop and only do a small number of measures. My students are very honest about letting me know what they can handle and when they are beginning to be overwhelmed. They are also very honest in letting me know when they understand the process and need for me to use less step-by-step instruction. If they can only do 2 or 4 measures, I would rather have my student do 2 or 4 measures correctly and more importantly, have them feel that they accomplished something positive and correct while engaging in a learning process appropriate for their needs.

This is an extreme example of detailed teaching and not every student will need this level of step-by-step detail in their instruction, but it gives a snapshot of how the process works for all of my students and how they become successful and self-sufficient in their learning.

Always remember that our special learners often come to us not yet having experienced a learning process that can be easily transferred and applied to their piano study. We need to teach them that process very carefully so they may use it to learn and achieve success.

Additional Resources:

More information on this process is available in “All in a Day's Routine: Piano Teaching and Autism.” Clavier Companion (July/August, 2010): 11-16. (also reprinted in Piano Pedagogy Forum v. 14, No. 1)

And in the webinar “Autism and Piano Study: A Basic Teaching Vocabulary.”

Information on related subjects to teaching piano to special learners is available free of charge in the Inclusive Piano Teaching Blog.

Additional book resources include:

Adamek, Mary S., and Alice-Ann Darrow. Music in Special Education, 3rd Edition. Silver Springs, MD: Music Therapy Association, Inc., 2018.

Hammel, Alice M., and Ryan M. Hourigan. Teaching Music to Students with Special Needs: A Label-Free Approach 2nd Edition. Oxford University Press, 2017.

Dr. Scott Price

Scott Price currently serves as Professor of Piano and Piano Pedagogy and Coordinator of Piano Pedagogy at the University of South Carolina School of Music. In addition, he serves as President of the Board of Trustees of the Frances Clark Center for Keyboard Pedagogy and is a recognized national leader in teaching piano to students with special needs. 

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