Teaching Music To Autistic Students

Over the years, I’ve had the interesting challenge of teaching a handful of students who were on the autism spectrum. I’ve always had a special place in my heart for the special needs community since my youngest sister was born with a serious disability, and I’ve lived through some of her struggles with her first hand.  I feel that I have to at least try to work with any student who has the desire to learn an instrument until we reach a point where I’m more of a hindrance than a help.

Autism in Music

Every student is different, and this is even more so the case with autistic students because there is no one way to categorize or pigeon hole autism. Even high functioning autistic students can have social interaction and motor control issues that you’ll have to find a way to overcome.  I had one student who consistently had a hard time focusing on complex assignments while another could complete assignments very well, but would start humming and zoning out if my lectures went beyond a minute or so. I had yet another student who had the spectacular gift of being able to identify the pitch of any note he heard on any instrument in the exact order that each note was played even though he had severe limitations in his daily life due to his Asperger’s symptoms. There was definitely no one-size-fits-all teaching strategy to handle the array of behavior patterns, but below are a few techniques that helped me reach my students where they were so that they could also reap the benefits of music lessons just like their mainstream counterparts.

  1. Be prepared to provide a simplified version of assignments or break complex assignments into smaller pieces. I’ve found that having smaller bite-sized deliverables helps keep the momentum during lesson time. For example, we may decide to check off a song line by line instead of making it a requirement to play the whole song perfectly from beginning to end.
  2. As a music teacher, you just have to accept that most assignments will never be polished, so you may have to pick one or two teaching points to focus on and then move on once you feel that your student has reached an acceptable level of proficiency.
  3. For some students you may have to get all of their senses involved in order to draw them into the lesson. I have red rhythm sticks that I let students use to beat out their rhythms while counting out loud. In the past, I’ve also had students glide and then hop across the room to demonstrate the difference between playing legato and staccato. Sometimes I would unexpectedly throw in a flashcard exercise if I would see that I was reaching the end of my students’ attention span for a particular assignment.
  4. If your student has perfect pitch, then you might want to build your lessons around that strength since that is something that comes naturally to the student.
  5. If a student is consistently having trouble reading notes on the staff, then you might want to try associating a note name with the pitch or even a color and then make the connection to the symbol on the staff to see if that helps. You can have your student color the note on the staff with the same color that you used in your association game. Your student can use this same color chart on his/her assignments for the next few weeks or months to see if this finally helps things click as they learn to read notes on the staff.
  6. Colorful and quirky visual aids may also be helpful in getting your student to focus on what you’re trying to teach.
  7. Give your rehearsals a distinct routine, and warn students if you’ll be breaking from it. Many students find this comforting.
  8. I believe that all students should have the equal opportunity to play in my student recitals if they so desire and have the adequate time to prepare. For my autistic students, I make sure to physically practice recital etiquette starting weeks before a recital. This is sometimes very effective for students who have trouble emotionally connecting to others. This way they know what they’re supposed to do even if they can’t fully understand why they should acknowledge the audience that has so kindly sat through their performance.

I’m in no way an expert when it comes to handling autistic or other special needs music students since the bulk of my training has come on the job. This list of ideas came about after a long time of trial and error, and I’m happy to have met my autistic students because they’ve helped to make me a better teacher for all students. I hope that this article will be helpful to you should you ever find yourself in my shoes one day.

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Adventures In Cello Shopping

I recently had the daunting experience of having to buy another cello.  The one that I’d been playing on since 9th grade suffered a fatal sound post crack last year, and unfortunately had to be retired.  My old cello held such sentimental value for me since my parents went through a lot to get it for me. They wanted me to have a nice instrument to play on when my high school symphonic orchestra took a trip to New York City to perform at Carnegie Hall.

Before deciding to buy a new cello, I first had to determine if it was worth it to get my sound post crack fixed. I took it over to a popular luthier in town named Stephanie Voss to get an assessment. Her assistant informed

Circular dowel in the neck block.

me that since the after rehab value of my cello would be approximately $6,000, it wasn’t going to be worth it to spend thousands of dollars to get the crack properly repaired. Especially, since one of the prior owners of my cello had a dowel nailed into the neck block as a part of a previous repair, which threw a few things out of sorts. For example, since the neck block couldn’t be adjusted due to the dowel locking it into place, my strings were always too high off the fingerboard in thumb position the closer that I got towards the bridge. Stephanie could only shave my bridge down but so far because then that would cause my strings to lay flat against my fingerboard in first position. That issue alone would have had a negative impact on the resale value if the sound post crack hadn’t already devalued it to something close to scrap wood.

With all of the additional challenges that my cello was facing, we all came to the conclusion that it would be best for me to invest in a new cello. This is when I had to get some help from an excellent cellist with the Atlanta Symphony who was coaching me at the time. She referred me to her friends at the Ronald Sachs Violin Shop who gently held my hands through this difficult process. Since my price range was on the lower end of the spectrum, and I still wanted to have a high end concert cello sound on a tight budget, they directed me to the Jay Haide and Frank Ivantie models. The Violin Shop was gracious enough to loan me two cellos for almost a month so that I could try them out at home and use one of them for a solo performance that I was scheduled to give at the Atlanta Southwest Fine Arts Center.

I finally decided on one of the Frank Ivantie models. This was the same cello that my coach from the Atlanta Symphony had used for some of her Symphony concerts as a temporary replacement while her expensive, antique cello was being worked on in New York. I figured that I couldn’t go wrong with that choice since it had already held its own at the highest levels of performance.

What I learned from this cello shopping experience is that, as in life, we all need the help of our friends sometimes to make it through the situations that get thrown our way. I’m glad that I had my coach, Dona Vellek, to lean on for guidance and solid advice. She helped me to find an excellent cello at a reasonable price with a few other perks thrown in since I was using professionals in her network. Hopefully, you will find some gems in this article that will be beneficial to you when it’s time to purchase your next instrument.


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Tips For Successful Ensemble Playing

Chamber Group **I originally wrote this article for the ‘Behind The Bridge’ D’Addario String Orchestral blog.

Many years ago, I and a few of my colleagues decided to form a string quartet for the purposes of performing at events around the metro Atlanta area.  After playing with the same musicians for a while, I started to instinctively know how my chamber mates would react to and interpret various musical passages.  I call this the ‘sweet spot’ of ensemble playing.  This is the point where you don’t have to always mechanically think about what you’re doing anymore but can rather feed off the energy of your cast of players.  In my opinion, your relationship with your ensemble requires a degree of trust and intimate knowledge of each other’s musical quirks, which is very similar to what you would experience in a relationship with your significant other.

As a contract musician, I don’t always get the luxury of playing with the same group of people all the time, so I find that I’m always adjusting my style of play to match the strengths and weaknesses of the musicians around me.  In a large orchestra setting, I usually feel like I can relax a little since the pressure isn’t on one person to present an artistic expression to the entire audience.  On the other hand, playing in a small ensemble where I have to carry my whole section as the only principal player is a whole other ball of wax that requires so much more focus and effort.  I was recently asked to join the in-house quartet of the Atlanta chapter of the Bach Society as their cellist in residence at the Southwest Fine Arts Center.  I was excited for the opportunity, but also very nervous since I’ve spent most of the past few years perfecting my solo cello act.  I decided to seek some professional help from Judith Cox who runs the chamber music intensive through the Atlanta Symphony community school.  She’s also a 1st violinist with the symphony.

Below are some helpful tips for anyone who currently plays in an established small ensemble or if you’re looking to join a chamber group one day in the future:

  • Respect the abilities and opinions of your colleagues. Everyone will have an opinion, which should be respected even if the group decides to go in a completely different direction.  Most people just want to know that their voice was heard and taken into consideration.
  • Study the music, and come to rehearsal with some ideas to try. You should look at a score and listen to a recording of the music (if you can find one) prior to rehearsal.  This will help you come up with some musical ideas to experiment with and will make your rehearsals so much more productive.
  • Talk openly and agree on what you all want the group to become. Everyone should agree up front on rehearsal schedules, performance schedules and goals for the group.  Whether you decide to treat the group as a hobby or a professional job, everyone needs to be aware of those expectations from the very beginning.
  • Learn how to give constructive criticism and sincere compliments. Your ensemble mates will be happier to play with you if you have a positive attitude.  You will also have a better experience as well.
  • Work as a group towards perfection. The group should work together to perfect phrasing, articulation, dynamics, intonation and balance.
  • Listen closely to what’s being played around you. You don’t want to trample over anyone’s solo nor should yours get lost in the fray either.  You should listen to your ensemble mates to make sure you’re matching intonation and articulations.  Instruments in the lower register may need to play out more so that the bass voice is audible.  You may want to have an independent listener sit in on your rehearsal and critique your instrumentation balance if you’re not sure about what you’re hearing while you’re playing.
  • Practice thoroughly at home before coming to rehearsal. All members of the group should make a conscious effort to learn all notes and rhythms at home during individual practice sessions.  The ensemble rehearsal is not the place to try and figure that out because it slows everybody down and takes time away from other music that needs to be looked at.
  • You may want to consider designating someone to lead rehearsals. This may help to make your rehearsals run smoother and more efficiently.  Everyone can still make suggestions about which passages they would like to work on, but the leader should make the final call about where the group should start and when the group should stop to make fixes.
  • Make sure to have a copy of the full score, a tuner, and a metronome present whenever you rehearse. A full score should be readily accessible so that everyone can see how all of the parts are supposed to fit together.
  • Try to run through the entire piece or movement before you leave rehearsal. After you’ve had a chance to fix mistakes, phrasing, articulation, etc., you should try to pull everything together in a final play through before you pack up.  This will help to reinforce what you’ve rehearsed.
  • Ensemble chairs at rehearsal should be set up in the same arrangement that you’re planning to use in live performance. Rehearsals train your ears to hear your music a certain way, and if you’re seated next to someone different on stage, it will most definitely throw your ears and performance off.

These are just a few suggestions that should be helpful to any musician no matter their level of experience.  As always, you should remember to have fun when you play!  Music is a gift that should be enjoyed by all.  Happy practicing!

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