Reasons One Curriculum Does Not Work for All Students – A Guest Post by Neil Hanks

Piano man and American songwriting legend, Billy Joel, said that music is an explosive expression of humanity. It is something we are all touched by and no matter what culture you’re from, everyone loves music. Bono, the lead singer of the rock band U2, said that music can change the world because music can change people. And guitar virtuoso Jimi Hendrix called music his religion.

With something as universal, powerful and uniting as music, it’s no wonder that music education has a firm root in our educational systems from the elementary level right through to post-secondary and doctoral studies.

According the Ontario government, its music curriculum is intended to help students develop an understanding and appreciation of music, as well as the ability to create and perform it, so that they will be able to find a lifelong source of enjoyment and personal satisfaction in the art form.

Music not only helps develop practical artistic skills but also enables students to sharpen their ability to reason, to think critically, and to explore their emotional responses.

But having a single curriculum or rigid approach to teaching does not always work for everyone. As such, it is essential that a balanced approach to music education is offered and that students are given a chance to develop musical literacy through a range of activities like singing, playing, moving, performing, creating, and listening actively.

“Children learn to love music when they have opportunities to experience it in the context of a rich and varied curriculum,” the Ontario elementary arts curriculum outline states. “Teachers need to provide options to accommodate different learning styles and intelligences.”

Why one approach might not work for all?

Different socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds, varying degrees of exposure to music and formal education, as well as distinctive learning styles or intelligences are all reasons why one curriculum or teaching style might not work for all students within a music classroom.

The theory of multiple intelligences was introduced in the early 1980s by Howard Gardner, a psychologist and professor of education at Harvard University, and establishes seven distinct intelligences and keys to the way people learn. The different types of learning styles outlined by Gardner are:

    Linguistic: the intelligence of words.
    Logical-mathematical: the intelligence of numbers and reasoning.
    Spatial: the intelligence of pictures and images.
    Musical: the intelligence of tone, rhythm, and timbre.
    Bodily-Kinesthetic: the intelligence of the whole body and the hands.
    Interpersonal: the intelligence of social understanding.
    Intrapersonal: the intelligence of self-knowledge.

With these concepts in mind, educators can begin to craft an effective strategy for student success. While “musical intelligence” is one of the intellects that Gardner identified, this does not mean students who fall into a different category can’t appreciate and excel at music. Whether it’s singing, playing drums, guitar lessons or some other aspect of music, teachers simply need to learn how to incorporate different students’ strengths into their lessons.

Karen Lonsdale a music teacher with the Trillium Lakelands District School Board in Bracebridge, Ontario, faces the challenge of providing a music curriculum that is effective and engaging for all 527 of her students that range from kindergarten through to grade 8.

“Depending on the students’ needs or abilities, as a teacher I have to change the curriculum all the time,” Lonsdale said. “The curriculum in the arts sometimes doesn’t work, [and] as a teacher you have to be really flexible and creative.”

Mix in a set of students that have learning disabilities or special needs and a whole new series of challenges arise. Lonsdale teaches a number of students with developmental delays, autism, and other learning challenges and she continually has to reevaluate the way she approaches the curriculum so that she can connect with her entire classroom.

For example, Lonsdale currently has a grade 5 student that faces certain physical challenges and she has had to give special attention ensuring the student can participate.

“Her hand and eye coordination is not good, so I might put her on a percussion instrument,” Lonsdale said. “Because she does have good rhythm, she can keep the beat, but she’s physically not going to be able to play an instrument.”

After 27 years of both private and in-class teaching, Lonsdale said one of the most important factors in making a music curriculum work is making it fun.

“I have kids that will be so excited to come tell me that they’ve started guitar lessons but after a month or two they stop. And I know why… it’s because they’re not excited,” she said. “They’re not excited about the music the teacher is teaching them, it’s not what they want to learn.”

“When I was young you learned what your teacher told you to learn, whether you liked the song or not. But today, if you don’t make it fun, act excited yourself and do things that are relevant to them, you’re going to lose them.”

Neil Hanks is a business and music enthusiast. His passions, among other things, include playing and teaching music to people of all ages. When not working, you can often find him a pawn shops and garage sales looking for classic Gibson Guitars to fill his collection.

Computer Woes

In case anyone is wondering about the lack of posting around here…my computer crashed a little over a week ago and has been out of commission ever since. It’s definitely slowing things down around the studio, but I’m hopeful that either it will be up and running again soon or I’ll be able to get a new system. We’ll see what transpires in the next week or two!

More 2013 MTNA Conference Notes

We should be back to the Monday Mailbag feature next week, but for this week, I thought I would direct you to several other teachers who have blogged about the conference:

If you know of any other conference blog posts, please let me know and I will add them to the list!

2013 MTNA Conference – Full Conference Blog Post Schedule

Welcome to Southern California!
Evening – Opening Session

Early Morning – Faber Showcase
Morning – Advanced Masterclass
Late Morning – Elementary Piano Technique by Nancy Bachus
Early Afternoon – Alfred Showcase
Afternoon – Ten Steps to Parnassus: The Keyboard Works of Johann Sebastian Bach
Late Afternoon – Variety
Night – Dinner Get-Together

Early Morning – Frederick Harris Showcase
Morning – Keynote Presentation by Rick Beyer
Late Morning – Intermediate Masterclass with Ingrid Clarfield
Early Afternoon – Hal Leonard Showcase
Afternoon – Creating Flow in Worship by Mark Hayes

Early Morning – Schott Showcase
Morning – Piano Duo Masterclass
Late Morning – Got Questions?
Early Afternoon – Willis Showcase
Afternoon – Inspired Uses of the iPad in Your Studio
Photo Highlights
Night – Anderson & Roe Piano Duo Concert

Morning – Sense of Rhythm and Timing with Latin American Music
Morning – Speaking Their Language: Teaching the Child with Autism

2013 MTNA Conference – Wednesday Morning – Speaking Their Language: Teaching the Child with Autism


Hannah Creviston, Victoria Jacobs, and Heather Wheeler presented this session, each coming from different perspectives and diverse experiences, but with a desire to help music educators best know how to teach children with autism.

Hannah began with a poem about someone planning a trip to Italy, but ending up in Holland. Dealing with children with autism is not bad, but just different. They have different ways of understanding and processing.

The incidence rate of autism is continually rising. 1 in 88 children currently are diagnosed with autism. This is a dramatic increase from 1 in 2500 in the mid-1980s. Autism is four times more likely to occur in boys than in girls. Some statistics show that many of these children will lose the diagnosis as they become adults.

Autism is a spectrum disorder, meaning that the severity of it can be drastically different in different people. Children with autism exhibit deficits in:
* Communication Skills – delayed speech, small vocabulary, difficulty understanding conversation, repeating words and phrases (many of these students have “steel trap” minds, retaining details of what they’ve been told)
* Social Interactions – no eye contact, lack of facial expression, playing on their own even in group settings
* Behavioral Skills – tip-toeing, focusing on parts of a toy rather than the whole thing, hand-flapping, obsessive compulsive organization in play

“If a child cannot learn in the way we teach…we must teach in a way the child can learn.” ~Dr. O. Ivar Lovaas

As teachers, it’s our job to find the “puzzle piece” to teach these children in a way that they can learn.

* See the child, not the diagnosis.
* Each child is different.
* Teach visually.
* Be aware of environmental distractions (ambient noises, rearranged furniture, etc.).
* Avoid multiple terms for the same concept (start with the desired end vocabulary right off the bat; be literal).
* Be structured, but flexible (routine and schedule and order are very important).
* Tackle one issue at a time.
* Be patient with yourself and your student (their behavior is unpredictable and should not be taken personally).
* Give the student time to process questions and concepts (don’t expect immediate feedback).

Victoria shared from her perspective as a mother as well as a teacher. She had never heard of autism when her son was diagnosed with it at the age of five. If you want to know how to structure a good music lesson, she recommends, “The Me Book” by Dr. Lovaas. Visit his website for more information. He advocates that these children can be contributors to society in a meaningful way.


Children with autism don’t usually recognize body language, gestures, or facial expressions. They often are not spacially aware, so if you come stand right next to them they won’t move over.

Executive Function:
* I can organize my stuff and yours, but I cannot mentally file information.

* need a menu of options to think through a problem.

Children with autism need a method that is incremental. Staying in the same position, using the same finger on the same keys is very important. Victoria recommends Leila Fletcher’s Music Lessons.

Focus on Rules…especially ones that don’t change:
* Begin with absolutes.
* Use the same music vocabulary that you would with an adult.
* Layer one concept at a time with lots of repetition and practice (consider which layer goes on the bottom – for note reading, think of the staff as the bottom layer, then the clef, then the notes, etc.).
* Keep the lesson routine the same every time.

Don’t let the child take charge of their own learning; they will make rules for you! Be clear about your roles as a teacher and student. Be firm in what you expect and require of them. Consider how to help the student be successful in the real world.


Heather shared about her experience with several students. Before she first met with her prospective student, she contacted Scott Price for advice and worked with the student’s mother to put together a lesson plan. This involved moving the piano (away from a mirror that would distract), directing him immediately to the bench when he arrived, putting together a page with velcro squares that identified each activity they would include in the lesson. As they completed each activity, the square was removed from the board.

The first major decision was whether to teach him by reading or by rote. Heather was more comfortable with reading, but could tell that the student would be more successful with rote learning. He could already play things by rote that he had learned from movies. His mom was very involved in the lessons, participating as much as possible to assist with learning and reinforcing specific techniques and skills. While he imitated tunes by ear, Heather and his mom worked to adjust his hand position and fingering.

When teaching reading, it is essential to assign only one absolute name to each note.

Recitals were a great opportunity for him to be successful. His mom had to help him stay focused on the playing rather than on the audience.

Her other student was high-functioning, and she didn’t even know for a couple of years that he was in the autism spectrum. Often, all it took was one simple instructive for him to stop burping or stop making a tick-tock noise whenever she was talking.

Once her student learned a piece, if he had learned it with an incorrect note and she corrected it, it was very traumatic for him.

The biggest challenge was teaching musicality. Conversations about tone, phrasing, dynamics, character of the music, etc. didn’t work. When she wrote very specific dynamic markings in the score, though, he was able to follow the markings and play musically. Being concrete is essential because they don’t understand abstract concepts and emotions.

An audience member asked about the model of weekly lessons and whether we need to re-think that for students with autism. The presenters said that the daily involvement and reinforcement of the parent is essential. Hannah video records her lessons and uploads them to YouTube and her student watches them over and over during the week.

A question was posed about the difference between autism and Asperger’s syndrome. Tony Attwood’s book, “Asperger’s Syndrome” is a good resource for understanding the criteria for different levels of autism on the spectrum.

Everything must be taught step-by-step. Children with autism do not learn environmentally, so they won’t connect the fact that no one else is doing something a certain way. They love rules and will thrive if they are given a rule that they can follow in the given situation.

2013 MTNA Conference – Wednesday Morning – Sense of Rhythm and Timing with Latin American Music


The final day of the conference began with a session by Alejandro Cremaschi, a specialist in Latin American music, group piano, and technology.

He will primarily be covering pieces from Mexico, Cuba, Brazil, and Argentina with different rhythmic energies – from elegant salon pieces, to wild toccata-like music.

What can you learn by studying these pieces?
* Embodied rhythm
* Different rhythmic energies
* Direction (a combination of rhythm and shape)
* Syncopation
* Irregular rhythmic groupings
* Layering of rhythms
* Effective management of stamina
* Flexibility

Thinking Rhythm
* First thing we teach: steady pulse and counting rhythm
* Counting and clapping
-unit (counting the length of each note)
-metric (counting the number of beats in each measure)
-Kodaly’s “ti-ti-ta-ta”

Rhythmic Words
* Use of rhythmic words to help internalization
-“walk” – quarter note
-“whole-note-hold-it” – whole note
-“half-note” – half note
-“moun-tain” – eighth notes
-“Col-o-ra-do” – sixteenth notes
-“buf-fa-lo” – two sixteenth then eighth notes
-“blueberry” – eighth then two sixteenths
-“rabbit” – dotted quarter then eighth note
“pineapple” – triplet

Teaching Rhythm
* Sightreading and Rhythm Every Day by Helen Marlais and Kevin Olson
* Rhythmic dictation from early on


Rhythmic Performance
* Clap and count
* Marching and stomping the beat
* Conducting the beat (rhythmic solfege)
* Scatting with direction

Alejandro displayed a grid and then pointed out that humans have an “organic rhythm.” No matter how hard they try, their rhythm will never be perfectly aligned. This is what gives it life.

He had the attendees sing “Yankee Doodle” as if we had been riding the rides at Disneyland and were a bit worn out. It was boring and not engaging. Then he had us stand and march, with extra emphasis stomping on certain notes and big breaths between the phrases. Much more interesting and vibrant!

Alejandro recommended a book by Pedro de Alcantra. Integrated Practice: Coordination, Rhythm, and Sound by Oxford University Press.
Building blocks result of three types of energy:
* Preparation (p)
* Release (r)


He related these rhythmic ideas to the ocean: you have a wave, then a bigger wave, then the biggest wave, then back down to a smaller wave again.

Latin American Music
* Dance and songs
* Origins
– Spanish/Portuguese

Habanera rhythm as origin of many 2/4 dances
-Tango, milonga, candombe, danza, danzon, cha-cha-cha, mambo, guaracha, maxixe, reggaeton, cumbia

For the remainder of the session, Alejandro played a variety of pieces from his handout to give us a musical idea of the rhythms he showed us and had us try clapping and snapping together.

He began by addressing the idea of rubato and tempo flexibility. Rubato is an oral tradition. You learn it by listening and observing; not by scientific explanation.

Alejandro played Odeon: Tango Brasileiro by Ernesto Nazareth (known as the Brazilian Joplin) to demonstrate how articulation can affect the rhythmic energy of the piece.

One idea for teaching cross-rhythms – march the eighth notes while humming/vocalizing the triplets.

The handout from today’s session is available at Alejandro’s website:

2013 MTNA Conference – Tuesday Night – Anderson & Roe Piano Duo Concert

The engaging pair took the stage again this evening, this time as the performers of a diverse selection of music, much of which they arranged themselves:

Papageno!! (a short fantasy based on arias from Die Zauberflute, K. 620) by Mozart, Arr. Anderson & Roe

Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major, K. 448 by Mozart

The Rite of Spring by Stravinsky

Ragtime alla Turca (after the Rondo all Turca, K. 331) by Mozart, Arr. Anderson & Roe

Carmen Fantasy for Two Pianos by Bizet, Arr. Anderson & Roe

“Vocalise,” Op. 34, No. 14 by Rachmaninoff, Arr. Anderson & Roe

Three Waltzes for Two Pianos: a medley of waltzes made famous in Disney films arr. Anderson & Roe