Monday Mailbag – Teaching Students with Disabilities

I was wondering if anyone has dealt with a student with arthritis before? My 8-year old student has severe arthritis and has trouble with pedaling and smooth wrist movements. I find it difficult to know how much to correct and how much to let go. Also, is this something I could notify a judge in a competition about?

Over the years, I’ve taught a number of students with various disabilities – cerebral palsy, limited vision, a paraplegic, etc. One of the things that I’ve learned is to focus primarily on sound. How should the music sound? Then we look at how the student can express that sound as musically as possible, often requiring significant adjustments to what is on the printed page. For example, a paraplegic student can’t use the pedal, so if they want their sound to be legato and expressive, what must they do in order to achieve that? Obviously we don’t want to use any injurious techniques, but a student in this situation will certainly employ techniques at times that would be entirely unnecessary for an able-bodied student.

I recommend encouraging the student to listen closely to their sound, even to record them and let them listen after they’ve played something, and then articulate whether it sounds how they want it to. You may need to play it for them so that they can hear a good model of what an artistic sound would be. Then work with them to achieve the sound they want, whether it means persevering to master a skill or habit that is especially difficult, or making adaptations to the music so that it is accessible for them. Along these same lines, it’s important to select music for these students that capitalizes on their abilities and strengths. For example, with my student who has cerebral palsy, she doesn’t have the fine motor skills or hand span to do large chords in her left hand, so I look for music that has a thinner left hand texture.

In reference to the competition, that’s something that should be discussed with the competition coordinator. For non-competitive evaluations and such, I think it is completely appropriate to notify the adjudicator of a physical challenge so that they can offer appropriate comments and encouragement to the student. But if a student is competing against other students, it would probably be counter-productive to address the issue to the judge.

I would love to hear some other thoughts on this topic! Do any of you work with disabled students? What are your thoughts on notifying a judge of the disability?

Remember, if you have a question you’d like to contribute to next week’s Monday Mailbag, leave it in the comments below or send me an e-mail sometime this week with Monday Mailbag in the subject line!

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