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The ABRSM also provides specific codes to enter for wheelchair users (or anyone else who requires special access for disability), blind or visually impaired candidates (who are given a Braille alternative to the sight-reading test, and a Braille theory paper), deaf or hearing impaired (who are offered alternative aural tests) and autistic candidates who are entitled to extra time.
For adults whose learning difficulties, or physical disabilities, may be too significant for them to consider ABRSM piano grades, there is an alternative option known as the Performance Assessment (generally aimed at those over the age of 21 but also candidates of any age with specific needs).
For this, there is a free choice of repertoire lasting no more than 15 minutes (with no scales, sight-reading or aural work) and there is no ‘pass’ or ‘fail’: it is merely a chance for a pianist to have his work assessed by an examiner. Sometimes pianists without any particular difficulties or disabilities choose to sit the Performance Assessment: if for example they’re preparing for a concert or other public performance.
As I mentioned earlier, I have experience of teaching a girl with Asperger’s. (This syndrome is a form of autism characterised by problems with social interaction and repetitive behaviour).
She was an 11-year-old who came to me for about 18 months. I wouldn’t say there was anything particularly unusual about her lessons. She acquired piano-playing skills in much the same way as many other children do – making similar mistakes and having similar reactions of impatience and frustration.
She perhaps lacked confidence more than some and repeatedly said: “I’m rubbish, aren’t I?” (despite frequent assurances to the contrary from me, of course) – but she generally seemed happy – although her mother said you could never tell whether or not she was enjoying anything.
The ‘differences’ I observed were more to do with character and behaviour than with her musical ability – she had a quirky dress sense (nearly always wearing a beret) and a tendency to look at the wall when I was speaking to her. I also remember her becoming quite uptight when a lesson time had to be changed one week.
I believe these traits are typical of people with Asperger’s – although having taught only the one, I don’t claim to have any real knowledge or advice.
My most recent pupil with a specific condition is a girl whose mother believes her problems are due to dyspraxia while the school are treating her as if she’s autistic. I wouldn’t even consider suggesting who is right as I know so little about either condition.
From what I’ve seen of this girl so far, (I’ll call her Smiler as she’s a particularly happy looking child), I can’t imagine any physical reason which would inhibit her from learning piano although her mum tells me that she has poor co-ordination, which is a drawback in many aspects of her life and particularly when it comes to sporting activities.
Any co-ordination problems have not become particularly apparent yet, as we are at the very early stages and most children have difficulties feeling and locating notes with their fingers to begin with. Obviously Smiler may experience more problems than most when it comes to putting the two hands together, although both her mum and I are optimistic that developing this ability may help her in other situations.
The biggest drawback for Smiler, though, is extreme lack of confidence (more so than the girl with Asperger’s). Presumably this is due to the limitations caused by her condition. (Her mother informs me, for example, that she gets teased over her lack of running ability).
During her first lesson – which initially seemed to be progressing normally, she had a sudden outburst, shouting: “No I can’t do it! I’m rubbish!” Fortunately, she soon got over this and her mood returned to ‘normal’ but I imagine there’ll be more similar displays of frustration and self-doubt as, even those of us without extra ‘difficulties’ find learning piano can put a strain on our emotions and self-control.
Obviously anyone wishing to specialise in teaching people with diagnosed ‘learning difficulties’ would probably be advised to research specific conditions thoroughly. However, I don’t think there is any harm in a non-specialist piano teacher taking on a few pupils with relatively minor ‘problems’ – the key to achieving success is to have close communication with their parents who should be able to advise on any unusual behaviour likely to occur.
Of course, there is a fine line between ‘disabilities’ or ‘learning difficulties’, and more general problems: most of us will have something which ‘gets in the way’ of learning.
Firstly, there are problems relating to physical considerations. Obviously, the part of the body most active during piano-playing (apart from the brain) is the hands.
Some minor issues relating to the hands are exclusive to children – such as thumb-sucking (I taught one seven-year-old who still did this; I wasn’t able to stop him but I did at least persuade him to wipe his thumb before touching the keys) and sticky fingers; if I suspect this, I insist they are washed.
While I’m on the subject of hygiene, one tip – which I wish I’d thought of when I first started – is to place a box of tissues on top of the piano – at least now sneezes due to colds or hayfever are generally ‘caught’ in time and the odd nose-bleed can be quickly mopped up. The tissues also come in handy for the (fortunately, very occasional) tear shed … usually due to pre-exam nerves.
Another distraction which relates to kids in particular is hiccups: I assume this is generally caused by children rushing their evening meal – understandable, I suppose when parents are hurrying them off to a piano lesson.
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