Tuesday, January 28, 2014


Elena has been taking piano lessons, roughly once a week, for a few months now.  It is going very well.  It was a very very rough start, though.

Elena had been asking to take piano and voice lessons for quite some time.  I wanted to schedule some, but there just wasn't time--nearly everything I could find was on a school night and time is precious on those afternoons/evenings.  We decided to try late afternoon on Friday, b/c there was an opening at a well-recommended teacher's home.

Jason and I were looking for something that Elena wanted to do, that she could explore, that wasn't physical.  She seems to enjoy music, so that was a plus.  I liked the fact that music is both a right and left brained activity--it's artistic, but also mathematic.  And I liked the idea of Elena using her hands in a different way.  We were all cautiously excited.

All of us had a lot of learning to do.  (Keep in mind that neither Jason nor I are musically inclined.  I played several instruments in my youth, but never well, and never really learned how to read music.)

Nicole is an incredibly enthusiastic teacher and vibrantly engages her students.  Elena loves seeing her so excited, and feels a great sense of accomplishment.  Nicole was initially, maybe, too excited.  Elena kept telling us how "easy" everything was, and never wanted to practice.  I did not want to make her practice, b/c I didn't want it to be another thing I was nagging her to do.  In the beginning, practice wasn't something Elena could readily do because our (large) electric piano did not have an easily accessible resting place.  We would clear off the table and have her use it there, and she wasn't really interested.  So we didn't push it.

It became obvious to me, after several lessons, that Elena did not understand what was on the written page.  Her rhythm (in general) is not steady--that could be due to poor trunk strength/stability when clapping or tapping feet--but the difference in quarter and half notes was not something she picked up immediately.  She also had issues following the music--the idea of the treble and bass clefs flowing as a unit was lost (she was looking at them more like reading a book, "one line at a time").  She became frustrated, refused to practice at home, and cried a lot.  Jason and I tried to be patient--but her wanting help and at the same time refusing to listen or work with us became problematic.  I spoke to the teacher about our frustration, and told her I was going to take a back-seat and see what the two of them could work out.

None of this seemed a deal-breaker to me; music is complicated.  It's a different language, with hand-eye coordination, repeating letters (notes) that have the same shape on different assignments on different clefs, and if your eyes leave the page it's easy to get lost.  It's so different than anything else.  It was a real eye-opener for Jason and I, to see Elena's learning process in action.

One day there was a breaking point.  I told Elena that I was not going to pay for lessons if she refused to practice at home.  I rearranged the furniture and found a place for the piano to live, where she could easily access it whenever she wanted.  It was obvious at her lessons that she didn't know what was going on, and Nicole called her on it--she told her lessons were where she was supposed to learn new things, not only review what they did before.  Elena barely kept back tears and said she didn't know what the note was on the page, or she couldn't follow where she was.  Nicole managed to turn E's attitude around a bit, and finished her lesson.

That evening, E was determined to practice.  So I sat with her.  We talked a lot about what was on the page.  Obviously, people don't always learn things the same way--but Elena learns music a lot differently than I do, but once we figured out what worked for her, it worked beautifully.  It took a lot of time and patience.

Jason and I wanted an activity that Elena chose that didn't have to be so hard.  Piano was not the best choice for that.  Music is complicated, and our idea that piano wasn't physical was dead wrong.  It takes good posture, core strength, finger strength and overall hand dexterity--all things that Elena lacks, and she could use a fun channel to improve those deficiencies.  Now that we found what information Elena needs to be successful (it's hard to explain--she needs the letter note and a sort of orientation of where that note is on the scale, rather than just to hear it and figure it out from there) she is really enjoying piano.  She sits down to practice several times a day, unprompted.  Her practice is anywhere from 2-20 minutes, typically less than ten each time she sits down to play.  She loves going to lessons, and is making great progress.

The entire family has learned a lot though piano lessons.  One, that an activity that is not cardio-vascular in nature does not exclude it from being physically demanding.  Two, Elena does not typically ask for help when she is lost.  We are working on this in terms of self-advocacy; I noticed this with her academics at about the same time.  It's actually nice to have a musical, fun way of reinforcing this idea of responsibility for practice, problem solving, and seeking help.  Three, making the piano freely accessible relieves most of the parental pressure from the responsibility of practice.

She really does enjoy music, and continued to ask for voice lessons.  I rearranged her schedule, moved her longstanding regular PT date, and postponed tutoring so she could join the Glee club at school.  It starts tomorrow.  I think she'll love it!


K said...

I loved reading this post! I have mild spastic diplegia as well, and I started taking piano lessons during the summer before third grade. I can definitely relate to not wanting to practice at first, and it is frustrating at times, but I am so, so glad that I started lessons when I did. I just turned twenty, so I've been playing for a while, and it really is a wonderful skill to have. It definitely has improved my hand dexterity as well! Keep at it, Elena...you'll be so glad you did! :)

Anonymous said...

I have SDCP as well. I think my hands are too effected by tightness to play piano. Anyway asking for help might be embarrassing for Elena because she already does things differently and doesn't want to feel like she needs extra help. Music is great but it can be even harder to learn at first for people with neurologic conditions. Something about the brain having a more dominate side and then when you do something like piano which takes a good amount of physical and mental skill it kind of changes how the brain is wired. Having Elena's brain rewire itself like that will be great for her in the long run but it leads to frustration because the brain wants to return to the more familiar pattern/wiring. The voice lessons will really help too. When she starts doing voice you may see her have a challenge with breathing from her core etc like I have but all of this just like E's school issues can be worked through. If E can practice getting over anxiety and frustration through music she can and will do better on her grades/testing. Both seem like a similar brain pattern with her.

Anonymous said...


I have been following your blog silently for a few years now, and wanted to say that it has been wonderful to follow ELena's progress over the years. I am currently in school to become a physiotherapist, and I find your blog very inspiring. I also played piano myself for years, and come from an all around musical family. The early 'growing pains' of not wanting to practice, and struggling with the clefs are really very common. Piano is the most difficult instrument to read for by far.

Something that often helps children, is sitting down with a parent after each lesson and penciling the letter names in under each note. This gives her the chance to practice 'translating' each new piece. But allows her to practice more fluidly, by reading the letter names straight off the page. Having both the clef and letters available, will also allow her to connect the two concepts passively while playing, and make things more comfortable.

Another point to keep in mind, is that most able bodied children will appear to have very stiff hands and forearms while first learning. Your teacher should be working to correct this using various techniques, and unless she comments specifically there is no reason to assume that that an apparent stiffness in her hands is directly related to her CP. (If this hasn't come up yet it probably will at some point. The flexibility and finger strength must be learned.)

Good luck Elena! Piano is one of the coolest instruments to learn, and you will soon be able to play tons of songs that you love. I know that the practicing can be rough at first, and sometimes you will need to play boring pieces. But it will only get better! If anyone tells you that reading music is easy, they probably play some other instrument like the flute or guitar. Reading piano music is like reading two school books at once, and only us pianists really understand! However once you get better at it, you will be able to play more songs on your piano than any other instrument. Great job with jingle bells. I didn't learn how to use two hands until my second year of lessons!