By now you are getting the idea that while piano can be taught to special needs kiddos it requires just as much work as any other teaching tool in your clinic or piano studio. So let’s take a look at learning some easy pieces; Twinkle, Twinkle; Brother Jack; Row, Row, Row Your Boat and Mary Had a Little Lamb. Apps and print outs will follow this blog shortly.
You have been using the black keys exercises to keep the kiddo busy at the keyboard without stressing them out with too much new information and you have been watching the confidence build. So why not tap into the pool of nursery rhymes that every kiddo has been humming along to since they were say six months old? So pick any of the following pieces above. Twinkle Twinkle is complex but has the advantage of being the most famous of them all. And as a bonus, it was written by Mozart. Nothing like starting at the top.
You will need to guide the kiddo’s hand here and unless the kiddo is reasonably high functioning do not expect them to remember anything too quickly,. I have one kiddo who learned five pieces in his first five weeks while others are more inclined to remain in the familiarity and the comfort zone of the black keys exercises. There is nothing like the confidence that comes from knowing the kiddo is king of a drill and we all know they do not like to give up that great feeling too easily.
So like everything else in special needs, take your time here. If mom gives you any stick for not playing pieces you can always blame me! However if there is a stepping stone after black keys it is Twinkle Twinkle, even if it is complex. Kiddo will expect you to do a lot of hand holding here and give a lot of guidance. They might look away while you guide their fingers to play the notes, but you can be sure they will be humming the tune to themselves as you do the work for them.
Play each key and let the key go before you play the next one. Remember to play very quietly, while supporting as much of their hand as you can. If you can, try to use your own finger to play the key while letting the kiddo feel the keyboard surface at the same time. This makes sure that you do not apply any pressure on their little fingers. In the end, the kiddo will be the best judge of how much pressure should be applied and they will have built up some experience in muscle memory from having played black keys for a few weeks.
The opening of Twinkle Twinkle, although famous, always takes the kiddos by surprise. The big leap from C up to G followed to the next A is something none of them ever expect. The fingering is even more unexpected, thumb on C followed by fourth finger on G and then pinkie on A before finishing on G with the fourth finger again. The words to this note sequence are:
Twinkle, twinkle little star.
So while the tune and the words are really famous, from a playing point of view they really need a lot of help with this opening. Practice this opening a few times and give kiddo a long runway to get used to the feeling of first thumb then fourth finger. Believe me, I have taught this riff often enough to recognize the look on kiddo’s face. Is there not another way to do this?
The big barrier the kiddo cannot get around? The pincer twins! Pincer twins have nothing to do in the opening sequence of Twinkle Twinkle. Mozart knew what he was doing here. He starts the tune with the thumb and just as kiddo expects pincer twin index finger to follow the opening thumb on C, Mozart calls for the fourth finger on G. This is a really difficult expectation for kiddo to break, that index will always follow thumb on the keyboard. After all index always follows thumb in life; picking up toast, a pencil, a book; thumb and index are always in there working together. Not on the piano though and it will take a while for kiddo to get used to this.
The next words
How I wonder what you are.
These notes are really easy to play as they require only middle finger, index and back to thumb. Kiddo is usually really relieved to get onto this run after the tough opening sequence.
Up above the world so high,
Like a diamond in the sky.
These words require only the fourth, then middle, then index and then thumb. The sequence gets repeated and then the opening tune starts all over again to finish the piece.
Now here is an idea you will enjoy. You have just struggled to take kiddo through the piece using all five fingers? Now stop doing that and let the kiddo learn the piece using only one finger. Play the entire tune with the thumb, then the middle finger, then the fourth and finally the pinkie. Do not let kiddo play the piece with the second finger. Why? Because the second finger is the strongest gripper and the strength does not need any more reinforcing.
What is nice here is that you are now teaching pieces in the same way that you are teaching the Black Keys exercises. And this is good; you are extending the confidence zone from Black Keys Exercises into learning pieces. You can worry about teaching kiddo to use all five fingers after about three months. In the meantime kiddo can start racking up the repertoire of nursery rhymes using the single finger technique. Remember each nursery rhyme will be played four times; once each by the thumb, middle, fourth finger and pinkie. You can even run through the pieces with each of the four fingers in the left hand. So the piece can get played eight times each session.
OK, take a look at the Twinkle Twinkle video and then move on to Brother Jack at the very next lesson. Brother Jack is much simpler, especially the opening which has a very, very simple three note combination, requiring the use of thumb, index and middle fingers.
Brother Jack now goes against everything I have been saying so far. Central to the Brother Jack opening sequence is the use of the pincer twins, the thumb and index fingers. So up until now you have been working through black keys exercises 1-10 and you are already started on Twinkle Twinkle. You have been playing very lightly and letting all the keys go. Now with Brother Jack we will see if our theories have been working. Get kiddo to play the first three notes of Brother Jack, CD and E with the thumb and then the index finger followed by the middle finger. If all goes well, then kiddo’s fingers will not stick to the keyboard but kiddo will start letting the keys go all by himself.
This is a real moment as the instinct will be for the pincer twins to cling to the keyboard and hold all keys down. So, how did you do? If you are still having trouble, email me or post a video of your kiddo’s hand position and we can work through it together. If kiddo is releasing the keys then move on to the next sequence. You will see kiddo make a mental note of how the first three notes are played by the thumb, index finger and then the middle finger, while the following three notes are played by the middle finger, fourth finger and pinkie.
Morning bells are ringing,
Morning bells are ringing
Because ‘Morning bells are ringing’ has a fourth finger and pinkie combination, sometimes this finger sequence will trigger a memory association with Twinkle, Twinkle and kiddo will play out the fourth finger and pinkie sequence from the opening line of Twinkle Twinkle. This can be a fun moment when kiddo realizes what is happening.
A nice reward for all this work is to go back to playing black keys with the fourth finger or as before with Twinkle Twinkle, to push on into playing Brother Jack with each finger separately. First the thumb, then the middle, fourth and finally pinkie. And then repeat the exercise with the left hand.
So between the black keys exercises, Twinkle Twinkle and Brother Jack you now have a full half hour lesson on your hands. How you introduce breaks and rewards will be an important element in the success of this program. I have structured exercises so the keyboard can be introduced in small components without them having to become full piano lessons. This is the way most therapists will approach the keyboard, as a nice reward for doing well in speech or other aspects of OT or PT. Do not forget to post your videos and check out how other kiddos are doing. If you are a therapist and see someone posting a question you can help with, then please jump right in with your insights. I look forward to hearing from you all.