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#1344041 - 01/08/10 03:00 PM Down Syndrome and piano lessons
chueh Offline
Full Member

Registered: 10/11/08
Posts: 87
A mom contacted me and wonder if I would accept her 4 year-old son with down syndrome for private piano lessons. I asked her to bring him, so I can learn more about him.

I have searched online to try to find helps on how to teach special ed with music. I have gotten some good approaches, but I could not find any piano lesson books specially made for mentally challenged or special ed children.

I am totally new with special need children, so I would need a lot of help on this. Any help is appreciated, but mainly I would like very much BOOKS and MATERIALS for special learners.


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#1344053 - 01/08/10 03:24 PM Re: Down Syndrome and piano lessons [Re: chueh]
gerg Offline
1000 Post Club Member

Registered: 02/02/07
Posts: 1651
Loc: Houston, TX
People with DS have always held a special place in my heart. This is a fantastic opportunity for you.

These people are certainly special, and not in the derogatory modern pop-culture schoolyard usage of that term. They are among the weakest and purest among us, needing us, testing our character, and building the same.

I think that you will find, upon accepting this student, that you will get as much or more out of the arrangement as he will.

Godspeed to you, and best wishes.


#1344064 - 01/08/10 03:40 PM Re: Down Syndrome and piano lessons [Re: gerg]
Monica K. Offline

Platinum Supporter until Dec 31 2012

Registered: 08/10/05
Posts: 18096
Loc: Lexington, Kentucky
One thing to keep in mind, chueh, is that there is a large range of functioning in DS individuals. You may want to wait until you've met the child and/or gotten more information from the parent before expending too much effort finding alternative teaching materials. Some DS children are pretty high functioning, and it's possible you wouldn't have to modify your usual approach much at all. (Of course, the flip side is that some DS children have significant mental impairment...)
Mason & Hamlin A -- 91997
My YouTube channel: http://www.youtube.com/pianomonica

#1344176 - 01/08/10 06:14 PM Re: Down Syndrome and piano lessons [Re: Monica K.]
apple* Offline

Registered: 01/01/03
Posts: 19862
Loc: Kansas
very cherishable and very teachable in my experience. From what I've heard it very important to teach them MUCH in their early years.

my brother in law is severely affected.. cannot read, but he can write letters of the alphabet. i just love him.. he could no more play the piano than he could drive, but he has the most amazing sense of humor and NEVER misses a subtle joke or pun... he sits down at the piano and pretends to be Jerry Lee Lewis.. (so cute and absolutely awful)

i just googled teaching down syndrome children and found many links... for instance -


i love the mentally challenged.. i hope you do it.

i would focus on simple simple skills and test his abilities with every task... build step by step,

My own brother is brain damaged - he's pretty functional but still sooooo different. i taught him many duets when we were children. He remembers every one of them to this day and we play them whenever he comes over.

He was able to figure out tunes and melodies and I would accompany him as he played in octaves in the upper register.

disclaimer: not an educator and i don't know what I am talking about.

Edited by apple* (01/08/10 06:15 PM)
accompanist/organist.. a non-MTNA teacher to a few

love and peace, Õun (apple in Estonian)

#1344235 - 01/08/10 08:01 PM Re: Down Syndrome and piano lessons [Re: apple*]
Little_Blue_Engine Offline
1000 Post Club Member

Registered: 03/30/09
Posts: 1266
Loc: Ohio, US
Originally Posted By: apple*

disclaimer: not an educator and i don't know what I am talking about.

I work in special education and I'd say you do know what you're talking about. You obviously have the experience!
I'll figure it out eventually.
Until then you may want to keep a safe distance.

#1344242 - 01/08/10 08:09 PM Re: Down Syndrome and piano lessons [Re: Little_Blue_Engine]
chueh Offline
Full Member

Registered: 10/11/08
Posts: 87
Thank you all!

I have been greatly encouraged and felt the positivity of doing it. I FEEL LOVE in the AIR from reading all of your replies.

#1344266 - 01/08/10 08:37 PM Re: Down Syndrome and piano lessons [Re: chueh]
rocket88 Offline
3000 Post Club Member

Registered: 09/04/06
Posts: 3715
My oldest son (28 years old) has Down Syndrome. He is high-functioning, reads (and comprehends) at the 10th grade level, has had a job for over 5 years in a store, bowls, plays basketball in Special Olympics, loves music, loves to dance, is great at video games...but alas has never been able to play the piano, not that I haven't carefully tried.

He has, however, been able to play the Autoharp, and accompany me and his younger brother (guitar and viola), but only if we call out the chord names, which he then reads and presses on the Autoharp. He also plays bongo drums.

I don't want to say your new student can't learn to play, but I am very concerned that his parents may be trying to make him do something that he simply cannot do, and thus frustrate him.

To perhaps help explain this, most Down Syndrome people simply cannot do math. They cannot grasp the concept. After years and years of teaching at school, and previous to that home schooling, (my wife has a Masters Degree in Special Education), my son still guesses how much is two plus two.

High functioning elsewhere, math, non-functioning.

Furthermore, studies have clearly shown that teaching keyboard improves math skills, indicating that there is a brain connection between music and math. (Try doing some simple math in your head as you play...for me, and for the students whom I have asked to try, the simplest math is near-impossible!)

So if Down Syndrome seriously affects math, and music is strongly connected to math, that may be the reason why my son cannot grasp even the simplest keyboard maneuver, just as he cannot grasp the simplest math.

Also, Downs people's learning curve is delayed...concepts and emotional growth that a normal child might experience at, say, 5 years old, a Downs person may pass thru that at 8 or 10 or later, and stay in that phase much longer, often a very long time.

So my advice is to go very very gently and carefully with him, and be very careful that his parents do not try to use music, and you as the teacher, to make him try to achieve something that may be literally impossible for him.

Let it be fun, lots of hand clapping, playing one note on the beat, and see what happens, and please keep us posted.

All the best!

ps...four years old is very young for any student to start.
Piano teacher and Blues and Boogie-Woogie pianist.

A Blues tune with my trio: https://www.box.com/s/43da5e4ca6432d021eb8

#1344397 - 01/08/10 11:28 PM Re: Down Syndrome and piano lessons [Re: rocket88]
apple* Offline

Registered: 01/01/03
Posts: 19862
Loc: Kansas
one thing you may consider is that the teaching experience for him may be more about learning skills that will help him in other areas than piano.

I think about Ed. (my down syndrome brother in law - age 48). I have always thought that he could be taught to read. When he was growing up, people thought that DS kids were not capable of learning and they didn't teach them to read. He knows letters but has no idea that letters are symbols for sounds. I've tried to teach him and have had little luck. Recently (in the last ten years) he was taught sign language very effectively and learned many of the signs that deaf people have learned. He can learn written words from sign language symbols and remember them... and write them if I give them to him in sign language..

go figure.

I find the mentally challenged fascinating. you just have to find a way that works and often the usual route is not the one that works for them.

I'm going to try to spend time with Ed on the piano... just to see what he is can learn. I know that he can imitate me.. that's about it for now. He doesn't remember ...EVER. (but remember, he is pretty 'challenged'. He spends 4 days a week with his father (who lives next door) so I see and feed him often.

as you can see, Ed is a happy guy.

Edited by apple* (01/08/10 11:36 PM)
accompanist/organist.. a non-MTNA teacher to a few

love and peace, Õun (apple in Estonian)

#1344489 - 01/09/10 03:02 AM Re: Down Syndrome and piano lessons [Re: apple*]
thumper49 Offline
Full Member

Registered: 07/28/09
Posts: 170
Loc: Saskatchewan, Canada
Beautiful photo, Apple! Ed has a wonderful sister-in-law. Bless you!

Edited by thumper49 (01/09/10 03:02 AM)

Currently working on: Suzuki Piano School, book 4, second half

#1344495 - 01/09/10 03:31 AM Re: Down Syndrome and piano lessons [Re: chueh]
R0B Offline
1000 Post Club Member

Registered: 11/03/08
Posts: 1499
Loc: Australia
I have limited experience with DS, but a while back, I had a student, severely autistic, and almost non-verbal.

I came up with a colour coded system, ( purely for 5 finger tunes) to see if it would work with him, and after many patient weeks, the look of joy on his face, when he could finally play the simplest of tunes, was priceless smile

The original files are on a faulty hard drive, so I quickly tried to create an image of one of his pieces, Aura Lee.

Sorry about the poor quality blush

Edited to add: A strip of paper was placed behind the keys, with coloured circles which lined up with the relevant keys.

Edited by R0B (01/09/10 03:36 AM)

#1344550 - 01/09/10 07:09 AM Re: Down Syndrome and piano lessons [Re: R0B]
jnod Offline
500 Post Club Member

Registered: 04/04/09
Posts: 794
Loc: Toronto
One thing to look into is that some DS kids have finger conformations (including full webbing in some cases) that might make this an exercise in frustration for them. Some of these things can, and usually are corrected surgically by the time the kids are 3 years old or so.

But this is just a minor word of caution - go for it and good for you. I agree with all of these posts and it's really great to see all this interest.
Bach English Suite #5
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Mozart Sonata K333
Schubert Impromptu opus 90 D899
Schubert Moment Musicaux opus 94 D780

#1344585 - 01/09/10 08:40 AM Re: Down Syndrome and piano lessons [Re: R0B]
DianneB Offline
Full Member

Registered: 06/08/08
Posts: 89
I worked as a Music Therapist with severely and profoundly retarded adults many years ago.

Does the student know colors? Can student follow a pattern from left to right? (You may need to point to each symbol from left to right to teach this pattern.) Does student know alphabet A-G?

We started with auto harp strumming matched to color codes on music. We followed this by taping letter names to keys of piano. Then color coded the piano keyboard accompaniment in very simple music with familiar tunes.

There are music therapy keyboard books or you can use a very early learner piano book with added color chords.

#1344659 - 01/09/10 11:09 AM Re: Down Syndrome and piano lessons [Re: R0B]
chueh Offline
Full Member

Registered: 10/11/08
Posts: 87
Great photo, Apple! yes, I agree! Ed has a wonderful sister-in-law.
Rob, where did you find this colored code music? What's the title of the book and the publisher? Thanks.

DiannaB, Would you please name a few books you used specifically Thanks.

All great replies. Thanks

Edited by chueh (01/09/10 11:13 AM)

#1344684 - 01/09/10 11:37 AM Re: Down Syndrome and piano lessons [Re: chueh]
R0B Offline
1000 Post Club Member

Registered: 11/03/08
Posts: 1499
Loc: Australia
Hi chueh,

The colour code example, I gave, is my own. I didn't get it from a book, but feel free to adapt it for your use, if it helps.

#1344706 - 01/09/10 12:06 PM Re: Down Syndrome and piano lessons [Re: R0B]
DianneB Offline
Full Member

Registered: 06/08/08
Posts: 89
Robs got the right idea. A lot of Music Therapy is adapting to the level of the learner. Anyone with patience and some musical skills can write a program for special needs.

Here's an example of a sing along book and key stickers: http://www.funpublishing.com/special.htm

Teach the words to the song first. Use only one octave of stickers to start. Wherever you decide to start with the student, have the parent present (if possible) and actively involved in teaching the words to the song AND the lesson at home. The idea with special needs individuals is constant repetition.

Set very small goals, depending on your initial evaluation.

Ex. The student will learn letters A-G OR to follow a line of letters left to right, OR the student will learn color, red. This could be very slow moving, or depending on the level of retardation, may advance more rapidly.

I'm still looking online to find the color coded chord book we used.

#1344731 - 01/09/10 12:35 PM Re: Down Syndrome and piano lessons [Re: DianneB]
Crayola Offline
Full Member

Registered: 11/23/09
Posts: 299
Loc: Chicago, IL
Perhaps you can go the aural avenue, and use some of the Suzuki philosophy. I wouldn't recommend the Suzuki method books, as the first book has rather difficult content (hand independence, alberti bass, etc) but maybe if you can find a simple method, such as Faber's My First Piano Adventures, or any other method that goes along with a CD, and teach him primarily aurally. This might navigate around the whole "math" issue, since you'd be teaching him to listen first rather than analyze and count, etc.
Independent Piano Teacher, NCTM
Member of MTNA and ISMTA

#1344734 - 01/09/10 12:47 PM Re: Down Syndrome and piano lessons [Re: Crayola]
DianneB Offline
Full Member

Registered: 06/08/08
Posts: 89
I had a higher level student (75 IQ) who could read basic rhythm: ta-a (half note), ta (quarter note), ti-ti (two eighths) etc. when rhythm was notated on a page. That's something else you could teach separately and later apply to the song.

#1356464 - 01/23/10 04:57 PM Re: Down Syndrome and piano lessons [Re: DianneB]
malkin Offline
4000 Post Club Member

Registered: 04/18/09
Posts: 4037
Loc: *sigh* Salt Lake City
If your search for materials is unfruitful, go ahead and try your hand at modifying some materials that you already use. Maybe you can publish something!

Be sure to enlist the assistance of anyone else who works with this child--he's likely to have a whole team: a special education teacher, a speech-language pathologist, occupational therapist, and of course family members who know him and can suggest things that may help him learn.

Keep realistic goals too. Even just keeping track of left and right and listening to low and high notes could be an important skill and experience for him.
Having power is not nearly as important as what you choose to do with it.
– Roald Dahl

#1765918 - 10/06/11 03:36 PM Re: Down Syndrome and piano lessons [Re: chueh]
Overexposed Offline
2000 Post Club Member

Registered: 01/22/08
Posts: 2651
chueh, I'd love to hear how it's going with this student...what progress has been made...Any thoughts to share about what went well or what didn't work?

#1766055 - 10/06/11 07:13 PM Re: Down Syndrome and piano lessons [Re: chueh]
apple* Offline

Registered: 01/01/03
Posts: 19862
Loc: Kansas
me too. unless this student can read, teaching him to read scores would be a challenge.. left to right, etc.
accompanist/organist.. a non-MTNA teacher to a few

love and peace, Õun (apple in Estonian)

#1766112 - 10/06/11 08:58 PM Re: Down Syndrome and piano lessons [Re: chueh]
LeaC Offline
Full Member

Registered: 09/13/11
Posts: 413
Loc: USA
Hi! From a practical standpoint, why don't you start with singing? Sometimes piano lessons in special ed become MUSIC lessons. Some teachers start out everyone with singing. it's a good start and poses no pressure except to have fun. Then, maybe clap along. Do some basic movement and singing until you start to get an idea of what his capacities might be. Try to see it as him telling you what he can do instead of you telling him what to do. Have fun!

Edited by LeaC (10/06/11 08:58 PM)
Working on: Reworking Bartok's Suite Opus 14, Chopin's Polonaise Op.40, The Military (so much fun!)


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