Enjoying the Quirk

Some might see my disabled music students as full of unpredictable challenges. I prefer to think of them as quirky.

My students are definitely quirky:

One of my students who has autism pretty much speaks only as Dora the Explorer.

Another autistic student uses swear words to get my attention. (I bite my lip to keep from laughing when they do that. Ignoring it is the best tactic I've found.)

I have a few students with ADHD who keep me on my toes. Sometimes jumping jacks are the only way to get some of their ya-yas out.

The other day I was teaching a young student my little trick to memorize the B and D around Middle C. I credit my mother for teaching me this trick long ago: If the staves are fences, the B (Bird) is at the top of the fence and the D (Dog) is at the bottom of the fence.

I drew bass B and treble D whole notes, and then I asked him to turn the B into a bird. So he put on a smiley face and added curvy lines for wings. He drew a speech balloon and asked me to write "chirp" in it.

Then I asked him to turn the D into a dog. I figured he'd make floppy ears or something. But he made a sad face instead and asked me to write "grrrrr" in the word balloon. Why is the dog sad, I asked? Turns out the dog was sad because he couldn't get to the bird when it flew out of reach.

Love it!! He'll never forget B and D from now on! This student definitely sees the world in unusual and (often) delightful ways.

The above example is a cute one, but sometimes students' quirks are not so pleasant.

I've been spit on, sworn at, bit, and scratched by some of my students with disabilities. Some teachers would immediately "fire" the student if any of that happened in a lesson.

I had one 8-year-old autistic student whose mother expressed gratitude to me for not giving up on him, after just a few months of studying piano with me. She said it was the longest a teacher had ever lasted in extra-curricular lessons or classes of any kind. It made me so sad for the family, especially since this was NOT one of the children who spit, swore, bit, or scratched. He was just a bit oppositional and somewhat hyper, depending on the day.

If you thought of your child or your student as quirky instead of challenging or difficult, how would that change the way you interact with them? What if the quirky behavior were caused by anxiety or the inability to communicate what they needed? What if their hyperactivity was something they really really really can't stop in that moment?

A little quirk can turn something routine like teaching someone to read notes or copy rhythms into a fun adventure. I've taught piano lessons since I was 12, well over three decades now, and believe me, I'm open to quirk!

Beth Syverson has taught piano and voice since 1980, and she's specialized in teaching music to students with special needs since 2003. She teaches private lessons and music classes to students with disabilities in Orange County, CA, plus worldwide via Skype. FInd out more about how she can help nurture your student's inherent musical voice at www.BethSyverson.com.

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