Aizah's story

Starting out on the piano

  • Who is in the film?

    This video features Aizah, who is blind and four years old, her teacher Lydia, and Adam, founder of The Amber Trust, who acts as Lydia’s mentor.

  • Background

    At the time of filming, Aizah had had two or three lessons with Lydia at school on a small keyboard. This was her first time playing a full-sized piano.

  • Aim

    The aim of this film is to show how to approach initial piano lessons with a young blind pupil.

  • What does the film cover?

    Guiding a young blind child

    Lydia takes Aizah by the hand and leads her to the piano. This is entirely appropriate for a four-year-old. Older children or young people may prefer to hold the teacher’s elbow or arm.

    Using language appropriately

    With a child who can’t see, but who can understand language, ‘teacher talk’ assumes a more than usual importance, compensating as it does for the lack of visual information available to the pupil. Lydia introduces herself by telling Aizah her name and who she is, and then guides Aizah by telling her clearly where they are going and what they will be doing. Lydia avoids using unnecessary speech (‘auditory clutter’), and uses simple, concise language when she explains to Aizah what is going on. She also takes care to talk directly to Aizah, and not over her head (to Adam or to her parents, who are in the room). Although Aizah can’t see Lydia’s smile, she can sense the warmth in her voice, which puts her at her ease.

    Allowing time for exploration

    We see Aizah exploring the keyboard for herself. Lydia and Adam consciously allow her the time to do this. They don’t ask Aizah to sit down immediately or restrict her movement around the piano. Adam notes that children like Aizah will pace activities themselves to suit their own rate of learning and need to be given time to explore and to repeat what they do, sometimes many times over.

    Child-centred learning

    Young children typically have a natural curiosity and will test out their environment in a way that makes sense to them. With this in mind, Lydia and Adam allow Aizah to take the initiative in much of the lesson and are sensitive to her preferences. For example, as part of her emerging sense of tonality, Aizah gravitates towards the note C, so they play pieces that begin on that note (which are often in C major). In starting to teach Aizah, the most important thing, to start with, is to guide her in playing a tune that she already knows. This is a central principle of playing by ear, which will be the strategy that Aizah will be encouraged to adopt, now and in the future, although that doesn’t preclude the possibility of using notation in braille further down the line.

    Finding where the notes are

    On the keyboard, blind children will be able to feel the differences in the patterns of black notes on the keyboard more easily than the white (which don’t have gaps between them). So transposing tunes they know into different keys may help children to navigate the keyboard and learn where the notes are under their fingers. The tendency for beginners’ pieces to be in C (or keys with only one or two sharps or flats) is driven by an approach to teaching that privileges notation, rather than the practicalities of playing and technique. Getting a child to play the black notes straight away will mean that their hand naturally falls in a better position on the keyboard than just playing white notes. This is particularly important for blind children who have a tendency to place their fingers near the front edges of the notes and not to use their thumbs when playing. Playing tunes using a mixture of black and white notes from the beginning will prevent this from happening. Teachers of other instruments should consider whether comparable issues apply to their pupils’ first efforts to play.

    Thinking about technique

    For young blind children starting out on the piano or keyboard, it’s much easier at first to play tunes with one finger, as it will enable them to learn the topology of the keyboard – in particular, gauging the distance between notes. This is much harder to do using two fingers or more, since the sensory information will be coming from multiple sources (the child’s fingertips), and, in the absence of sight, it’s hard to judge exactly how far apart your fingers are in space. Whereas sighted children can see where the notes are in relation to one another, blind children can’t, and using one finger initially will enable them to develop the necessary proprioceptive knowledge and skills. Once they have mapped where the keys are and the sounds they make, then they can start to use different fingers. Depending on the physical abilities of the child, and their musical preferences, you may want to start this process with three-note tunes, then four, then five, then tunes that demand a change of hand position.

    Playing together

    Music is above all a social activity, and playing together with your pupil from the start can be immensely motivating and help to build their confidence. Playing an instrument should be something that both teachers and pupils do as partners, not something that a child does exclusively while an adult listens, which can put unnecessary pressure on pupils, particularly in the early stages. Playing together promotes aural development, listening skills and – above all – is great fun!