Ashleigh's story

Advanced skills on the piano and playing by ear

  • Who is in the film?

    This video features Ashleigh, a blind teenager who also has a severe hearing loss and is on the autism spectrum, her teacher Adam (who founded The Amber Trust) and her parents, Christine and Steve.

  • Background

    The video shows one of Ashleigh’s fortnightly piano lessons with Adam, which take place at the University of Roehampton in London, and typically last for two or three hours. Ashleigh and Adam have been working together for around three years.

  • Aim

    The aim of this film is to show that blindness, autism and hearing loss need be no barriers to exceptional musical attainment, and to illustrate teaching strategies relating to technique, improvisation, and performance practice with a pupil like Ashleigh.

  • What does the film cover?

    Even a severe level of disability need be no barrier to exceptional musical achievement

    Ashleigh’s story shows us that even a complex cocktail of visual impairment, hearing loss and autism need be no impediment to acquiring advanced musical skills. Any constraints that children like Ashleigh may experience in their music education will arise as a consequence of teachers’ attitudes rather than their way of perceiving and understanding the world. The contrast between Ashleigh’s level of musical ability and her capacity to function in other, everyday contexts is striking – a disparity that is brought out in the film, as we get to see her capacity to think, communicate and engage both musically and verbally.

    Say ‘yes’ when asked to work with a blind child!

    Ashleigh’s film shows that there is no reason why all music teachers shouldn’t learn to work effectively with children who can’t see. For sure, they may need to re-evaluate certain preconceptions and assumptions as to how to go about the process of teaching, but no unattainable skills are required. The capacity to improvise and play by ear can be acquired by all music teachers, whatever their background. Like everything else, it’s a question of practice!

    Working with children with perfect pitch

    Ashleigh, like 40% of children who have been blind from birth or from shortly afterwards, has ‘perfect pitch’, which psychologists usually term ‘absolute pitch’. This means that when Ashleigh hears a musical sound, she knows instantly and precisely what note it is. In working with pupils with absolute pitch to play by ear, the teacher’s role is not one of instructing the child which notes to play, but helping them to translate the sounds they can hear in their head onto their instrument, as Adam demonstrates.

    How do you teach children pieces aurally?

    Although Ashleigh is starting to learn the system of Braille music that exists, at this stage, she is still acquiring new repertoire largely by ear. Adam helps her with this by playing a bar or two of a new piece at a time (depending on its complexity) and having Ashleigh play it back. Because Ashleigh has highly refined aural abilities, it is not necessary to play with hands separately (unless there is some ambiguity as to which note is taken in which hand). With other pupils, a more piecemeal approach may be required, whereby chords are broken down and played note by note, for example. Similarly, fast music can be slowed down to facilitate learning. Recorded music may be used if appropriate. A verbal commentary can be added as required to supplement the purely musical information that playing provides. This commentary may include precise descriptions of expression and articulation marks that are in the score and fingering. Here, with large chords or complex textures, the music may need to be deconstructed to a greater or lesser extent for the sake of clarity. Fingering can be sung at the same time as notes are played. Difficult passages can be repeated as necessary. For pupils who do not have perfect pitch, the names of the notes may need to be included too. Working in this way demands two things on a teacher’s part: the ability to play precisely what is written in the score (which may require careful preparation), and good aural skills to ensure that pupils reproduce exactly what is played to them. Working on two keyboards makes it easier to build up momentum in the teaching and learning process, without the need for teacher and pupil to be constantly changing places.

    Modelling through touch

    Adam demonstrates ‘hand under hand’ technique, which is where the learner places their hand on top of the teacher’s, in order to feel how the teacher plays and subsequently copy it. He notes the importance of consent, and that Ashleigh’s parents attend lessons and are aware of the importance of touch in teaching blind children complex patterns of movement.

    How to make practice materials

    As blind children will not use a score as an aid to practice (unless they are using braille music, which itself relies on memory), their teachers need to provide alternatives. This video shows how parents or students can record lessons (or parts of them) on tablets or phones to listen to at home. Clear instructions need to be given to students to enable them to practise in a purposeful and focussed way.

    Improvisation and composition

    Improvisation and composition are skills which can be learned and practised. In this video, Adam and Ashleigh use the name of Ashleigh’s favourite singer of the moment, Beyoncé, to improvise a Blues. This makes the point that people with autism spectrum condition, who are sometimes wrongly considered to lack creativity, can have a vivid musical imagination.

    Learning the etiquette of performance

    There is much more to performing in public than just singing or playing an instrument well. A performer’s interaction with an audience begins as soon as they appear on stage or other performance arena, and the way they move and their posture and gestures all contribute to the entertainment as a whole. It can be difficult to make bowing and acknowledging applause look natural in the absence of sight. Preparation and practice in these areas are important if a performer’s musical efforts are not to be diminished by extra-musical issues. Adam tackles these issues with Ashleigh, who enjoys getting to grips with them.