Francis's story

Learning the saxophone and improvising

  • Who is in the film?

    This video features Francis, who is 18 years old, blind and autistic, and his saxophone teacher, Louise.

  • Background

    Louise has been working regularly with Francis for seven years. She usually teaches him at home, though the session in the video was undertaken at a special school in south London where Francis is a student.

  • Aim

    The aim of this video is to show how to teach the saxophone to a blind, autistic student, who learns by ear.

  • What does the film cover?

    Consider the physicality of playing an instrument in helping a child to choose what to learn

    Louise points out that the saxophone’s keys are easy for Francis to navigate, as they lie comfortably under his fingers. Not all instruments are as straightforward for blind children to play, however. For example, bowed instruments, such as the violin and ’cello, make considerable demands on proprioceptive skills – not least, keeping the bow at right angles with the strings. While challenges such as this should never prevent a child from taking up an instrument if that is their wish, and, indeed, there have been a number of fine blind string players, it is sensible to bear in mind any issues with coordination or physical size or strength that a child may have when helping them choose the most appropriate instrument to learn. Of course, a strong motivation to play can overcome many hurdles!

    How to use descriptive language and analogies to promote understanding

    In this video we see Louise using the example of a train swaying from side to side to explain a musical idea to Francis. She takes care to use concepts that lie within his range of experience (basing them on embodied experiences or sounds) and checks that he has understood by seeking verbal confirmation. Most metaphors used in everyday speech are visual in nature, so teachers may need to take extra care in seeking to explain things to blind students by way of analogy.

    How to use appropriate touch and issues of safeguarding

    As Francis is playing a reed instrument, he needs to be aware of his embouchure, and how to adjust it to influence the quality and pitch of the sound his saxophone produces. Louise is careful to ask his permission to touch his mouth when asking Francis to tighten his lower lip slightly. By seeking his consent and by leaving the door to her room ajar so she and Francis are in sight of his support worker, Louise shows that she is aware of the school’s safeguarding policy.

    Learning to improvise

    Contrary to popular belief among Western classical musicians, improvising is a skill that can be learned. Like everything else, it just takes practice. It is a valuable ability to have acquired, not only in teaching genres such as jazz, but also in working with blind children more generally, in whom the capacity to play by ear and spontaneously embellish musical ideas that have been learnt aurally are commonplace. In this video, Louise uses the analogy of a conversation to explain the building blocks of musical improvisation to Francis. The result shows that children and young people with autism spectrum condition, who are sometimes considered to lack creativity, can be just as musically imaginative as their neurotypical peers.