Hazel's story

Learning to improvise on the piano

  • Who is in the film?

    This video features Hazel and her teacher Glenn. Hazel is 10 years old and blind, with special SEMH (social, emotional and mental health) needs. Hazel’s mother and Adam, founder of The Amber Trust, are also present.

  • Background

    The video illustrates one of Hazel’s weekly piano lessons with Glenn, which take place at Worcester Snoezelen. Glenn and Hazel have been working together for around nine years. It has been a fascinating journey of exploration for both of them.

  • Aim

    The aim of the video is to illustrate effective child-led learning in the context of a pupil who is blind and requires social and emotional support.

  • What does the film cover?

    How to set up a music room for a blind child

    Glenn explains how he has set up his room for Hazel. Almost all the information that blind children will get about an environment such as this stems from what they are told, what they can hear and what they can touch. It is important, above all, that the room you use is safe, free from obstacles and trip hazards, and that the layout will enable your pupil to navigate it with as much independence as possible.

    Adopting a child-centred approach

    Teaching blind children may require imagination and thinking ‘outside the box’, particularly if they have additional support needs brought about through learning difficulties, autism or, in Hazel’s case, a special social and emotional profile. Glenn has developed a unique relationship with Hazel, and he is able to scaffold her learning effectively as he has had the chance to observe her over a number of years. His approach enables the flow of the lesson to move seamlessly from creative, spontaneous and imaginative improvisation to more structured teaching pertaining to technique and learning new pieces. While the session shown here is individual to Glenn and Hazel, it illustrates the foundation of any successful teacher-pupil partnership: a musical relationship built on trust, mutual respect, a sense of shared purpose and – crucially – enjoyment.

    Using music to communicate with your pupil

    Glenn and Hazel play together throughout almost all of the lesson. There is little purely verbal interaction. This is because Hazel’s use and understanding of language are not as advanced as her capacity to engage with music. Notice how Glenn skilfully introduces Hazel to what he wants to do next using musical cues. This approach may well be worth emulating with a range of other pupils.

    The importance of creativity and musical improvisation

    Some people are under the misapprehension that children with autism or learning difficulties are less creative or imaginative than their neurotypical peers, which is not actually the case. In this video, Glenn and Hazel improvise together using stories as a framework – a monkey falling out of a tree, for example. This provides an example of how imaginative play can stimulate music-making.

    Modelling through touch

    Glenn demonstrates how Hazel learns piano technique ‘hand under hand’ – feeling what Glenn does by placing her hands on his (they call it ‘jumping on’). This is because abstract verbal explanations would not work for Hazel. Through touch, though, Glenn can model very effectively what he would like Hazel to do. The ‘hand under hand’ strategy is the opposite of ‘hand over hand’, where teachers place their hands on top of their pupils’. This can be a potent teaching approach too when a teacher would like a pupil to adopt a particular hand shape. Clearly, a pupil’s consent is needed to adopt either approach, and issues of safeguarding will need to be considered carefully.


    Given the physical contact involved in Glenn’s lessons with Hazel, it is important for both parties that Hazel’s mother is present throughout, to avoid any possible misunderstanding. Hazel’s mother can also support the teaching and learning process as required through her intimate knowledge of her daughter’s way of thinking and preferences.


    Performing is one of the joys of being a musician, but for some blind children, particularly those with special SEMH needs, it can be intimidating. Glenn introduces the idea of performing in a way that Hazel will understand, and she responds positively to the prospect. A well-prepared performance can boost a child’s confidence and self-esteem, and, just like any other children, those with visual impairments should be given opportunities to play or sing for others if they wish.