Teaching style

Adapting your way of working for a child who can’t see

Adopting a child-centred approach

  • Experienced teachers tend to have tried and tested approaches that have served them over the years. Very often these will draw on the teacher’s own experience of being taught. However, while many of the strategies that work well with fully sighted children can be transferred without too much modification to those who can’t see, teaching a blind child effectively is likely to require some extra thought and imagination. This is for a number of reasons. For example, a frequent reliance on notation, particularly by Western classical musicians, may well need to be re-considered; information about the instrument and about technique that is typically conveyed visually will need to be cast in another form; the significant minority of blind children with perfect pitch will hear and learn music in a different way from the great majority of their sighted peers; and there will be a much greater reliance on memory.
  • It is valuable to find out what you can about the child before starting to teach them, so talk to their parents and other professionals who work with them. How does the child prefer to learn in other areas? Do they have particular musical interests that you can tap into? Have they already started to teach themselves? Many blind children have additional learning needs; autism, or autistic tendencies, are common. For example, they may well be self-directed learners, and come to their first lesson with their own agenda of what they would like to play. The unfamiliar may cause a level of anxiety that is more pronounced than in most neurotypical children. They may have a fascination with particular details about a piece of music (its composer’s birth and death dates, for instance).
  • All of this means that you may need to adopt more of a child-centred approach than you are used to – particularly in working in the early stages with young children. It may be a question of starting from where the child is at, musically speaking, and then steering rather than prescribing (or, indeed, proscribing). A child’s inner musical motivations may be unusually strong, and it is worth remembering that it is a pedagogical strength (not a weakness) to encourage a pupil to direct elements of their own learning.
  • You may need to review the pace and structure that typically characterise your lessons: in some cases, new musical ideas, new technical challenges, new concepts may need more time and reinforcement than you are used to, particularly where these would in other circumstances be reliant on vision. However, it may also be the case that the child you are working with is unusually quick to learn new material, and to retain it well. It is a question of being alive to a child’s level of engagement, and, if necessary, adjusting your teaching to hold their attention.

In Lucy’s story, Adam, a trustee of Amber, explains the importance of teachers adopting a child-centred approach in relation to young blind children who are on the autism spectrum Lucy's Story @ 08:51. Adam contends that, in one sense, it is impossible to teach children like these anything; teachers can only facilitate their development through providing an optimal environment in which they can learn. With no guidance at all, and in the context of severe learning difficulties, Lucy began to teach herself to play the keyboard as a little girl. That powerful, inner drive could all too easily have thwarted any pre-determined teaching agenda that her teacher Daniel may have tried to bring to bear. But Daniel coaxes Lucy’s self-determined learning trajectory towards ends that will enable her to achieve more than would otherwise have been possible; introducing her to new repertoire (and giving her choices as to what to learn next) and suggesting fingering patterns that enable her to realise on the keyboard what she can hear so well in her head. Daniel discusses his approach to working with Lucy here Lucy's Story @ 01:27. He talks about how he adapted his teaching style to meet her needs, and how his working relationship with Lucy has evolved. He discusses pacing, structure, and how they negotiate the content of lessons.

In Hazel’s story, we see teacher Glenn intuitively working in a child-centred way, and Adam reflects on the strengths of his approach here Hazel's Story @ 06:03. Over a number of years, Glenn has developed a unique relationship with Hazel, who has a special social and emotional profile, enabling him to scaffold her learning effectively. The lesson flows 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 basis of any successful teacher-pupil partnership: a musical relationship built on trust, mutual respect, a sense of shared purpose and – crucially – enjoyment.

Adam discusses how to approach teaching Aizah, a young blind child, here Aizah's Story @ 01:43. He remarks: ‘The most powerful, potent force is a child’s own motivation. If you show that you are prepared to walk their musical journey, they will be happy and thrilled to engage with you’.

Choice of repertoire

  • The choice of repertoire is a crucial factor in gaining and sustaining a child’s interest in learning to play an instrument. At the beginning, it may be possible to teach them how to reproduce snatches of a favourite song, for example, and build from there (adding a rudimentary accompaniment, for instance, changing key, thinking about the most appropriate fingering and developing practice strategies to play the excerpt faster or more accurately). This may well be preferable to starting with the somewhat anodyne exercises that are often found in beginners’ books.
  • Beyond this, though, you should also aim to introduce new pieces, new styles, new genres. Music is linked to, and is an expression of, culture, and through it you can help a child to gain a wider understanding of the world around them, as well as of the nature of different cultures and communities within society.

Adam’s approach to teaching Ashleigh, a blind, autistic teenager with exceptional musical potential, which aims to use her own motivations to direct her learning in a purposeful way, is shown here Ashleigh's Story @ 01:36. Over the three years that Adam has been working with Ashleigh, she has moved from a position of not tolerating technical exercises to enjoying the challenge they offer. Adam engages her interest by changing the rhythm and the key of each repetition of a Hanon exercise Ashleigh's Story @ 00:45. Ashleigh has moved on from an intolerance of anything but pop music to relishing the Western Classical and Romantic piano repertoire. Adam developed her interest by showing her musical connections between certain Abba songs (in which she had an obsessive interest) and the folk melodies used by Grieg! Ashleigh loves to improvise, and re-imagining Classical tunes in the style of Abba appealed both to her musicality and her humour, and showed her the deeper structural similarities that lie beneath the surface of music in apparently contrasting styles.

Lucy’s teacher Daniel is introducing her to the 48 Preludes and Fugues by Bach, as well as the jazz of Miles Davis Lucy's Story @ 00:57. While this may appear to be an incongruous choice of repertoire for a girl of her age and general level of development, it actually meets her musical needs and engages her interests perfectly, tapping into her love of complex patterns and (in the case of the Davis) enabling her to extend her ability to improvise. So despite the pieces hailing from very different musical traditions, they are all grist to Lucy’s voracious musical mill. Lucy is fortunate in having a teacher who is comfortable playing in a range of styles. Other pupils may have to rely on different teachers to work with them on different repertoires.

Anaya’s family are from Pakistan and she enjoys songs in Urdu, which she often listens to at home with her family. Daniel has made every effort to get to know the music of her culture, and he plays and sings an Urdu piece with her, strengthening their musical relationship based on mutual respect and interest, and giving Anaya a sense of ownership and empowerment. Anaya's Story @ 03:27

Teaching music through music

  • It is difficult to describe music accurately in words, and musicians tend to have recourse to specialised terms that refer to abstract concepts that mean little or nothing to most people. Hence for young blind children and those who otherwise have limited language, the usual ‘teacher talk’ that occurs in lessons may be of little value or even be counterproductive, as it may confuse pupils or make them anxious. For these young people (and, indeed, for many others) the best way to teach music is through music – by playing or singing.
  • In any case, since music is primarily a social activity, playing and singing together with your pupil from the start can be immensely motivating, and can help to build their confidence. Making music is something that both teachers and pupils should do as partners in a common enterprise – it is not an activity that is more or less exclusive to the child (while an adult listens, then instructs, then listens again). This can put unnecessary pressure on pupils, particularly in the early stages. In contrast, playing together places a responsibility on both parties. It promotes listening skills, expressive performance and – above all – is great fun!

Anaya’s lesson Anaya's Story is full of music, with verbal explanation and comment kept to a minimum. Daniel teaches music through music, not through words. He demonstrates the musical direction in which he wishes Anaya to travel, playing a good deal himself, and encouraging her to listen and join in. He observes that for a child to contribute, albeit a small part, to a potentially rich and complex musical texture can be immensely motivating.

Glenn and Hazel Hazel's Story 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.

Lucy’s verbal communication and understanding are limited. In Lucy’s story Lucy's Story, notice how Daniel communicates with her primarily through music, using language minimally, in short phrases, and using only words and concepts that she is likely to understand and that are directly relevant to the task in hand. This gives Lucy the best possible chance of grasping what is being said, what is going to happen next, and of voicing her own views. And, above all, it means that the maximum possible amount of time can be spent making music.