Piano Learning Disability?

James said: Sep 25, 2015
James Guerin
Suzuki Association Member
27 posts

I have a 10 year old Suzuki piano student of 3 years, who is high achieving academically and very articulate. She has demonstrated an recurring tendency to unlearn her Book One pieces. That is to say, any given piece we practice, and which she takes home and does the repetitions until correct, can become “undone” in that the note order and finger patterns change, leaving her and me perplexed. Before my eyes I have seen a well taught and practiced section of a piece change. This does not happen every lesson, but the majority of the time it does. Her parents and I are in touch about her practice habits, so I know she is doing the work.

I have tried transitioning to reading, which she shows a slight preference for and does slightly better with. But because her training is heavily Suzuki and ear based, I think there may be some kind of disconnect between auditory processing (which is difficult for her) and her use of finger patterns.

What I seek now are insights into teaching, rather than referrals to disabilities, because I suspect that given her success in school (she is perfectionistic) she might need “just the right” approach to overcome this confusion. However, if there are learning impediments for auditory processing of patterns, I need also to hear of them. Thanks all!

Anne Brennand said: Sep 26, 2015
Anne Brennand
Suzuki Association Member
Boulder, CO
38 posts

Hi. Your inquiry is so interesting. I wonder what is happening in the brain motor activity of this student.

It also made me think of a past cello student dear to me. From preschool through kindergarten, and into grade school, I struggled with this intelligent and very visually-artistic young girl. We were in the Twinkle phase all this time (supplemented with other musical activity). This student was winning prizes for her art work at school —she was very, very gifted in her drawing and painting.

When I finally gave her a visual cue for physical activity, there was an instantaneous reaction of success and recognition. We were all so relieved—her parents, herself, and me. I came to realize some student are just SO visually oriented, any kind of symbology will help the initial phases of learning. I have not had that experience with any student since then. —Anne

Anne Brennand, cellist and cello teacher

Heather Reichgott said: Sep 27, 2015
Heather ReichgottPiano
South Hadley, MA
96 posts

I would not jump right away to assuming a disability.
Practice might be the key.
Making sure practice is happening daily or near-daily, and making sure everything is played correctly several times in practice (not just make an error, fix it once and move on).
And be sure listening is happening daily.
A smart and capable student with no disabilities will still un-learn notes and fingerings if a few days go by without practice, or if practice contains many incorrect repetitions and only one correct repetition.
It’s fantastic that the parents are on board with you and communicating about practice. Maybe you could either have her record practice sessions, or have her or the parents check something off that shows completed repetitions. Or if the student and parents can’t complete tasks like this (many of mine can’t) then you can use 10-15 min. of the lesson as a chance for her to practice while you observe the practice session, and use the rest of the lesson to reflect with her on it and help her practice more productively.

It’s great that you have figured out that reading is easier for her. Some people just learn visually more quickly than by ear. Maybe you could try giving her some reading pieces at the level she can easily read, and keep the ear/memory pieces much simpler. Like just the Twinkles until those are very strong and consistent over several lessons, then just the right hand melodies to Cuckoo and Lightly Row until those and the Twinkles are all very strong and consistent, etc. But in the meantime she is able to work on more difficult material with reading pieces outside the books.
I have worked this way with advanced transfer students who couldn’t play by ear and it works pretty well.

James said: Sep 28, 2015
James Guerin
Suzuki Association Member
27 posts

I really appreciate the feedback from both of you, Heather and Anne. One more twist I will add: I’ve seen this student learn a pattern during a lesson, getting the notes right after painstaking practice, and then suddenly—in an instant—unlearn the whole thing right in front of me, as her fingers can’t “remember” the pattern.

She’ll keep saying “no” as she hits the wrong note, and trying again, until she looks tired of trying. I’ve asked her what the notes are she wants to remember, and she is blank, and then suddenly she’ll say “Oh, wait, now I know”. At some point she’ll recover.

I will try letting her practice in front of me.

Edmund Sprunger said: Sep 28, 2015
Edmund SprungerTeacher Trainer
Suzuki Association Member
Saint Louis, MO
97 posts

Appreciating the fact that there is probably a whole lot more to know about what happens in this little girl’s world, this last post makes me think that things are on track. She gets it, she loses it, she seems tired of trying, you ask her what the notes are, she can’t remember, then she CAN remember suddenly, and then she recovers. What catches my attention is the fact that she recovers. Your presence supports and fortifies that recovery, it seems. Sounds like a good lesson to me! Is there something you feel you should be doing that you’re not doing?

Edmund Sprunger

James said: Sep 29, 2015
James Guerin
Suzuki Association Member
27 posts

My most important issue is to see progress in her retention of music learned, and a lessening in the pattern of confusion. If she were improving in her retention of patterns (she is not), I would set the course and be satisfied. There is a randomness in the forgetting of the songs that is disturbing to me.

There is also a difficulty in my communications with her father, who comes to lessons. He is strict and wants her to finish what she’s set out to do (graduate Book One; she is in her fourth year of study). She is not a complainer, but she loses focus and interest when she is stressed that she can’t do it. I have wanted at times to direct her to new methods, because all that interests me is to see her fulfilled.

The parents feel all she needs is more focus. I continue to speculate. The good thing about these exchanges to date on the Forum is they have steered me to push to get more information on home practice patterns. I must be thorough so I can represent the situation clearly to the parents.

Christina Morton said: Sep 29, 2015
Christina Morton
Suzuki Association Member
Violin, Cello
5 posts

Have the student record the home practice so you can see exactly what is
going on. Christina Morton

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