Developing Philosophies for Special Needs Music Education

I’d like to talk about some things that bring us together, things that point out our similarities instead of our differences cause that’s all you ever hear about in this country is our differences. That’s all the media and the politicians are ever talking about: the things that separate us, things that make us different from one another. Do you ever look at your watch… and then you don’t know what time it is? And you have to look again, and you still don’t know the time. So you look a third time and somebody says “what time is it?” you say “I don’t know!”
―George Carlin

There is a best approach to teaching the piano and I had the incredible good fortune of having this approach passed down to me at age 15. When my teacher Diane was simply preparing me to make a few bucks and teach some lessons while getting through my eventually failing plans of success in college, I had no idea I was actually in career training and learning skills I’ll use my whole life. For a stressed and confused kid like myself, teaching a lesson was the place I felt most comfortable in life.

It grew quickly to be a love and a passion for multiple reasons:

I felt in control. I learned every step that should be taken, realized how they function in relation to each other, and communicated it well to a large variety of learners.
I was spending all of my time around music.
I was able to make money and be independent.
I knew I was helping people learn and be happier.

What turned out to be the most important part of the experience was the experiment in human science I never asked for, but found myself in the midst of. In this experiment the controls were myself, the piano and the piano curriculum that Diane arranged for me. The variables were the hundreds of students whose details of life vary in age, occupation, place in life, physical size, attention span, and previous music experience along with many other differences. They all constantly showed me how different people handle the same instructions and as George Carlin inspired me so greatly to do, I looked at what made everyone all the same. With the thousands of hours I’d been putting into lessons and having a balance of long term students with a revolving door of beginners, I got to tinker and toy with the system I was using and constantly questioned every step I took, why I took it and what type of result I was seeking out. I searched for clarity and simplicity in my communications with students and then began seeking improvements at deeper levels. I would find inspiration outside of lessons by watching the players on an organized basketball team move while thinking with precision, function and fundamentals (for those who understand the reference, I strive to be the Greg Popovich of piano fundamentals). I realized that I communicate instructions to my fingers much like a coach communicates instructions to his players while stressing the importance of each of the five players to always be playing an exact role. I also saw baseball analysts show the difference in balance and body stability with successful and unsuccessful hitters and realized that like these ball players, if my students didn’t have balance and body stability they’d have an experience similar to unsuccessful hitters. I discovered that improving these physical fundamentals decreases unnecessary movements and distractions, freeing up the attention span to increase cognitive gain, efficiency, and in the case of piano lessons, play the instrument better.

All of these ideas I learned through teaching were really a few years’ worth of epiphanies for me. When I began working at the Genesis School for Autism on Long Island (the school my first ten special learner piano students attended) I had another educational epiphany when I learned about “Task Analysis.” If you’re not familiar with the term, it simply means to break a task down to as many steps as possible so that each step may be isolated, improved, and therefore a stronger part of the overall process. I was truly amazed when I had to assist and monitor a student who was learning to brush his teeth and this simple task was broken down into 12 steps. Even walking into the bathroom was a step that the student could have gotten wrong! I got to keep working on these tasks like brushing the teeth or using a photo copy machine and saw the true power of task analysis. I realized that every process in life can undergo a task analysis, even the organization of a basketball team, swinging of a baseball bat or the reading of a piano note.

When I was first approached by the parent of a low functioning, non-verbal, obsessive compulsive and highly behavioral student for lessons, I wasn’t even thinking of task analysis because I was too busy worrying about how Lee Stockner’s Music Box Method would work. Once the notion sank in to my mind of how perfectly I reinvented the langauge of music, my focus was to build more and more material for my few students and to share this breakthrough with new students (currently there is over 700 pages of material and counting). After my grassroots efforts to build up ABA Piano Lessons, my original piano lesson program based out of Queens, NY, I was making enough money independently to leave the Genesis School and try to make it on my own. Before I knew it, I was working with 30-40 students per week and growing a waiting list of potential clients. Now that I had my immediate future set up, I got my brain back in gear to make new discoveries. All of my students were reading my program well and playing loads of music at many levels so I reached back to my original epiphany of fundamentals and started applying it with my special learners but this time I approached it with a new tool in my arsenal – Task Analysis. I used task analysis to break the playing of each and every single note, chord or symbol into what I’ve dubbed the “Piano Circle of Cognitive Gain” and it is something that every piano student, traditional or special, should experience. These five steps occurring repeatedly in order is the most crucial part of a student becoming “smarter” from playing the piano:


It is a common misconception that the ability to read traditional piano music is where the real cognitive gain of piano lessons comes from when in reality, translating the information from the page is one of five equally important steps that when repeated without interruptions leads to the goal. This means that people who can translate music notation but can’t do it as part of the Piano Circle of Cognitive Gain are really not gaining much from playing the piano and are most likely not playing so well (without exceptional talent). I never identified it this way in my early years of teaching, but all the time I spent laboring over my traditional students’ fundamentals I was really focusing on the “Piano Circle of Cognitie Gain” all along.

Lee Stockner’s Music Box Method™ is so far ahead of the curve because it is the only alternative to traditional music that will give thousands of special students the full opportunity to experience the “Piano Circle of Cognitive Gain” and the endless benefits of Music Education:


This is achievable because as long as a student can match colored letters, the musical language I’ve created makes the “translate” step of the PCoCG into a simple colored letter that instructs the player with the same exact goals as traditional music: “push this note with this finger and hold it for this long.” Lee Stockner’s Music Box Method™ works brilliantly and with Occupational Octaves Piano™ as an approach/curriculum, special learners all around the world can experience the cognitive gains at the piano!

So what is an Occupational Octaves Piano™ Lesson? It’s a combination of striving for the highest standards of piano fundamentals through an alternative (yet not any lesser) language of music in order to bring the true physical, mental and emotional gains of musicianship to the special needs world as never before!