Imagination is more important than knowledge. –Albert Einstein
Being a young and talented musician was a gift and a curse for me. I took my first piano lesson before turning 5 years old and was a player right away. I had an incredible, world class teacher named Diane who brought me to be GREAT at playing intense and difficult classical piano music over 20 years of lessons. I handled this challenge so well that at 15 years old she made me a teaching protégé. I was really good right away and through my teens, I grew much more interested in teaching than playing/practicing because as good as playing the piano felt, it didn’t feel as good as making money at 18 years old! Before turning 20 I had taught over 3,000 piano lessons and knew I was becoming masterfully GREAT at my craft. My educational and communicative skills were developing strongly and with the incredible teaching blueprint that Diane laid out for me, all the pieces came together for me to be a GREAT piano teacher. Immediately, I understood core educational principles such as ‘give a man a fish and he’ll eat a meal but teach him to fish and he’ll always be able to feed his family” and I learned to relate those to the piano teaching. I began approaching lessons with the attitude that teaching a student to play a song is sometimes only teaching them to play that song, but teaching a student the fundamentals of reading and playing will empower them to play whatever they want, as I’ve been able to do and enjoy through my life. This was all a gift.
The curse was a combination of things that stemmed from one root – apathy for learning anything except what I could use my talents to easily do well in. I used my gift to be GREAT at a young age but in contrast I was NOT a great student in school, where I absolutely did not care about my educational challenges and grades that I didn’t have the natural aptitude for. This led to so much negativity in my home and panic for my parents who love me so much and would do anything to help me succeed in life. They thought that a decent living and happy life would only be possible if I got through college and earned a degree but in high school and college, you couldn’t have paid me enough to try. There are fallouts of these situations like household stress and negativity, lying about grades, depression, failure and my early choice to give up on my education and therefore myself. In high school I was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder which made things worse. It gave me a new and huge reason why failure was occurring and more importantly, an excuse to simply not try.
This was all occurring as my piano teaching skills were both improving consistently and growing rapidly, so I kept going with life the way it had been for a while. I had a love for music that kept me feeling sane which included a steady diet of Twinkle Twinkle from my students’ fingers, Beethoven from my own fingers and Pearl Jam from my beloved Aiwa 3-CD stereo. With all of this being said, my scenario in life was being a talented Music Educator with no college degree and therefore no ability to make a decent living. The idea of needing to conquer an education that someone else laid out for me for which I’d have to fill science requirements and gym electives to be told I can teach what I already knew how to teach never made sense to me. These issues, along with a belief that my Attention Deficit Disorder combined with my already existing lack of confidence would never lead to a degree would firm lay a chip on my shoulder. I did try a bit in college and earned my 2-year Associates Degree in Business Administration from Nassau Community College on Long Island but never followed through with any of the plans of educational success I convinced myself I was going to complete. Now at 32, I’m an entrepreneur, small business owner, special needs piano programming innovator, author, multiple website owner and most importantly, I re-invented the original language of music for special learners to play years’ and years’ worth of fundamentally correct piano music, just like I did! I make it so my special students can come as close as possible to the experience I had while learning with Diane.
So what changed between being 22 and 32? Autism. A young man with Autism named Chase became my first special needs piano student and changed my life forever. This led to me meeting hundreds of individuals with many varieties of special needs, each of whom continue to change me a little bit more. The first time I tried teaching Chase I wanted him to push the “C key” on the piano. When I told him to, he looked at my pockets. A light bulb went on over my head and I realized that although I meant for him to push the piano key, he immediately thought of house or car keys which he assumed to be in my pocket. Something changed for me at that moment and life was in a new alignment for me with a new priority – using empathy and creativity to communicate with special learners. Within months of meeting Chase I applied to work at a school for Autism with mainly “low functioning” students. Starting here, I learned to help and care for young individuals who displayed an array of behaviors and issues so broad, it makes the term ‘Autism Spectrum’ as accurate a term as you can imagine. From teaching students the proper steps for toileting and other ADLs (activities of daily living) to practicing how to sit quietly and appropriately through a movie to educational tasks like using a calculator, I was exposed to many behaviors, environments and incredibly unique human beings. Only a short while after getting started at this program, I was approached by the parents of a non-verbal, highly behavioral, obsessive compulsive and low functioning student from the school. They wanted me to try to teach their son who unlike Chase would not be able to read the complex symbols of traditional piano notation. I had some ideas to try with him that involved re-inventing the language of music without losing any of the specific information/instructions. I nailed it on my first try and created Lee Stockner’s Music Box Method™ right away! After the program caught on with a few more students with similar profiles, I began my original program ABA Piano Lessons (based out of Long Island and Queens, NY), my incredible trial and error period (which had way more trial than error) and began imagining and creating what is now Occupational Octaves Piano™. I believe with my heart and my mind that this program can change the way the world approaches Special Needs Music Education. What I’ve created is simply the best choice available to teach a student to play who can’t functionally read, process or enjoy traditional piano music so they might not miss out on the cognitive, physical and emotional successes and developments that piano students experience!
Here’s the big reason I’ve chosen to share my story. My optimization as a human being developed in searching for and developing my ABILITIES as opposed to my disabilities. I realize now that while there was never anything truly “wrong” with me, my abilities and my heart were just tougher harness, especially when both the people who loved me most and the societal standards of education pushed me into something that I was fully rejecting (and if I found myself as a parent in the same situation as my own, I know my heart would feel the same as theirs). I just wasn’t meant for the cookie cutter approach to education and special education. I was meant for imagination, communication and developing it in the only way I know how to – my way. I feel incredible amounts of luck that everything turned out in a way that allows me to present to you what I believe in. Simultaneously, I want to be a piece of living, breathing evidence and proof in what’s becoming the great era of diagnoses in our educational system, that if you can’t find yourself learning in school, it might not be the optimal way for you to learn, communicate and grow. You need to search hard with your heart and mind to find your “1A.” Your “1A” is the thing you were most meant to do, what makes you feel like you’re optimizing your heart and yourself. What is the thing that you would do for free if you didn’t have to pay bills one day. If you figure out what that is, the route to focusing becomes clearer.
There is also great irony to the person who rejected education being an educator. I laugh about it all sometimes, but it made me think of what I would want Occupational Octaves Piano™ to be one day after my life ends. What is the best purpose and the strongest impact it can have? I think it’s two major things. Cognitive Gain and Special Moments. I can’t directly prove to you that I experienced a cognitive gain at the piano and I can’t connect any of those potential gains I made at the piano directly to launching my program, but I do know that when I creating the complete vision of my program from the fundamental pieces to a special student, teacher and parent enjoying the performance of someone who was unlikely to be a musician, the development and completion has all felt like learning a complex classical song on the piano. Occupational Octaves Piano™ is going to be a hugely successful Mind-Body-Soul approach to developing cognitive gain and special moments. I hope this lasts long after my living days.