“Music can lift us out of depression or move us to tears – it is a remedy, a tonic, orange juice for the ear. But for many of my neurological patients, music is even more – it can provide access, even when no medication can, to movement, to speech, to life. For them, music is not a luxury, but a necessity.”
― Oliver Sacks
I believe Occupational Octaves Piano™ is the best program ever created for special learners to learn an instrument and gain the true benefits of playing fundamentally correct songs. Now that I’m ready to share the program and train special needs and music education professionals, I have to consider how to communicate the countless experiences I’ve had and how in-lesson decisions are made. I think discussing actual, raw lesson experiences is the best way to try and share the program with trainees because I get to not only explain the situation and thought process, I have a chance to contrast one scenario against other scenarios which might have led to different choices. This is the best platform to show how I use the two most important tools at my disposal – empathy and creativity. As more and more instructors become certified in this program, the instructors will write guest blogs to share their stories of how they were empowered to musically empower so many people who come from so many walks of life and diagnoses.
First I’d like to tell you about a student named Tommy. Tommy is 5 years old with severe Autism. He’s non-verbal,hyperactive, behavioral and AWESOME to work with! (Maybe image here) Although he can barely utter “Pink C” or “Green D,” he understands the instructions of Lee Stockner’s Music Box Method™ clearly. His hyperactivity, impulsive behaviors and poor motor skills (which require 40 hours p/week of ABA, OT, PT and Speech Therapy before the many hours after school and on weekends his parents take him to multiple services) make it challenging for him to follow instructions in the first place, but an Occupational Octaves Piano™ Lesson is not just about playing a note or two. It’s about functionality, so not only does Tommy have to read the colored letters, he needs to do so one after another to actually make music out of it. Although Tommy was displaying excitement and elation during his lessons, he wasn’t learning the basic fundamentals he needed to play. So, after a few lessons, behaviors, failures, attention span lacks and miscues, I looked to the functionality and fundamentals.
Are Tommy’s hands atop the piano? No? Let’s put them there.
Is Tommy looking at the colored letters on the page? No? Let’s try to draw his attention there.
Is Tommy having success then losing focus? Yes? Let’s follow his ocular motor pattern and try to keep his attention on the music when he tends to look away.
Because of his weak core strength, finding the physical stability to handle all the fine detail instructions of playing music and eventually developing the Piano Circle of Cognitive Gain has been difficult to say the least. Now, 18 months into lessons, Tommy is developing so well with the methodical approach that I’ve taken. Weekly, he plays songs like Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, Row, Row Your Boat, Mary Had a Little Lamb, Hot Cross Buns and many others. Not only is he playing, he’s playing with proper piano fundamentals – correct notes with correct fingers for the correct amount of beats. He is an absolute amazement to watch! He’s made great improvements in cognitive gain, fine motor skills, attention span expansion, communication (requesting songs he wants to play by singing them) and of course, his musical skills.
Next I’d like to talk about another awesome young man. Zhyom has a similar profile to Tommy except Zhyom is much more verbal. At 3 years old, “Z” came in for lessons displaying hyperactivity, unfocused thoughts, behaviors and a love of the songs I’d play for him (like the nursery rhymes Tommy plays). During our first lessons, he was doing something right but also something wrong. When he saw a Green D he was saying “Green and D” as opposed to “Green D” which I was saying. I realized quickly that saying the word “and” between “Green and D” was taking the co-active instructions I designed and making them into separate instructions in his mind. While he is supposed to read the letters and follow the instruction like this:
Zhyom would just say the color outloud and then press the letter with whichever finger was easiest for him at that moment instead of using the finger color that matches the letter. Once I taught him to say the terms without the word “and” he understood the program. “Pink C’s” and “Green D’s” were all being played properly after this moment of musical empowerment for him through creative and empathetic solutions!
Lastly for now is a student who suffers the misery of Autism in so many ways. Sarahbeth has difficulty knowing how loud or soft to speak depending on her environment, is “prompt-dependent” (waits to be told what to do for just about every move she makes), has a persistent case of echolalia (constant repetition of words heard) that causes her to talk to herself morning, afternoon and night (which leads to being frequently asked to be quiet) and has severe (sometimes violent) behaviors. All of these deficiencies and issues lead to a life filled with dreadful anxiety for a young lady (22 years old) who wants calmness, solitude and peace – all of which are difficult for her to attain. As an Occupational Octaves Piano™ student, she put the color rings on and understood Lee Stockner’s Music Box Method fully and completely on her first lesson. It was instant empowerment! Sarahbeth played through hundreds of songs written in my method which include a full mainstream curriculum, even though it’s written in an alternative language. Sarahbeth has played every major scale in one, two, three and four octave scales, sharps, flats, rests, chords, arpeggios and most importantly, classical music she’s heard, been calmed by and been fascinated by her entire life. Here is a list of songs she’s played so far:
Nursery Rhymes beginning in easy-level (EZ) and moving to much more difficult arrangements such as Mary Had a Little Lamb, Sing a Song of Sixpence, It’s Raining, It’s Pouring and many others.
Beethoven songs such as Song of Joy, Pathetique Sonata and Fur Elise
Mozart songs such as Night Music
Muzio Clementie’s Sonatina Op. 36 No. 1
America the Beautiful and The National Anthem
1, 2, 3 and 4 octave Major and Minor scales
And much more!
She has also performed publicly at:
Columbia University in Manhattan,
The Steinway Gallery of Melville, NY (playing on a Concert Grand Piano)
The Queens Museum of Art
The Nassau County Executive Building on Long Island (to a packed house of states people)
One of my proudest achievements is giving someone like Sarahbeth a safe, artistic and happy place where she can occupy her mind with things other than her anxieties. One of my goals is to make sure there’s always enough music for someone like Sarahbeth to be able to play for the rest of her life!
This is just the beginning for the Special Needs community to use music as a portal to sound, comfort, control, therapy, education and the connected musical heart. I keep saying that this program is the best available for Special Needs Music Education. Well, it’s also the best available for a Mind-Body-Soul approach to enriching the lives of people with special needs through music!