Adaptive Piano Lessons Domain: Communication

Imagine that you greet a new student at the door. Although mom looks at you and politely says hello and begins a normal conversation, the student is clearly distracted. Your kind and genuine welcome do nothing to put him at ease. He never looks at you when he speaks, and doesn’t say much more than “yes” or “no”. When you ask what type of music he enjoys, he is hesitant and can’t seem to find the right words. At first it may seem that he is shy and nervous. But then this continues week after week as you try to break through and get to know him. Nothing seems to change, and you no longer attribute this to being nervous about trying something new.

 In this domain, you will find deficiencies in effectively communicating both verbally and nonverbally. Music is very versatile here, and can be used as a mode of communication or to enhance a student’s communication skills. Language contains numerous musical aspects: melodic contour, timbre variations, and rhythm.* This means that by learning music, we can also refine our language skills!

So what are some ways that we can determine a need to adapt our teaching in light of a communication deficiency? You may see marks such as …

~ Difficulty with having a back-and-forth discussion

~ Short “yes” and “no” answers.

~ Difficulty using words to convey what they want to say

~ Little or no eye contact

I said this last week and will say it again … but it is CRITICAL that we remember that it is important to recognize and understand criteria for deficiencies in each domain. But our job is NOT to diagnose a student, but to teach our students as effectively as possible. I can’t stress this enough!

If a child is struggling to communicate effectively, chances are that the parents/guardians are already aware. They could even be enrolling their child in piano lessons with the hopes of building positive one-on-one interaction in a safe and affirming environment with another adult who is not related to the child. This is an exciting opportunity share the joy of music!

So what are some strategies we can use when we do see one or multiple of these markers displayed with one of our students (over a long period of time)?

Musical Questions and Answers

I often talk to my students about the language-like nature of music. My favorite example is talking to them in a monotone voice for a few sentences …. No one wants to listen to that for any period of time, and our music is the same way! When we add phrasing and dynamics we suddenly make musical sentences come alive. They all giggle and laugh at me, but the lightbulb does click!

Musical question and answer phrases work the same way that conversation does. You will often see this represented about once in a primer book of a method. But it never stops occurring in music! “Are You Sleeping, Brother John?” is an example of a traditional song that utilizes both repetition and questions and answer phrases. The music naturally lends itself to desiring to hear an answer. This is a simple, yet effective way to teach the need to respond to answer. First it can be practiced in music, then it can be practiced simply asking a question that the student must offer a response to answer.

Call and Response

Call and response overlaps with musical question and answer phrases. But it can be used with rhythm instruments, phrases, in song, etc. Looking for some fun examples of call and response songs to use with a student and/or group? Check out  Ashley Danew’s thorough list here!


This is where we can give an outlet for our students to communicate nonverbally! A composer often writes a piece of music to convey a message, meaning, or emotion. Teaching our students to compose can give them not only a creative outlet, but also empower them to communicate with others using more than just their words.  (Resource Roundup coming soon with fun ways to incorporate composition into every lesson 🙂 )

Communication from the Teacher  

There are times that you will find that a student with a speech and language disorder simply needs someone who is willing to put in the work to find a different way of communicating to them. This can sound daunting, but I want to share 4 simple ways you can adapt and streamline your communication in a lesson.

  1. Input: when changing input, the piano teacher would adapt the way the instruction is delivered. This can be done by using visuals, speaking slower, and by allowing more time between concepts. This allows the student more time to understand what has been said.
  2. Output: This refers to adapting to a student’s response through giving more time for a response and by encouraging more than yes and no answers. “Is this song in the Key of G?” is far different from “What key is this song in?”
  3. Time: This refers to the amount of time allotted for completion of a task. With individual lessons this primarily relates to the teacher’s patience. In a group situation, time will need to be adjusted to fit the needs of each student in the group.
  4. Level of Support: This refers to the amount of help given, such as giving more hints, or giving half the answer to help the student fill in the rest. **

With students who are developing at a normal rate and therefore not showing any signs of deficiencies in communication, you will likely not realize when your communication is not strong. But putting these 4 tips into practice with all students can have an enormous impact on their musical development! Adapting how we deliver instruction can lead to greater clarity, adapting how we except a response from our students can lead to realizing when they don’t understand, adapting timing can create an environment where a student feels safe, and giving more support for the answer can equip a student to feel successful!

When you do have a student who struggles in the communication domain, it is likely the deficiencies are tied to another disorder or disability. We see it across the board with Down Syndrome, cerebral palsy, hearing impairments, developmental disabilities, autism, etc. Interacting with a piano teacher once a week can improve communication skills in a safe and affirming one-on-one setting. Let’s not take this opportunity for granted!

*Donald A. Hodges and David C. Sebald, Music in the Human Experience: An Introduction to Music Psychology (New York: Routledge, 2011), 42.  

**Mary S. Adamek and Alice-Ann Darrow, Music in Special Education (Silver Spring, MD: American Music Therapy Association, 2010), 187-188.


2 thoughts on “Adaptive Piano Lessons Domain: Communication

  1. Pingback: 100 Blog Posts and Counting – Piano Possibilities

  2. Pingback: Adaptive Piano Lessons Domain: Physical – Piano Possibilities

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