A Dog’s Life: Pedagogical Flaws in Repetitive Piano Practice for Autistic Students

Cognitive Neuroscience researchers from Carnegie Mellon University published an article titled, “Training by Repetition Actually Prevents Learning for Those with Autism” which discusses their research. flashcardsThis article initially begins with an offensive stereotype about autistic people not being able to learn that a dog is a dog, just from being shown a photo of it every day. Their learning is not “fixed and inflexible” but rather, the insistence of the educator is fixated on the inflexible notion that *this* is the *best* way to teach.

Finally, researchers are looking into “the potential reasons for their restricted, atypical learning”, wondering if there was something more to it. Investigations into the repetitive nature of today’s educational standards, (“Johnny, this is a dog. Say, dooooooooooooog. Good job”) revealed “an interference in learning that may reflect the consequences of extensive repetition”.

I give piano lessons to nonverbal and autistic students globally and I caution against repetitive piano practice. There are many reasons for it. At first, it begins with the neural circuitry responsible for the heightened abilities of the perfect pitch possessor. Such a student will be relying on their ear to create sound. In order for the student to learn to trust that the notes in front of him are there to help him and not slow him down, we need to build a love-love relationship with the book. The presentation of the material must be achievable, (under-teaching at first), but also unfamiliar, so that there is an element of challenge (over-teaching). By layering the music with singing and accompanying, we make the learning an interactive and pleasurable sound-creating experience.

By skipping a day after the aroused learning state, we allow the brain to go into the resting state in order to solidify the brain connections just made. By forcing students to practice scales every day for hours before they even understand why and how it applies to the Mozart piece they will learn in four years, you are breaking down the innate desire to pound it out and have some fun. Again, this applies to students who are autistic, have perfect pitch, and/or are aural learners—nearly 100% in the autistic population (Kupferstein & Walsh, 2015). Rather, we start with 1-5 minutes of practice every other day, and increase as needed, and usually 5-10 minutes by the time we are in level 2 of note-reading. We don’t want the kids to play from auditory memory. We want them reading and playing, which only happens if the material is challenging and fresh.

The study finally gets on track in the end: “Our conclusion is that breaks in repetition allow the visual system some time to rest and allow autistic individuals to learn efficiently and to then generalize,” said New York University’s David Heeger. “Repeated stimulation leads to sensory adaptation which interferes with learning and makes learning specific to the adapted conditions. Without adaptation, learning is more efficient and can be generalized.”

Back to the dog example: “in the context of learning what a dog is, using a full range of examples of dogs — and even of animals, more generally — incorporates variability from the beginning and promotes learning a broad concept rather than a specific example.” When I first read the dog example, I cringed. My reaction was, “Seriously? You’re going to teach one dog at a time, and wonder why a kid doesn’t learn about other dogs?” That’s the same as teaching only the C for the first eight weeks (in all variations of rhythm), and then week number nine, introducing the D. When you introduce the D, you then wonder why the kid doesn’t understand to use the correct fingers. Out of context, the concept is not relevant to the aural learner.

Autistic people learn from patterns. Show them more, and they learn faster. Break it down and repeat the same thing, and they will shut down. Show them five letters (which are patterned to match their five fingers) in the first lesson, and they’re flying away with it.


By: Henny Kupferstein, HennyK.com
October 9, 2015

Also read: Before You Pay for Piano Lessons: Little Johnny’s Bill of Rights Problems With the Genius and Apprenticeship Model in the Teacher-Centered Piano Pedagogy Traditions of a Previous Era

4 thoughts on “A Dog’s Life: Pedagogical Flaws in Repetitive Piano Practice for Autistic Students

  1. Henny, not finished reading yet, but had to stop and thank you for this……

    ” By forcing students to practice scales every day for hours before they even understand why and how it applies to the Mozart piece they will learn in four years, you are breaking down the innate desire to pound it out and have some fun. ”

    THAT is what soured my joy in playing flute. I’d started because it was fun, I loved playing the melodies I love(Cole Porter, Berlin, the Gershwins, and similar, plus some opera) but somewhere along the line was persuaded that I should sit an exam….which I did, and passed, with distinction….but it was never the same after that. I tried to get the joy back, several times, but it wasn’t the same.
    Thank you, for articulating my feelings of forty years ago perfectly.


  2. So profoundly THIS!!! Not just bad for learners on the autism spectrum, but for everyone!!! Thank you so much for posting this, Henny!

  3. WOW! “Killing Me Softly” with my son’s song, Henny! He seems to have been born with perfect pitch. I began calling him “Mama’s little music man” when, as an infant, he matched pitches of other sounds in the room when he cried. As if I could have known, he was named for my high school band director. I bought the mahogany Wurlitzer his godfather learned to play on when he was about two. His speech was slightly delayed, the preschool speech teacher noted he was making some of the same motions with his hands – swiping at his ears – as students with speech delays, but still he got no services and adapted fairly well when integrated into preschool. In first grade and already experiencing problems learning, he was diagnosed with ADHD and anxiety. His first stimulants had him attempting to explain to me how electricity worked! Very early on, I began begging his teachers to allow him to read aloud, because it seemed to help his comprehension to hear himself. He didn’t have any problem calling the words, just recalling the gist. The summer after fifth grade, he taught himself to play piano by ear – his first piece was the theme to “The Pirates of the Caribbean” movie as played by the Piano Masters online. Yeah, not Twinkle, Twinkle, or Mary’s Little Lamb, “Da-da-dum-dum, da-da-dum-dum, da-da-dum-dum, da-da-da-nup” that played while Johhny Depp swash-buckled on a water wheel! In middle school, he learned to read music and played out his love in the jazz band on the alto sax next to his teacher on the bari – playing Brick House and 25 or 6 to Four. It was on! He learned to play the instruments almost as quickly as I purchased them – adding guitar and ukelele to the list before entering high school. Once when I put his sax in for repairs, I bought this pottery sweet potato from the case in the music store. He learned to play it while his horn was repaired. I don’t know if his high school band director raised his voice or what, but he hated marching band – couldn’t take the heat in the summer and only played the year I required it. It broke my heart allowing him to quit the band once directed by the man for whom he was named, I really wanted him to stick it out and learn theory. My band director would take home a 45 of a song we liked and come back the next day with parts for all of the instruments written out – scale and all – in ink pen. Along the way, I learned Applied Behavior Analysis and work in a setting where it is primary right now, but see your point about the problems ABA has with generalization. He has never gotten an autism diagnosis. I tell the school system, they can’t even get the ADHD right, no sense in my trying to complicate things! I worry about him everyday. He has this tremendous gift I do all I can to cultivate, yet still feel I am failing him. I wonder how he will ever learn theory, or if he will even need it! How will he graduate high school when Math Analysis is required and he can’t even pass Geometry? I hate for him to settle for a trade when one day he might want to attend college to study music (or engineering), because he might not get the right diploma if he simply learns a trade.

  4. Hi! I’m starting to teach an autistic little girl. She seems more of a visual learner though than an aural learner, and I’m not sure that she has perfect pitch yet. Haven’t tested. I tried to do rhythm (repeat what I did) but she wasn’t doing it. I guess I’m wondering what do you mean by aural learning?

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