Why ABA Piano Students Struggle to Believe in Themselves, Despite Musical Gifts

I teach piano to non-verbal and autistic students every day. Most have perfect pitch and a very high degree of musical aptitude. Along with their diagnosis comes a trail of baggage from earlier teacher-student relationships. Students as young as five may display behaviors that can be interpreted as aggressive and harmful to themselves and others, behaviors that make them seem like they aren’t paying attention, or behaviors that make them appear as if they don’t understand the instructions of the task at hand. I experience ignorance and intolerance of sensory accommodations from ABA therapists and behaviorally-trained educators observing my work with the Rancer Method. Their focus is on the ABA-type treatment interventions. It is the majority and sadly not unusual.

VIDEO: Why ABA Piano Students Struggle to Believe in Themselves, Despite Musical Gifts

The distinct differences in the success of my students are directly linked to their early exposure to esteem-building teacher-student relationships, and whether ABA was a big part of their early intervention. It becomes apparent when a student has been exposed to ABA for more than 10% of their lifetime (e.g. 6 months for a five-year-old child). They become prompt dependent for minor tasks. They lose track of their inner awareness and become unable to take clues from their inside-body to self regulate. Dysregulations turn into complete brain-fry. These system shutdowns are neurological and not in their control anymore.

When a student is in a verbal loop, repeating the same word over and over, and their body is shaking, it becomes time to physically redirect the body into a different setting. I will advise the parent to turn their child on the piano bench so their back is to the piano. The loop instantly stops because he is now in a different environmental state. The student will automatically turn his body back to the piano, completely regulated, and ready to resume. It is a shame that we allow people to grow up with a mindset that they have to allow others to tell them how to function, how to be, what to work for, and when to take a break. We owe it to our students to teach them how to prevent overwhelm without physically prompting them into an environmental redirect. See this article for strategies: Teaching piano student to stim as overwhelm prevention  

“Can perfect pitch be a problem when teaching note-reading to piano students?” Interview with Dima Tahboub

In this interview with Dima Tahboub of DoReMeStudio.com, we discuss how the Rancer Method builds neurological pathways to have magnify the gift of perfect pitch. Instead of the gift being a problem, there are surprising byproducts of the neuroplastic changes and visual motor cohesion, changes in eye tracking, and explosions in speech and vocalization.

Henny Kupferstein is the co-author of Perfect Pitch in the Key of Autism, the book on the Rancer Method designed to teach note-reading for gifted students.

Stop Banning Autistic Stimming Because of Fidget Spinners

Are the new fidget spinners driving you crazy? Autistic stimming and fidget toys differ in purpose. An informed perspective offers an attitude shift for educators who want to become aware of the differences.

Fidgets are marketing as a toy to keep the fingers busy, specifically for a kid who has focusing issues. Focusing issues are consistent with a diagnosis of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) or ADHD. Focus-seeking fidgeting is a very different purpose than the need to stim in order to prevent sensory overwhelm. The two should not be confused. During sensory overload, an autistic person’s body will uncontrollably move in ways that will try to reboot their brain back to its original functional state. When you react to their reactions to their sensory world, you are irresponsibly causing more harm with your judgement.

Imagine you have a tuning wrench because you are piano technician. The wrench serves a very specific function, and you need your wrench to help keep pianos in tune for your educated clients. Piano teacher, Lili Koblentz in Colts Neck, New Jersey offers this analogy: Your friends see that you have a wrench. They think it is “cool” that you get to carry a tool with you everywhere. They want a wrench too, even though they don’t really need to tighten things as much as you do. Suddenly, you can find wrenches everywhere. Some are cheap, some are expensive, some are bright flashy colors, and some are more subdued colors. Your friends carry them everywhere and are constantly showing them off, and aren’t using them for their intended purpose.

Suddenly, no one is allowed to bring wrenches to class with them, because they are distracting people and keeping them from doing their work. You tell people that you need yours to do your work, because if the nuts and bolts around you are too loose, you won’t be able to do your work. You are told that your tool is just a toy, that you just need to focus on what you are doing and it’ll be easy to complete your work. Besides, when you had your wrench, you were such a distraction to everyone else—it was rude of you to keep your friends from learning.

You are now left with an angry client base, and hundreds of pianos that yowl like dying puppies and feverish kittens every time they are played. You can’t focus on your work because you’re too busy worrying about your livelihood and people’s judgement of your craft, and you aren’t allowed to fix anything because your tool is a toy to everyone else.

Discriminating against a person who legitimately needs a tool to function in their highest capacity is a human rights violation. Autistic people are gifted in many ways. Research showed that 97% of autistic people have perfect pitch1, and sure enough, all of my piano students have it. I would want them to be as skilled in their trade as the piano tuner wants to be. I need to make sure they have all their tools when I am hired to teach them. Therefore, I recognize that the autistic body must constantly be in motion in order to concentrate best. Please rethink your attitudes before you judge a child or adult who reaches for a tool that makes them be more attentive to what you are teaching them.

  1. Next, please read: Teaching piano student to stim as overwhelm prevention
  2. Also, please make use of stimming resources page with directions for use.

Sources:

Kupferstein, H., & Walsh, B. J. (2016). Non-Verbal Paradigm for Assessing Individuals for Absolute Pitch. World Futures, 72(7-8), 390-405.

Teaching piano student to stim as overwhelm prevention

me showing off my stim toys while student learned to use his sensory need as a overwhelm-preventative instead of a crash-erase.

Me showing off my stim toys while student learned to use his sensory need as a overwhelm-preventative instead of a crash-erase.

Two nonverbal preteens played the piano yesterday. They are my tough fighters, but also spell using RPM (Rapid Prompting Method) letterboards. They frequently type their complaints about their brain-body disconnect and how embarrassing it is that they can’t show through their fingers that they know the music.

Me: “Who else sees your body like this? In what other situation?” WHEN IM OVERWHELMED

“Do you know the difference between physical, emotional, and sensory overwhelm?” NO

And then the Henny-lecture began:

“Play one line, and then go back to the sink and play with the water. That’s what your body needs in order to erase the overwhelm. I don’t want you to wait until your body crashes and then you look like a person who is embaressed of yourself. Go back to the sink to prevent overwhelm. Do we have a deal?” YES

Perfect Pitch in the Key of Autism A Guide for Educators, Parents and the Musically Gifted

READ: Perfect Pitch in the Key of Autism
A Guide for Educators, Parents and the Musically Gifted

He then played three lines instead of 1, went to the sink. Returned. Played two more lines. Sink. Returned. Thanked me….

I teach awareness of self, so they can make choices. With other autism interventions (such as ABA), they are conditioned to be so prompt dependent, they they lose touch with internal functions. They forget to read their own body signals. In my work teaching piano to nonverbal and autistic students, I undo that damage. Each time they stim, I announce like a translator “you just did that with your fingers near your eyes because you wanted to erase the work of reading treble and bass clef together for the first time”.

As an autistic person, I live inside their sensory experience and can read them instantly. By offering these nuggets, they can learn to connect what they do with why they do it. Eventually, they can reach for those stims as preventative tools. For a list of stimming ideas, see my resources page.

Mah Nishtanah – Four Questions by the Autistic Son: Written from the perspective of a boy with Asperger’s Syndrome

Article by Henny Kupferstein. Published in: Spirit Magazine, and Inyan – Hamodia’s Weekly Magazine – Passover Edition, Spring 2011

Published in: Spirit Magazine, and Inyan – Hamodia’s Weekly Magazine – Passover Edition, Spring 2011

“Mommy, everybody is looking. I don’t want to say this out loud, can I go in the kitchen?”

“Tatte Layben, I… Ma! If Zeidy is here by the seder, then I think I should say Zeide Layben”.

“Zeide Layben… Ma! Zeidy is alive, and everybody can see that. Why do I have to announce it?”

“Zeide, ich vil bei dir fregen di fir kashes…

Mah Nishatana Halayla Hazeh… Why is this night different from all other nights? On all the other nights I can eat my rice cake that I eat every night, this time. But tonight, and on this night only… (Ma! We eat matzah the entire Pesach, why do I have to say on this night only?!)…more than any other night, why do we have to eat potato? You know it’s soft and mushy and I hate the way it feels in my mouth? And then when I do swallow it, I can’t drink again until after the next Kos, after saying mah nishtanah?

Why is this night different from all other nights? On all the other nights I can sit with my comfortable shabbos shirt, the one that is made to look like a shirt but is really a t-shirt, the one that has no seams or labels? Why on this night do I have to wear this itchy glittery shirt that I made with the O.T. by therapy? My fingers got all sticky from the glue and I had glitter on my eyelids for three days and three nights. And also, I think there are some rabbonim who hold that glue is chometz! And people might not know that glitter is made of very small, 1 mm pieces of paper, glass or plastic painted in metallic, neon and iridescent colors to reflect light in a sparkling spectrum. Glitter was invented by Henry Ruschmann. This is really very interesting! Which reminds me of the next question…

Why is this night different from all other nights? On all the other nights I keep my salad dry without dressing because I hate dressing and nobody forces me anymore. But tonight, and on this night only, and also tomorrow night at the second seder because we are in galus and in chutz l’aretz, not like the people who in Eretz Yisroel have only one seder each year. In America, we have two, and also if an American goes to Israel for Yom Tov, they must have two sedarim. That’s why I don’t want to go to Israel on Yom Tov because it would make me feel all mixed up inside and my brain would feel all funny and I would see everything in jumping zig-zags and I would get very upset and I would have to make that noise with my mouth because it feels better afterwards. I would much rather have two seders over here, as long as I can stay in the kitchen. And, also, if I can have my romaine lettuce dry, without being forced to dip it in the charoses, which is very old apples and are already brown, and brown is my worst color.

Why is this night different from all other nights? On all the other nights I can sit on my special chair by the wall in the kitchen, where nobody can touch me or breathe near my plate, but tonight, and also tomorrow night, we have to eat reclined, and that means I would be touching Ari’s chair. If I touch Ari’s chair, I will touch Ari’s right leg and I know he will kick me. Last year in Bubby’s house he kicked me after the third kos, and when I was third grade, I was leaning on cousin Chaim from Lakewood who was 14 then, and he almost kicked me but I hated touching him because I was worried that I would get too close to his beard. His beard looked like it would be prickly and it would make me feel like I need to run to my room and bang my head for a long long long time. And then my therapist will get upset that I didn’t do the brushing exercise.

Ma! When is this over? Can I stop saying Mah Nishtana and drink some grape juice now?”

Please do not reprint or photocopy without permission. 

Addressing Note-Reading Problems with ABA Conditioned Prompt-Dependent Piano Students

music-tutoring-071

Addressing Note-Reading Problems with ABA Conditioned Prompt-Dependent Piano Students

I just finished teaching a 6-year-old who has been resisting note-reading. Before finishing the first level, I moved back to the beginning of 2nds and 3rds for review rather than pushing past the songs at the end of the level.

It’s very important to recognize the real reason why this student is not looking in the book. In this case, I recognized that ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) conditioning has made him become completely prompt-dependent and has no idea that he can actually read and execute the task independently with his own (brilliant) mind. Instead, he sits and waits for mom, or me, to say “is it going up or down?” or “how much? Seconds or thirds?” and he just guesses without actually looking at the notes. When prompted to look at the book, he gazes but doesn’t actually look for the purpose of reading, but rather just to follow directions. He does the same thing with his after-school math tutors.

Today, we had a breakthrough. I told the mother than I have experience in undoing this damage and that my technique requires that we overwrite the prompt dependency with vocal reflections of whenever he does execute any tasks independently, regardless of how small. The more feedback he receives, the more he will begin to recognize, “Oh, that’s how it feels when I’m doing it correctly. Let me do more of that.” For example, the first feedback he got was “aha! You knew that the treble clef was the right hand. Look how you put that right hand straight on to C position without anyone’s help.” He was pleasantly surprised at the recognition of his own accomplishments. Next, I repeated the same acknowledgement for the left hand: “Look! You knew that the bass clef was coming up in this measure, and you prepared your left hand in the C position. Awesome reading!”.

For the actual note-reading of the melody, he required constant prompting, but I refused to give anything away, nothing more than, “You tell me. You know how to read. You just played an E. You know if it’s going up or down, and you know if it’s seconds or thirds.” He responded with guessing, to which I then said “Use your fingers” and he promptly played the correct note. Immediately, I said, “Excellent reading”. In summary, the only two prompts should be “Excellent reading” for each and every note played, or “Fix it / clean it up”. Nothing more. Please share your feedback on this approach.
—-

Autism Motivation and Perfection Anxiety: Teaching to the Gift of the Perfect Pitch

“Perfect Pitch in the Key of Autism” Book interview with co-author Henny Kupferstein by Stacy McVay from Smiles and Symphonies in Memphis Tennessee.

“Perfect Pitch in the Key of Autism” Book interview with co-author Henny Kupferstein by Stacy McVay from Smiles and Symphonies in Memphis Tennessee.

  1. “How do we motivate autistic students in and outside of piano lessons?”
  2. “How does the gift of perfect pitch translate to other areas and skill-sets?”

More links: