Adaptations in the Piano Studio

Even though I graduated with a music education degree, there are some things that you just don’t fully understand on their importance until it smacks you in the face while you are teaching.

For me, learning adaptations for students with disabilities was more of an abstract concept than something I fully grasped. But when I was faced with teaching multiple students with common disabilities like dyslexia, I decided it was time for me to find resources to consult, and learn how to adapt teaching music.

In the past I have had a couple students with learning disabilities who became frustrated in music lessons and stopped. I find this to be a failure on my part and I am bound and determined to do a better job at adapting music so that every student feels the joy of learning music.

Over the course of a month I was able to find some wonderful resources directly related to adaptation either in the music classroom or the piano studio. I put together an informal “annotated bibliography” so to speak. It includes some journal articles, masters/doctoral thesis, and some wonderful blogs.

The first place I researched online was the EBSCO database, available for free access through my public library. It is an amazing database where you can search educational journals. Your search can be limited to journal articles that are available online in full text and can read immediately. This is usually what I do. I used it for research in college, and continue to search for articles when I need a specific topic researched. I found a couple fantastic articles that are in past issues of American Music Teacher (MTNA’s journal) that are in the list.

If you have a Derby Public Library card, you can access the educational research database EBSCO and search for articles from peer-reviewed journals as well as magazines. You can limit your search to only articles available in full text online. When I searched, I found 3 articles with the words “piano adaptations disabilities”.

I have already started implementing ideas I learned from all these resources, and I plan to improve my teaching so that all my students can learn music.

EBSCO Database through the Public Library

Adaptive Piano Teaching Strategies
Steele, Anita Louise, and Christopher Fisher. “Adaptive Piano Teaching Strategies.” American Music Teacher, vol. 60, no. 4, Feb. 2011, pp. 22–25.

Description from EBSCO: The article discusses the importance of adapting the teaching strategies to best suit the individual needs of the physically and cognitively handicapped piano students. It emphasizes the significance of bonding between the piano students and private instructor. It also elaborates how the teachers will vary their teaching methodologies in motivating students, reacting to emotional swings, handling behavioral problems and in collaborating with the parents during the teaching and learning process.

Keeping the Beat
Crouch S. Keeping the Beat. American Music Teacher. 2005;55(3):22-25.
Description from EBSCO: This article discusses a study of learning-disabled piano students to determine whether steady beat performance would improve when activities that focused on large muscles were included in weekly lessons. Movement activities are not hard to establish, and it is worth the effort to include them regularly. Gratifying results can be produced by any activity that enhances musical learning for learning-disabled students. Learning-disabled students can prevail in their piano proficiency and achieve many successes appropriate to their skill. Teachers will have the satisfaction of knowing that their efforts can give these students a lifetime of musical enjoyment.


A Thesis Presented by Anthony Tracia
Teaching Piano to Students with Disabilities: A Collective Case Study
“The purpose of this collective case study was to explore the ways in which piano teachers most effectively alter their curriculum to accommodate students with disabilities. Three piano teachers were recruited for this study and were interviewed about their education and teaching experiences. The interview questions used in this study were constructed to detail their educational background, specifically considering their background in special education, if any, and to describe specific ways in which they have accommodated students with disabilities. The questions also sought to discover how familiar they were with the resources available for accommodating students with disabilities.”

Websites and Podcasts

Website: Diane Hidy
She has several blog articles discussing learning differences of students. One article has a list of her top three books that have helped her understand children with learning differences. Diane Hidy also has a set of supplemental books that remove any non-essential visual items from the music (whole rests, etc). These work well with students with visual processing disorders and ADHD. They are called Attention Grabbers.

Website: Inclusive Piano Teaching Blog
This website has some really well done articles about different aspects on teaching students with different learning abilities, and how to be most effective with them.

Podcast: Scott Price: Special Needs Teaching – Episode 56
This webinar focuses mainly on teaching students that are on the autism spectrum. However, there are fantastic general ideas about teaching all students with disorders. Scott talk about student-first language, considerations to take as a teacher, removing any unnecessary distractions from the studio, setting up a consistent schedule within the lesson, and how to include the parents in bettering your instruction for the student.


Article from NAfME: Inclusive Music Teaching Strategies for Elementary-Age Children with Developmental Dyslexia

Article: Teaching Learners with Dyslexia: Music

Article: An Adaptation Tool Kit for Teaching Music by Carol MacDowell
McDowell, C. (2010). An Adaptation Tool Kit for Teaching Music. TEACHING Exceptional Children Plus, 6(3) Article 3. Retrieved January 25, 2018.
Includes many ideas for adaptation within six different areas of focus when making decisions on planning instruction. Many are focused on adaptations for the general classroom, but could be easily transitioned into the piano studio.


Book: Transformational Piano Teaching by Derek Kealii Polischuk  – $30
From Amazon description: Transformational Piano Teaching: Mentoring Students from All Walks of Life examines the concept of the piano teacher as someone who is more than just a teacher of a musical skill, but also someone who wields tremendous influence on the development of a young person’s artistic and empathic potential, as well as their lifelong personal motivational framework. The specific attributes of today’s students are explored, including family and peer influences from interpersonal relationships to social media. Additionally, students from specific circumstances are discussed, including those with special needs such as Autism Spectrum Disorders, ADHD, and Depression.

Book: Playing it Their Way: An Innovative Approach to Teaching Piano to Individuals with Physical or Mental Disabilities, by Karen Z. Kowalski. Mousebox Books, 2007. 68 pp. $15.95.
From Amazon description: …Over the past decade, Karen Z. Kowalski, a pediatric occupational therapist and professional piano instructor, has combined OT applications with music theory to design a program that teaches piano to individuals with special needs–from the first private session to the, yes, concert hall. “Playing It Their Way” is based on her popular series of lectures designed to educate music instructors on the rewards of teaching this special–and still untapped–population of students. Using a lively mix of anecdotes and practical instruction, Kowalski offers tried-and-true methods (conventional and otherwise) for teaching music to special-needs students. Conditions such as Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, attention deficit disorders and autism are presented in an easy-to-understand format and geared specifically to music teachers.