If you saw my post on the arts in schools, it won’t surprise you that my husband and I felt strongly about getting Brooks piano lessons from an early age.
Of course, we had to immediately rule out the neighborhood flyers with tear-off phone numbers—our little boy with big challenges would need a customized setting, and considering his fine motor skills delays, we were pretty uncertain about the wisdom of our decision to make piano a priority.
Where would we even start to look for an appropriate teacher? Although googling “autism piano teacher nyc” does return the standard millions of results, we wanted to take a shot at the least restrictive environment, so we followed up on a mainstream referral from a friend. Turns out there was a woman who taught some home-schooled friends of friends and who coincidentally lived only five minutes away from us. And when the introductory “he has autism” phone call with her went well, we put on our cautiously optimistic hats and took him to his first lesson.
This was in no way a slam dunk, to use a metaphor my Lin-tastic sports-fanatic son would approve of. Two very large greyhound dogs lived in the piano room, and although they were sweet and friendly, this was not exactly ideal for our highly distractable and somewhat dog-phobic son. However, Karen was game to keep going—she didn’t mind that Brooks refused to sit on the piano bench with her, instead hiding shyly on the other end of the grand piano. We watched her struggle to figure out how to talk to him and how to interpret his slight responses.
I have to admit that my hopes were not high: although in theory I liked the mainstream path, in practice I saw that Karen had no direct experience working with autistic kids and I wondered whether this would work out. Worse than that, I was worried that a negative experience would make Brooks lose interest and compromise his love of music. In retrospect, I’m thankful that my husband disagreed with me and felt strongly that we continue. “Trust your instincts” is all well and good, but I’m often reminded that no matter how right they feel at the time, they are, in fact, fallible—or at least mine are.
Four years later, Karen has unfortunately moved out of our neighborhood and transitioned into a new career, but not before turning Brooks into a fairly typical piano student (in the sense that he loves to complain about practicing but when he finally does, he plays well). I’m sure he’s not as far along as his typically-developing peers, but we’ve stopped making those comparisons.
We will miss his lovely relationship with Karen. She was completely accepting of him when he avoided the piano by lying down on the floor and she always answered politely and patiently each of the five or six times during the half-hour lesson when he asked: “Are we finished yet?” She once told my husband and me that she was less concerned about teaching him to play the piano as she was with ensuring that he enjoys the experience of making music.
Last week, I tore a phone number off a neighborhood piano lesson flyer. I haven’t felt ready to make the call just yet, but Karen showed me that we don’t have to restrict our world to autism professionals; that Brooks is able to learn from anyone who is kind and patient and who understands that his strengths define him as much as his challenges.
I’ll end this post by happily bragging about the little impresario—our deal was that he practice ten minutes that night:
We had similar concerns with Ben when we investigated piano lessons. Turns out he did fine in a typical setting at the school. He has also performed at numerous recitals and was once complimented for improvising during a song.
At Halloween the first year he played, we discovered that Ben’s piano teacher (and her family) live on our block. So he now walks down the street and takes lessons at their house. As the instructor completes college and begins to look forward to her future, it will be interesting to see how much longer she continues tutoring students.
Glad to hear about your positive musical experience–hope it continues to go well.