Ten-year-old Cooper is teaching his twin brother to play Hot Cross Buns on the piano. Cooper, who has Down syndrome, has been playing the piano since he was 8 ½ years old. I ask him how his brother is doing. Cooper says: “I showed him how to use three fingers to play Hot Cross Buns. He is doing okay.” There is a proud smile on his face. His mother says: “Cooper has always been the one who holds back with his brother in the lead, but now he is the leader, and it is so nice to see the confidence building that has occurred.”
Cooper is now learning to read notes, and we need a way to reinforce the skills he already has. What better way to do that, than to teach your skills to another person? Cooper and I have learned how to develop “piano skills and strengths” together. He has been challenged with small motor skills, able at first to only differentiate and move his thumb and index fingers independently. Today Cooper warms up with wrist exercises, finger naming and wiggling, and playing favorite songs on the piano. He loves experimenting and exploring new sounds on the digital piano. In the last few months he has started playing with his left hand pinky–the finger that up until recently did not move at all.
Along with developing physical abilities and dexterity, the potential for many other positive results from learning music and how to play the piano are great. Medical science is just beginning to understand how music can positively affect the brain. Current research shows that music does not have a “brain center” per se but crosses wide swaths of the brain. See the brain listening to music here.
Because of its unique ability to impact many areas of the brain, music has been helping people whose speech centers were destroyed by a stroke: they are learning to speak again through singing. This is the method doctors are using to help shooting victim Rep. Gabby Giffords. An important part of her therapy involves singing songs she knew before her injury. By putting words to melody, doctors have been able to stimulate her memory and help Rep. Gifford’s damaged brain recover the ability to process language.
Even simply listening to music has positive results. A study conducted in Finland (Science Daily, Feb. 19, 2008) reports that three months after a stroke, verbal memory in music listeners improved by 60 percent from the first week after the stroke, compared to 18 percent in audio book listeners and by 29 percent in non-listeners. Focused attention in stroke victims improved by 17 percent for music listeners, while other groups showed no improvement. These differences remain six months after the stroke.
Cooper’s mother continues: “People are impressed when I tell them that Cooper plays the piano. They see him in a whole new light. He memorizes his pieces and that has been amazing to me as well. We see so many positives in the boys and it gives them hope for the future. Cooper may not become a concert pianist, but this opens up the vistas of what may be possible in the future for him. His favorite musician is Bruce Springsteen. He has been listening to Bruce since he was a baby.” In his piano playing, Cooper has branched out to music of the Beatles and songs from Veggie Tales.
I am Cooper’s piano teacher and author of the I Can Do It! Piano Book, First Book of Favorite Songs for beginners in piano. In working with beginners and children who have special needs, I found that a foundation in basic musical skills could help them learn to play the piano more readily. I created an easy to use keyboard chart to teach key names and songs using colored letters. Along with finger exercises, we work on understanding musical concepts: high and low, fast and slow, loud and soft, matching pitches, patterns, and creativity.
We are now in our second printing of the I Can Do It! Piano Book and are excited to be able to share our vision of incorporating music into the lives and education of all children. In the interview with Cooper’s mom, she had one final comment: “Make sure you tell how much Cooper’s small motor skills and hand strength was improved. We are thrilled.”
See sample pages of the I Can Do It! Piano Book here.