Rosie Cross has a very successful piano-teaching
practice in Birmingham. As well as teaching many able and high-achieving
young people, for the past ten years she has been teaching pupils with
Down syndrome and other learning disabilities. Five years ago she completed
the Certificate of Teaching professional development course of the Associated
Board of the Royal Schools of Music. This gave her scope to research
methods of teaching music to people with learning disabilities. Rosie
has now set up Melody, an organisation to promote music-making for people
with learning disabilities and to help both teachers and parents.
Over the past ten years I have heard many heart-breaking
stories from parents wanting to give their children with Down syndrome the experience
of learning a musical instrument, but unable to find a teacher willing to take
I believe very strongly that people with learning difficulties,
however severe, have as much right to play a musical instrument as the rest
of us. What is desperately needed is more teachers who are prepared to teach
them, and who will persevere when progress seems elusive.
When I agreed to teach Tom, my first
pupil with Down syndrome, I had done nothing like this before. Tom and I have
learned together – and his mother, Helena, has become a great friend and supporter.
Tom has a very good aural memory and does not find
it difficult to learn by rote. He doesn't read music, but enjoys having his
music on the music rest, like his brothers and sister. The pictures on the page
remind him which tune to play.
At first Helena and I did try to teach Tom to read
music, but I have found over the years that it is not necessary for him to read
notation to be able to play the piano. We do a lot of creative improvisation
together, and this is what he enjoys the most.
Rosie Cross (right) with
the pupil who started it all over ten years ago, and his mother, Helena
Children with Down syndrome have a well-developed aural
memory and a gift of mimicry. Pieces can be taught by rote – and may take a
long time to achieve. I have looked at a vast array of books for the young beginner
and can thoroughly recommend the books published by the American music publishers,
Alfred. The books A to E for the very young beginner have unlimited material
in the five-finger position and are based on tonic-dominant harmony. The presentation
is for very young children, but this certainly doesn't bother Tom, who is working
through book 4 at the age of 17.
As with all young piano pupils, the first target is
to learn how to use their fingers on the keys. This can take a long time for
a child with Down syndrome. Starting on the two black notes, we do a lot of
work with the index and middle fingers of each hand. This can then be extended
to the fourth finger, using the three black notes.
In between, we play a lot of games and do other musical
activities. It's vital to encourage a lot of improvisation from the very beginning.
Children with learning disabilities are often very good at illustrating pictures
or stories on the keyboard. They don't get as worried as my other pupils about
living up to what is expected of them and they are often delightfully uninhibited.
So many music teachers have said to me: "I would love
to teach pupils with learning disabilities, but I don't have the experience
and I don't know where to start …" It was to start to show them that they did
have the necessary skills and experience that Helena and I began to work on
the idea of a Music Day that would bring together teachers, parents
and young people with Down syndrome, to show teachers what can be achieved,
and to talk about taking my ideas forward.
Response to our plans for the event was overwhelming,
and many more people wanted to attend than we could accommodate. The 130 people
who came to the Music Day in Birmingham enjoyed a concert performed by people
with Down syndrome and other disabilities, on piano, violin and other instruments
– including bagpipes. Our guest speaker, Lucinda Mackworth-Young, discussed
the psychology of the relationship between pupil and teacher and introduced
some simple ideas for improvisation.
Rosie Cross with Damien, who has Down syndrome
One of the main messages to come from delegates at
the Music Day was that there are a lot of teachers who would be prepared to
teach people with learning disabilities – but they don't know how to go about
it. Since then I have begun to set up a charitable organisation, Melody,
to show teachers that they can do it, not through the traditional teaching methods,
but with a lot of patience, perseverance and imagination.
Another message, from parents, was that they also needed
guidance in how to introduce their children with Down syndrome to simple music-making
– and also that they wanted to be able to find qualified music teachers in their
own area who would be willing to give lessons to their children.
Melody aims to meet the needs of both teachers and
parents, and through them to bring the joy of playing a musical instrument to
people with Down syndrome and other learning disabilities.
As well as organising events such as an annual Music
Day, Melody is developing a website to promote instrumental teaching for people
with learning disabilities. By joining Melody, teachers and parents will gain
access to suggestions for effective teaching methods. We also hope to gather
and share more ideas from other parents and teachers about what has worked for
Teaching children with Down syndrome is a slow but
rewarding pathway to tread. It is definitely not for the teacher who sees teaching
mainly in terms of examination successes. Both teachers and parents must be
prepared to accept that there will be failures, and there will be lessons when
we seem to get nowhere. This is fine! We must learn to feel good about these
sessions as well as the ones that have gone well.
For teachers, actively involving parents – in both
lessons and practice – is essential for success. Progress can be extremely slow.
Ziekel, a young pupil with Down syndrome, came for lessons
for a year and seemed to make only slow progress. Then he suddenly took off,
and he now enjoys improvising and illustrating a story in music, using the whole
keyboard. His father, Colin, tells a story – it may be one about Ziekel himself,
or it may be based on a tune that he particularly enjoys – and Ziekel illustrates
what is happening on the piano.
Ziekel now loves improvising
on the piano, while his father, Colin, tells a story
With improvisation, I find that it's best to start
with very simple ideas. I draw a happy smiling face and ask my pupil to illustrate
it on the piano. Then I draw a sad face and ask him or her to do the same –
to draw a picture of the face on the keyboard. Then you can ask the pupil to
play one or the other and someone else – perhaps Mum or Dad – has to guess which
one it is.
(Teaching like this is not to be confused with music
therapy. Improvisatory music therapy is a means of establishing meaningful communication
and relationship with disabled and emotionally disturbed people in a way that
transcends the need for speech.)
How to measure success is a matter for discussion.
The usual landmarks of achievement – passing exams, entering music festivals
– do not apply. Tom comes from a family where the other children are progressing
steadily up the Associated Board grades. What we have done in his case is to
undertake two Associated Board Performance Assessments. We set our own agenda
for these and keep a record of what he has played each time, so that progress
and development can be traced. This means that Tom has his certificates to show,
just like the others.
In other families, it may be enough for children to
perform to a sympathetic audience. As part of the first Melody Music Day last
February, people with learning disabilities came to Birmingham from all over
the country and took part in a concert that gave magnificent proof, if it were
needed, that they can both take and give pleasure through playing a variety
of instruments: piano, violin, trumpet, even the bagpipes!
The benefits are not confined to the immense joy that
comes from being able to play recognisable tunes and performing to an appreciative
audience. When Tom first began to learn the piano, his mother noticed that he
was suddenly able to handle a knife and fork properly for the first time. Better
co-ordination, improved speech and communication and increased self-confidence
and self-esteem have been noted by other parents.
It is still early days, but membership of Melody is
building fast. There are details of how to join on the website at
www.melody.me.uk – or you can contact
me for information (firstname.lastname@example.org). At this stage we need as much help as possible from people willing to pay
the modest annual membership fee and give us their support.
I am starting to give lecture demonstrations of what
can be done, helped by some of my pupils with Down syndrome. I intend to spread
the word that people with learning disabilities have the same right to play
a musical instrument as anybody else, and that teachers already have all the
skills needed to lead them into the wonderful world of music. All they need
is a little help and guidance, which is what Melody can provide.