Movement Activities for Learning-Disabled Piano Students

By Crouch, Sarah | American Music Teacher, December 2005 | Go to article overview

Movement Activities for Learning-Disabled Piano Students


Crouch, Sarah, American Music Teacher


Through the implementation of the Music Achievement Award Program, MTNA has affirmed that average students are important and deserve the right to earn tangible awards that recognize their unique achievements.

Many of the students we teach will not perform in solo competitions or earn music scholarships to prestigious music schools. Nevertheless, they can attain remarkable successes in meeting goals that match their aptitude.

Can students with learning disabilities be expected to be musically successful and earn awards as well? It often is difficult for students with neuromuscular disabilities or cognitive dysfunctions to control the movements necessary to achieve the rhythmic accuracy required for successful performances. Often, these students are not encouraged to enter festivals or recitals because their interpretation of a solo may include frequent stops and starts or tempo fluctuations. Teachers of these students need methods that address this issue of rhythm, and research has shown that movement activities may help develop psychomotor awareness and lead to more steady performances. (1)

Background Research

Many prominent music educators have advocated the use of body movement as an aid for developing a sense of rhythm. For example, Jaques-Dalcroze, a European music educator born in 1865, developed exercises for the improvement of musical rhythm. This method became known as "eurythmics," a term that means good rhythm. For many years, music therapists have incorporated eurthymics into piano lessons to improve rhythmic response. (2)

Edourard Seguin, a teacher in the field of music education for exceptional children, advocated moving from gross motor activities to those involving the small muscles and recommended marching for rhythmic and muscular development. (3) Further, the music methodologies of Carl Orff, 20th-century German composer and teacher, also supported movement instruction as a primary step in learning music. (4) The body percussion found in Orff's methodology--clapping, stamping, finger-snapping and patting--provides a way for children to sense rhythms through movement and allows tactile practice performing rhythm before transferring this skill to instruments. (5)

Lastly, Edwin Gordon, a predominant music educator in the United States, asserts that rhythm readiness is associated with the ability to feel rhythm patterns kinesthetically. (6) These patterns can be exhibited through large-muscle movement activities such as marching, walking, swinging arms, running, clapping and tapping.

Despite the overwhelming evidence that large-muscle movement activities have a positive effect on rhythmic accuracy, piano instruction too frequently has included teaching rhythm without the use of body movement. (7) This is especially true when teaching students whose movement is limited because of cognitive or neuromuscular dysfunction. Many teachers are hesitant to ask a student with low vision to dance, for example, when the student feels uncomfortable with movement in unfamiliar settings.

Movement activities, however, are not limited to dance. Any movement that incorporates the large muscles of the arms, legs and whole body can have a positive effect on a student's steady beat performance. A student whose leg muscles are too weak to dance or march can still use the large muscles of his upper body to strike percussion instruments or toss a beanbag.

Current Research

Three learning-disabled piano students in my studio participated in a 12-week study in 2003 to determine if their steady beat performance would improve when activities that focused on large muscles were included in weekly lessons. The three students, all age 11, had various disabilities that limited their fine muscle control, thereby causing some degree of rhythmic inaccuracy.

John was diagnosed with high-functioning autism. He was easily distracted and had a short attention span. …

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