Throughout my teaching career, I have been blessed with many different kinds of students: the young, the old, the good, the bad, the amazing, the astonishing, the talented, the hardworking, the lazy, the slow, the ones that practice and the ones that don’t… Each has made me a better teacher and I am the teacher today because of every single student I have ever taught. Today I am writing about a very special student whom I have had the pleasure and privilege to work with for the last two years. His name is Kodi.
Kodi is a 22 year old student. He is blind and autistic. He is a musical savant. Before Kodi came into my studio, I had not even heard of the word “savant.” It means he has exceptional ability and memory. He can hear a piece of music once, and basically play it back to you.
Prior to Kodi, I did not have any experience teaching blind students. I had very limited experience teaching students on the autism spectrum, although none as severe as Kodi. Kodi can not carry a conversation. He understands everything I say, but he can not communicate with words. His speaking vocabulary is very limited. However, he is a great singer, and he is basically a human jukebox, he knows the music and lyrics to just about every song under the sun.
Not surprisingly, like many autistic students, Kodi has perfect pitch. His piano technique is unique. It is a combination of years of self exploration around the keyboard and limited formal instruction. Because he can not see, he has basically memorized exactly where each key is in relation to one another. The black key groups are his “landmarks.” It still amazes me how he can go from one register to another with extreme accuracy. He can play many of the classics, for example Beethoven’s Fur Elise, because he has heard them from somewhere. His versions may not be perfect, not because he can not play them perfectly, but mostly because the versions he heard were imperfect to begin with.
People who know about Kodi often ask me how he learns the materials to begin with, since he can not see the score. I do not teach Braille music. Everything Kodi learns with me he learns by ear. I play absolutely everything for him at first, and he copies. Because of his extraordinary ears and memory, he can learn very complicated pieces relatively quickly and easily, much quicker than if he had to learn it through Braille. (That’s an entirely different topic, and since I am no expert in Braille, I will not attempt to go into that further.)
I am writing about Kodi, because there must be other teachers like me who teach blind students, autistic students, or students with other differences, that we can share our experiences. I belong to the amazing Facebook page The Art of Piano Pedagogy, and every so often, someone would ask how to go about teaching such students. Every autistic student is different, not all blind students are autistic, and certainly not all autistic students are musical savants. I want to share what I have found from my experience with Kodi, and hopefully this post will find others with similar experiences.
Last November, Kodi performed at Carnegie Hall. He is going again this November, as a First Prize Winner of The Golden Classical International Music Awards Competition. Last year his winning piece was Schubert’s Impromptu in E flat major, this year he won with Chopin’s Fantasie Impromptu. These are advanced scores for any student, and for Kodi they were major accomplishments, since he did not come to me with the usual classical training and foundation one would need in order to play these pieces. Because of Kodi’s prodigious ability, memorizing was the easiest part! Here were some of the challenges:
- Fingering – Because Kodi had been largely self taught, his fingerings were all over the place. He did not like to use his thumbs! I think it’s because the thumbs are shorter fingers than the rest, so subconsciously he avoids them, especially on black keys! He still does not trust his thumbs, and often will use other fingers first, but whenever I say “I love my thumbs” he will know what I mean. Kodi is also an expert in redistributing. He will sometimes play certain notes with the other hand than what the composer intended, because for him it is easier to find that note with that hand. Sometimes this is ok, but sometimes the resulting sound is different.
- Unnecessary stretching – Because he can not see, he often stretches to find the next note. He has amazing span between every finger. He can play very large intervals between any adjacent fingers. This causes tension to my eyes! I am not sure if it causes physical tension for him, probably not, because he is so used to it. I do remind him not to stretch when there is another solution.
- Arm and Wrist movements – vertical movement involving the wrists going up and down are very difficult for Kodi. He keeps his hands and fingers on the keyboard, he changes registers by moving horizontally and the idea of lifting your hand in the air is hard for him. I guess if I could not see, I would not want to leave the piano keys, either. This is the most challenging aspect.
Every time I see Kodi, I am in awe. We often record our lessons live, so he can go home and listen to them again. Recently I shared one such clip on the Art of Piano Pedagogy, and the response was phenomenal. If you have a moment, take a look. If you have any experience teaching students like Kodi, please comment below!