By Sylvia Lewis-Palmer
When I think of the word exceptional, there is no doubt in my mind that the talents and God-given abilities within us can only be cultivated when we come to the realization that faith knows no limitations. As a teacher, music therapist and mother of three beautiful daughters, I realize every day how important it is to plant seeds of confidence and determination in those who pass through our lives.
Unfortunately, exceptional or special students are often perceived as underachievers due to society’s misconceptions. Their talents are hidden away in treasure boxes, waiting for a teacher to be creative and patient enough to bring all the main ingredients of music together.
While fulfilling my six-month internship as a music therapist at Hammond State School, I was overjoyed at the talents of the residents. There was the Hammond State Ensemble Band, under the direction of dedicated music therapists who gave these residents the opportunity to perform their music at some of the festivals throughout Louisiana. I will never forget that experience — it was most rewarding for me. It was then I began to realize that music truly heals and consoles the heart and soul. It was just as therapeutic for me as it was for them because we were also being encouraged by their abilities.
After my vision of owning my own private music studio became a reality, a parent requested piano lessons for her daughter Racquel, a student with special needs. I remember thinking, “Where do I begin, which method should I use, and when will it all make sense?” But Racquel had great potential. Not only could she comprehend the concepts of music, but she was eager to learn.
When Racquel came to me, it was not going to be about how long it would take us to finish the book, but about making every experience enjoyable. Yes, we did note drills and clapped notes repeatedly. But with time and effort, Racquel learned to read and perform music, and is presently learning how to play chord progressions utilizing lead sheets. (Something that was not taught to many of us during our early years of training!)
During a recent session with Racquel, her mother informed me that she had been independently learning some pieces on her own. This shy young lady displayed the same cognitive ability as any other beginner student. I am blessed to say that Racquel is maturing into a fine musician.
At a recent Roland workshop in New Orleans, I gained even greater insight on how the keyboard can be of great assistance to students with special needs. Not only can the keyboard serve as a motivating instrument, but it also can enhance creativity. Simple melodies such as “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” come to life when rhythmic beats and a variety of instrumental sounds are added to produce accompaniments.
Racquel truly loves to play the keyboard. Music has proven to be a positive outlet for her. Music has also sharpened Racquel’s academic skills. I can see over the past four years that her attention span has improved, as well as her ability to memorize music quickly. Sometimes she gets a little anxious, but it’s always fun getting her to slow down. Racquel, now 16, is a joy to teach. She has completed her second recital and has performed for the elderly. Now we are preparing to play in the piano festival next year. Hats off and applause to Racquel for a job well done!