TTTV057: Measuring Success in Smiles with Susan Bessette - Creative Music Education
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TTTV057: Measuring Success in Smiles with Susan Bessette

By Tim Topham | Podcast

Sep 09

measuring success in smiles susan bassette

Sometimes all it takes for a student to be successful in their piano lessons is for the teacher to reframe what success means. Not every student is going to be able to play Beethoven sonatas…which is why Susan Bessette is measuring success in smiles.

Susan Bessette

After Susan retired from teaching in the prison system, she couldn’t resist the challenge of taking on a piano student with autism. As she took on more students with special needs, she searched around the web for resources for her students. She didn’t find anything and so she started making her own.

Susan has learned a lot from teaching students with autism, down syndrome and traumatic brain injury. She’s got some great tips to share today that will make your teaching of students with special needs more effective.

Transcript

Please find a full transcript of this episode at the bottom of this page. Alternatively, click below to download a PDF. If you are an Inner Circle Member, you can find the full video and transcript in the Member Resources AreaNot a member? See below for how you can get $50 off your membership today. 

In this episode, you’ll learn

  • What prompted Susan to make her own curriculum for piano students with special needs
  • How her curriculum is set-up and who it’s for
  • Why you should stop talking so much and start demonstrating more
  • How Susan has learned control the volume of her voice for students with autism
  • Some surprising things that could distract students
  • How a kazoo saved one of Susan’s students from frustration
  • Why you might need to work away from the piano more often
  • How students can be unlocked by the simplest activity

Links Mentioned

Podcast Video

 piano teaching education

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Thank you for Tuning In!

There are a lot of podcasts you could be tuning into today, and I’m grateful that you’ve chosen mine.

Being a full-time teacher myself, I know how busy teachers are and how much time, effort and passion we put into our students. Sometimes, the last thing we want to do in our time off is listen to more piano teaching stuff! So, well done for using this time for self-improvement.

Whether you’re at the gym, on the bike or in the car, I know that you and your students will get lots out of what you learn in the long run. Just make sure you try out some of the ideas before they get lost in the business of your next lessons.

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Full Transcript

Click here to read a full transcript on screen

Tim: Okay, Susan, welcome to the show today.

Susan: Okay, thank you for having me. I'm happy to be here.

Tim: So could you give us a little bit about your background, and how you came to be doing this work with special needs music education?

Susan: Okay, first of all, I've always been drawn to the atypical student. When I lived in California, I worked in the juvenile prison system teaching music, math, and science. And then I retired and came out to Virginia and opened up a small piano studio.

And one day, I got a call. And the lady said that her granddaughter has autism, would you teach her piano? And I said, "I don't know anything about autism, but I'm game if you're game." So we set up an appointment, we set up lessons, and I immediately went to the Internet, I went to the library, I talked to people trying to find out information. "How do I teach music to an autistic student?" And I couldn't find anything.

And so, I started the lessons and I did the tried and true of trying something and see if it works. And some things worked and some things didn't. What the website is is I gathered the things that worked and tried to make a series of lessons out of them that would apply to other people.

Tim: Yeah, that's fantastic. Just going back, you worked in the prison system in education. You were teaching adults...

Susan: Yes.

Tim:...or juvenile?

Susan: No, this is juvenile. This is juvenile.

Tim: Wow. And how many years did you do that for?

Susan: Ten.

Tim: Wow, that must have been an extraordinary experience.

Susan: That's where I got my grey hair.

Tim: Goodness, me. You were teaching math, science, and...music?

Susan: Music. Music, yes. And that's where I came up with some of my philosophies of instant gratification. Because when you're working with these students, there's no such thing as going back to the dorm and practicing. You have to give them an idea, do the idea, and then they have to have immediate...there has to be an immediate show, a reward for their efforts or it doesn't work. Anyway, that's...

Tim: Were you teaching one-on-one in the music situation or classroom?

Susan: It's a music situation. I had a class of 15, and what you do is you give them a written assignment. And then I had four to six pianos around the room, and I would give them assignments, and then I would go from one student to the other to see how they're doing.

Tim: Wow. Would I be right in thinking the majority were boys?

Susan: Yeah, I was in the boys' school. They did have some girl classrooms, but I had three sons and I just worked well with boys.

Tim: Yeah. Wow, what an amazing experience. Fascinating background.

Susan: I'm a tough broad, so no one messes.

Tim: Yeah. It doesn't surprise me that when someone came to you and said, "Hey, I've got a student who has autism. Would you mind teaching her?" You're like, "Yeah, I've worked in a prison. Why not give it a go?"
Susan: I think so.

Tim: Yeah, that's great. So you've put together a website, and this is how I actually found you. When I started thinking about the special needs teaching area for the theme this month, I did a whole lot of research online, and yours was one of the websites that came up. So tell us a little bit about what people will find...and we'll talk more about the website a little bit later on and give the address, but what would people find? What have you put together there?

Susan: Well, the reason I put together the website is that as I was working with this student, I thought, "There are a lot of autistic students out there." And I learned that there's not many resources for them.

When I went looking for ideas on how to teach them, there was nothing that I found. And I don't think it was only because of my poor research skills, Internet research skills, I don't think there's anything out there, because I was just on the Internet earlier today looking for ideas for teaching piano to special needs students and there's nothing there that I was able to unearth.

And so, I thought, "All right, let me put something together that will work." And so, I took all of the ideas that worked with this particular student, and meanwhile, I cast about and found other special needs students; one of them has cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, more autism, and I don't remember what else. I have a sense-acquired...a traumatic brain...TBI, a traumatic brain injury student. And so, I'm just trying the different ideas on them.

So I wrote out a curriculum, and I have...on the Internet, I have two four-lesson units. Each lesson is broken into three parts of ten minutes, because I figured that's about all the attention span that these students have. And also, when they're working with them, there has to be an assistant and the unit would be started and stopped and started and stopped.

So a ten-minute unit could very well take 15, 20 minutes.

If you go to the website, what you will find is you will find these segments broken down. And also, I have this download stuff, where these download units...and you get...let's see if it shows any of this on the thing. It gives the agenda and it talks about what I'm going to be doing in Part A, which is the first part, Part B, and Part C. And then I also have a "Tips for Instruction" for the caregiver, because the students are not going to be independent. And then I have...let's see, the different things up here. The different pages that you will need for the lesson.

Tim: And so, it's for...a piano teacher could use that and learn from it? But it's also designed that a parent or a caregiver could help a child learn at home?

Susan: Yes. You don't need to know anything about music, anything at all about music. The way it's set up is that I am looking into the camera and I'm talking directly to the student.

And I say, "Okay," and I have a view of the piano. I say, "Okay, place your hands here." And the caregiver would have to probably stop the lesson, make sure the hands are in position, and get it going again.

Now, the caregiver could be the parent. This is not a babysitting unit. The student has to have guidance. But the guidance does not need to be the parent. Let's say the caregiver needs to take a nap. And so, she could hire the teenager down the street. Anybody who is a typical student, who can read and write and follow directions, can guide the student, the target student through this. And the benefit is the helper will also learn how to read music.

Tim: That's great. When I started exploring your site, I loved the fact that you don't claim any PhDs in this area or anything like that. You just have a huge amount of experience, and you've gone, "You know what? There's nothing out there. I would like to help other people with this. Here's how I do it." And to put all this information up on your website I think is just brilliant. So thank you from all of the teachers out there, because I think we can learn a huge amount from you.
Susan: Thank you.

Tim: When you started, you said you did a lot of trial and error just to see what works I think was what you said. Can you remember some of the things that didn't work? Before we talk about all the great stuff to do, can you remember some of the mistakes you made?

Susan: The first thing that you do wrong is you talk too much. Autistic students do not process language. And so, if you're trying to tell them what to do, they're not going to understand. It's best for you to just say "Do this," and model it. Because if you talk too much, you're going to lose them, absolutely guaranteed. And let's see...

Tim: And let's face it. All teachers, music teachers, we all talk too much.

Susan: We all talk too much. In fact, I was reminded this last week when my student came and I didn't think that he could read music at all. And I had some music up on the rack and I was talking to the mother. I don't know what we were talking about, maybe scheduling for the month or something like that.

And all of a sudden, the young man started playing the song. Now, I didn't realize he could read the music and play that song. But it turns out that if I keep my mouth shut, he does a whole lot better.

Tim: It just happens. Yeah, isn't that funny?

Susan: Yep. So the biggest thing that you're going to do is to talk too much. The other thing that I learned is that autistic students, especially the autistic students, they can't stand loud noises. Well, I get excited...you're going to find this out in our interview. I get excited, I talk loud. If you do something fine, I'm going to say, "Yay, that's wonderful. I'm so proud of you." Well, they can't take the sound. They can't take the volume. So I've learned not to do that.

Let's see, there are other things that you learned. You learned what you can and cannot wear. For instance, I could not wear this in a lesson because it's too bright.

Tim: Right.

Susan: It's distracting. And I would not wear the necklace because it might become attractive to take it.

Tim: To pull it off of me, yeah.

Susan: Take it off. I don't wear blouses with flowers, because sometimes, the student will want to pick the flowers. I'm old-school, I don't want that.
Tim: And of course, this is obviously different students at different levels on the spectrum will all be different. But I think, as you say, distraction, loud noise; I've heard these things

from other people as well. So definitely worth keeping in mind.
Susan: Yes. And patience. You have to have patience. You have to have patience. If you say something, it could take them very well 30 seconds to process it and produce an answer. And I think that's where my background or my...how do I say, lack of education or lack of credentials comes in mind. Because if someone has written a PhD on the ornamentation of Bach, Bach ornaments, they're not going to want to sit there for 30 seconds while some student comes up. You say, "What's the name of this note?" And it takes 30 seconds for the student to come up with "E."

So I think that...I come with more patience than the ones that come with more credentials or certificates.

Tim: Yep. It was interesting, too, just talking about the time things take. I remember when I was talking to Scott Price in Episode 56 about this, we both agreed that we've got to give ourselves permission as teachers of special needs students to not make much progress for weeks or even longer. Or not feel like you're making any progress, but perhaps things are happening. And suddenly, you have sudden breakthroughs and things like that. Have you experienced that in your studio?

Susan: Well, I have, but I think that there's a principle that's even more important than that. It's not about you. It's not about you looking good at the recital. It is not about whether or not this student can keep up with your program. It's not about that. My motto in my studio is "Success is measured in smiles." All I want at the end of the day is for that student to walk out of my studio singing and dancing and happy.

Because these students have so little opportunity. Of course, the ones that are in school, the schools in America do provide, are required to provide a lot of assistance. But some of my students are adults now, they're young adults now. They have nowhere to go. They have nowhere to go. And I was planning to retire at the beginning of the summer, and one of the mothers came to me and said, "Oh, please don't, because my son has nowhere else to go. He has nothing else to do."

And some of these students are just so isolated because they don't talk. They don't fit into society. There's nothing for them to do but sit around the house and do what? And so, it's not about you, it's not about your program. It's not about "Have they learned what I want them to learn so that they will have achieved this by the end of the class?" That's not the purpose of these lessons. The purpose of these lessons is to make the student feel good, and to impart...and to give self-esteem. And that is your only goal.

Now, I do it through music. Now, I've got this one student, I've been trying to teach him for four years at Middle C. He's the guy in the middle with the line through his head. Now, I have to say that, intellectually, four years on Middle C can be a bit much. He loves his lessons. He loves his lessons. He has nowhere else to go. And he goes home, they set the keyboard up, and they start playing, and praise God, I have done what I need to do. I have given this young man something that he enjoys doing that without me, he wouldn't have it.

Tim: I love your motto, Susan. That "Measured in smiles."

Susan: "Success is measured in smiles."

Tim: It's absolutely brilliant. And isn't that what we should be aiming for with all our teaching, really?

Susan: Yes, yes.

Tim: But particularly in this area. Yeah, it's really lovely to hear. Okay, so let's move on and talk about some of your best tips for working...particularly with autism. Let's talk about that for a moment.

Susan: Well, first of all, I don't distinguish between autism and the other cognitive disorders from my experience. Now, the experts with the PhDs, perhaps they do. But from my experience, I don't. There is a difference between those with physical disabilities. For instance, students with autism, Down syndrome, and TBI, traumatic brain injury, you have to use very limited vocabulary. You have to speak slowly and distinctly. And you have to repeat yourself. If they didn't get it the first time, don't go changing the phrasing or the sentences, it has to be an exact repeat.

Now, my honors student with cerebral palsy, her brain works just fine. She understands jokes, she understands nuances, she understands sarcasm...or I would just say jokes. It's the fact that she knows what to do; it's just sometimes, her fingers will or they won't.

And so, it's been...for her, it's just been a real joy for me. Because when she first entered the program, she had two fingers that may or may not would get to the right key, given the amount of time. And now, she has all ten fingers that work.

Tim: Oh, wow.

Susan: That's just amazing that all ten fingers work. Now, maybe there's a little bit of maturity time ingrained because I've been working with her for three years. Actually in the past week, because of something I've discovered, I'll tell you a minute, she's been catching on to rhythm. And so, her notes...sometimes, she can get to the right notes eventually, but there's no timing, there's no rhythm, there's no flow. And one of the things that I've just discovered...I forgot what you exactly asked me about.

Tim: It's all right. Tell me this story. I'm interested to hear...we've got a grooving.

Susan: We've got a groove going. This is a kazoo. I had to have the kids show me how it works. My TBI student used to play the trombone. And he very much wants to get back to playing the trombone. But he can't control his mouth. And so, I had the idea that "Let's start with a kazoo," and see whether or not we could get him to focus his attention and his purpose on the aperture. Again, not knowing if this was correct by research or...what do they call it? Research-based lesson plans or something; it was an idea that I had.

So I went out and I got a kazoo, and I got one for each of my students. And we started playing the kazoo...and they're so much fun. They are so much fun. And this one boy, different one, who could not count; a lot of times, they can't count. You say, "Okay, let's count to four. One, two, ready, go," and you get...they can't.

Well, we got the kazoo. I said, "Mary had..." you play the kazoo, right? "Mary had a..." and after about three renditions of this song, they were starting to come in on time. It was just amazing, just amazing. And I'd think "How does that work?"

So then, I've heard...I've just discovered the technique of phrase completion where you say "Mary had a..." and then the student just has to say "little lamb." And I had an autistic student who hasn't spoken ten words to me in two years. He sang all of "Mary Had a Little Lamb," plus "Where is Thumbkin?" And all this started with the kazoo.

Tim: Isn't that amazing? There you go. It's why I like...not long ago, we had a session on Orff with Vashti Summerville; it was a really popular podcast a couple of months back. And she was showing the way that...just taking kids away from the keyboard and using hammers, even if it's on a keyboard instrument. But using mallards...there's just something about it. They don't have to worry about using the right finger shape and all this kind of stuff. I think maybe it's, in some ways, similar to just blowing on a kazoo in time or clap...doing something that's away from the keyboard, I think it's so important for connecting with lots of students, perhaps more so with special needs students.

Susan: Yeah. I think that's very important. After we did...I had one student this week play a song. It was out of...he was not hitting the right notes, the timing was terrible, and so I said, "All right, pull out your kazoo. Let's play this." And so, we...I was playing on the piano...it's over here. I was playing on the piano, and then together, we were going...whatever the song was. He was playing on the kazoo, I was playing on the kazoo.

And then...let's see. After I played it on the piano, then we did just the kazoo, and then I said, "Okay, now you play it on the piano." He hit all the right notes and had all the right rhythms. And today, I was listening to your podcast from the lady who talked about the Suzuki method. And I thought, "Okay." Because I get ideas where I find them, okay?

Tim: Me, too.

Susan: Where could I find them? And that idea was on the podcast I found today. And it said that when you're teaching a baby language, you do not ask the baby to read before the baby can speak. You teach the baby to speak and you have repetition, and this constant repetition. And the child knows what the thing sounds like before they even try to wrap their mouth around it.

And so, when you do this with the students, doesn't it just make sense? That you would have the student know what it is supposed to sound like, and then they can get their hands on the keys.

Tim: Absolutely, yep. And it's exactly the music learning theory approach, too, and we focused on that from Episode 48 through to 51 was all about music learning theory, exactly the same thing. Dr. Gordon's view that yes, you learn by speaking and listening first, learning the vocabulary, and then you might start reading and writing later on. I think it's great; we should all at least consider that in our teaching.

I think you mentioned earlier on that you've got some experience with Down syndrome students?

Susan: Yes, yes.

Tim: Is there an approach there that you take that's a little bit different?

Susan: No, I don't. With the cognitive disabilities, so far, I have discovered that what works with the Down syndrome student will work with the autistic student and with the TBI student. And sometimes, I'll be researching or trying something, or trying out new ideas, and I get all excited, and so I try it with all of them, and they all have a wonderful time. They all just have a really wonderful time.

In fact, then, I transferred over to my typical students, the ones that are in elementary school, grade-appropriate elementary school. And the thing is we have so much fun. We have so much fun. And if you're not having fun, why do it?

Tim: Yep, agreed.

Susan: Because my students are not going...we will never explore the nuances of a Mozart phrase. It will not happen. These are not serious students. I wouldn't be the appropriate teacher for that.

I'm here to have fun. I'm here to have the student have fun. And so, the things that I come up with, I just try different things, I listen to different people. I've just discovered this wonderful lady, she's in Canada, her name is Kristin Jensen.

Tim: Yes, I've heard of Kristin.

Susan: Kristin at eartrainingandimprov.com. Well, I stumbled across her and decided, "Okay, I'll try out some of her ideas." Now, one of them was just do a duet, and this particular autistic student I have, I've had him for two years, I can't reach him. I can't unlock the key to whatever turns him on. And I've tried everything I can; some days, I have more success

than others, but nothing has really turned him on.
So I was trying one of Kristin's ideas; she was using a black note duet, but the student wanted to play on the white notes. Hey, I'm easy. Just dropped down; F, B, B-flat, C, which of course is 1, 6...

Tim: 6, 4, 5.

Susan: His eyes lit up and I did it again. And he looked at that and he was so excited about it. He played that all the way up and down the keyboard.

Tim: Right.

Susan: And it just turned him on. It just completely turned him on. And he's been on for two weeks now; we'll see. There's no guarantees about what's going to happen the next time

I see him. Of course, the next step, obviously is...well, he was playing the left hand. He was playing the baseline that I tried to jam on the right hand just to see what happens. And that was a little bit too confusing; that was a little bit too confusing. So I dropped back to...just to say...

Tim: A rhythm on a note, yeah. That's great. It just goes to show you how creative you need to be. I think you used the word "patient." "Patient..."

Susan: Patient, yes, patient.

Tim: "Flexible," and "creative," really, to have success in this area, don't you? And you've got to be willing to give anything a go, and have some epic fails, and not get anywhere sometimes.

Susan: The hard thing is where you leave and you think, "What is that lady paying me for?"

Tim: That's right.

Susan: "But she does."

Tim: And the students are obviously having fantastic times and experiences. And as you say, I like this word...I'm sure it might not be the scientific word, but "unlocking," I think, or "turning on" the student like a switch. Something is...suddenly, it allows them to come out of themselves. It's brilliant.

Susan: You have this wonderful child of God, and he's locked in this problem. And the person is still a wonderful person. I think of Stephen Hawkings. He's a brilliant man who's trapped in a body that doesn't work. And I look on my students that way as just being these wonderful....well, Down syndrome students are angels; there's no other way explaining it.

There's nothing evil about them, there's no duplicity, there's no greed, there's no...they don't like, they don't know how. They're angels.

And it's just to enter in and think, "Okay, now how can I communicate with this student? How can I make this student want to talk to me?" Music is magic, and we're just discovering now that music will enter the brain and affect the brain in ways that we've never thought of before. And my TBI student came out of his coma to music.

Tim: Wow.

Susan: And you just hear this all the time, where this student was given up for dead. The doctor said, "Okay, he's not going to survive this accident." Well, you don't tell that to the mother. So, they're around the bedside all the time, singing to him and playing...in their house, it was Christian music. So they're playing this and lo and behold, he came out of his coma. "Well, he'd always be a vegetable." Then after that, "He'd never be able to speak." Well, he started speaking. "Well, then he won't be able to do this." Well, he started doing that.

And it's the music. And he's not the only one. You start searching into TBI and you'll see that music...it administers, it amends, and it's magic; it just does it. And so, I'm trying to get music into the brain. I don't know what's going on. All I know is that music is magic and this is a gift that I want to give them. I want to give them the gift of music, and the joy of success through music.

Tim: TBI, just to clarify, a traumatic brain injury. So this is a person who's normally functioning but has an accident of some sort. Is that right?

Susan: Yes. The student that I had in my house had a Motocross accident. The one that I met in New York had an automobile accident. And yes, they're normal-functioning adults or children, and then something happens; there's a traumatic injury.

And so, the thing then is to retrain a different part of the brain to take over.

Tim: Right, yep.

Susan: The brain is amazing. The brain is just an amazing thing and we know so little about it. And music is magic.

Tim: I love...you've got some great little mottos. I really enjoy listening to them. I should have asked you before, but what does your studio actually look like today with the numbers of students and ages, and things like that?

Susan: I don't have many; I tried to retire in May. Last November, my husband had a severe heart attack and I thought, "Okay..." I'm also a senior. And I'm thinking, "I'm not going to teach forever," and then he had the heart attack, and I was thinking, "You have a reevaluation of all your life's priorities." So I figured, "All right, I'll give up teaching."

And then he started getting better, and then I started feeling better. So I only have eight students, I think, only about eight students. And that's enough for me, because I'm trying to retire.

Tim: Yeah. Funny hearing some of that.

Susan: When I'm not trying to retire, I'm finding new things like...we should have a Special Olympics music recital. Because where can these kids go? Where can these kids go to shine, you know?

Tim: Susan, you certainly have no shortage of innovative ideas and passion to keep learning.

Susan: Yes.

Tim: I think it'd be an absolute shame if you did retire completely. Keep it up. It's amazing, the work that you're doing. I think it's fantastic.
Susan: Yep, it's...well, as you can see, I get turned on when I talk about teaching, and you find a new idea...I can think of different things I'd like to do on the website, but I'm computer-challenged. I think what's in there is a limit of my skills.

Tim: Yeah. On that, I wanted to get to your website. Because as we've said, there aren't many resources out there for piano teaching and special needs students. And what I couldn't believe of yours is that it's actually all free, or seems to be free. Am I right?
Susan: It is, it is. I only have two units written. And before I wrote another one...because, you know, it takes an effort to do that.

Tim: Absolutely.

Susan: I wanted to see what kind of market there was out there, or interest. And I wasn't getting a whole lot, so I thought, "All right," so it was an idea that wasn't meant to be. But I continued to have a trickle of interest. And if anyone were to...if I had parents contact me, or caregivers, contact me and say, "You know, we've walked through the first two and my student is ready to learn to actually read," then I would sit down and I would write another unit.

Yeah, I had ideas...I'd like it to be like a one-stop shop for tricks that work. Things that...you know? I recently discovered MIT Music Intonation Therapy, where that's how you can get students to talk, is you sing the words to them and then you sing them back.

Tim: "Music Intonation Therapy."

Susan: Yeah.

Tim: Yep, okay.

Susan: Or maybe it's "Melodic." It could be "Melodic." MIT Melodic Intonation Therapy. Where like you say "Thank you," and they were..."Thank you." They were recommending the minor third interval...there's something about the minor third interval that's "Na, na, na-na-na."

Tim: Yeah. It's kind of built in us somehow.

Susan: Yeah, it's built in us somehow. That's supposed to help students help the...what is it called? Aphasia, when they don't speak? To get them to talking. And I'd like to explore that, but I have to see what kind of interest is out there. I'm not going to do it just for fun.

Tim: Yeah. Look, I hope you do keep doing what you're doing, because I know there is lots of interest, because I get asked questions about this all the time. And like you, I'm not an expert, and I don't have nearly the experience that you do, which is why I wanted to speak with someone like you. And in a couple of weeks, I'm actually interviewing a clinical psychologist about autism, in fact. So we can get that side of the view.

So we've got the practical, the piano teaching, the actual psychology. And I think...just having information out there, Susan, is so valuable to teachers, so thank you very much for what you've done, and for making it freely accessible. I think it's just brilliant. Where do people go to find that information?

Susan: The website is pianoforspecialneeds.com.

Tim: Great.

Susan: And that's it, just pianoforspecialneeds.com.

Tim: We'll pop a link to that in the show notes. And I'll just thoroughly encourage anyone to go there. I went and obviously had a good look-through and watched some of your videos and things. And as you say, you speak to the camera as if you're speaking to the child. So I would hate for teachers to kind of go there and go, "Actually, this isn't for me. This is for parents or caregivers." But actually, you can learn so much by the things that you're doing, and that's what I would encourage teachers who are listening and watching this podcast to go and do. Go and watch how you've put together your curriculum, and see what bits you can take from Susan and use for your own teaching, if that's okay.

Susan: Thank you.

Tim: Now, before we finish up, was there anything else that we've kind of missed out on talking about today that you think is important, or any other tricks or tips that you might have in your head?

Susan: The most important thing is that you have fun with your students. Remember back when we were taking piano as a kid? The idea of having fun just never entered anybody's mind. It's not why you signed up for piano lessons. "You sign up for piano lessons to learn piano." Then you should be having fun. If you're not having fun, don't do it.

Tim: Gosh, I hope that's not the case anymore. I really do hope that's changing.

Susan: And I always look for ways of instant gratification, which is why I was starting in on this improvisation. And instant gratification is also in the book that I use in the "I Can Do It" method, because the book is lettered; the songs are lettered. These are nursery rhymes that all the kids know. And they're lettered...here we go. And then there's a thing that you put...a keyboard, which lets them know where they are. And that means that on the first lesson, the students can play a song. Instant gratification, I think, is very important.

Tim: And...sorry, before we go on, that book that you just showed us, is that one of your resources? Or there’s another book?

Susan: Yeah, in order to do my program, you need three things. You need a keyboard, and you need a computer, obviously. And you need this book called "I Can Do It!" And you can get this at Kapokpress.com (?).

Tim: How do you spell that? K?

Susan: A-P-O-K.

Tim: A-P-O-K. Okay, great.

Susan: This is written by a friend of mine, Christine Kril. And I bought it just because she was a friend of mine, and I put all of my students through it, including the grandmothers.

Because first of all, you can play it the very first day. And secondly, it has all the nursery rhymes. So even if they decide they're not going to play...they play it for their grandchildren.

You can have one lesson and go home and play these songs for your grandchildren. Instant gratification.

Tim: Brilliant.

Susan: Let's see, the other thing that I was thinking of using these lessons for, not only with children, but I could also envision, say, using these with Grandma. Maybe Grandma's failing, and you can get a...let's just say a granddaughter, not that it has to be a girl. But you can get your granddaughter there and...the young and the old ladies can learn how to play piano. Grandma doesn't care what she does; she just wants to be having fun with her grandchild.

Tim: Yeah, so the videos that you've created...you're saying they can be used by anyone, really?

Susan: Anyone. Anyone.

Tim: It's just a very clear, steady-paced process that can introduce someone to the piano.

Susan: Yes. Actually, that's one of the marketing problems I have with it, because when you're working with autism students, you can't have distractions. You can't have dancing cartoons and music and stuff like that. It has to be slow and steady and...

Tim: Clear. Yeah. I do notice, for teachers who are interested, I'm sure we could learn from how you present to the camera, too, and the words that you use and the way you speak. Because it is particularly clear and steady, and it's very calm. There's lots to learn from you I think, Susan. You've done a great job.

Susan: Thank you.

Tim: And I know how long it takes to put video courses together.

Susan: Yes, that’s true!

Tim: With PDFs and everything, so it's just brilliant. And to just offer it to people for free is just a fabulous community program that you've put together. Thank you.

Susan: Thank you very much, Tim.

Tim: It's great. We'll sign off there. I do appreciate your time and all that you're doing. And perhaps, if people have some questions for you and they can head to the show notes page, write a question, I might just send it through to you. Would you be happy to jump on and give some people some support if they have it?

Susan: I would. Yes, I would.

Tim: That'd be fantastic. All right, Susan's website is pianoforspecialneeds.com. Make sure you check it out. She's done so much work there. It's just great. We look forward to keeping in touch with you.

Susan: Thank you, Tim.

Tim: Alright, see you later, Susan.

Susan: Okay, bye.

How do you measure success?

What do you think of Susan’s motto “success in smiles”? Do you have any students that would benefit from this reframing on your end?

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About the Author

Tim Topham has one mission in life: to stem the tide of children quitting music lessons by helping teachers maximise student engagement through creativity, technology and innovation. Tim hosts the popular Creative Piano Teaching Podcast, blogs regularly at timtopham.com and speaks at local and international conferences on topics such as pedagogy, business, marketing and entrepreneurship. Tim has been featured in American Music Teacher, The Piano Teacher Magazine, Californian Music Teacher and EPTA Piano Professional. Tim holds an MBA in Educational Leadership, BMus, DipEd and AMusA.