Teaching Guitar to Students with Disabilities – Multiple Sclerosis
Over the years I have been teaching guitar to students with a wide range of skills and disabilities. Often I have found the students with disabilities to be the most challenging but also the most rewarding. Every student I teach presents me with a new challenge. These students help me to become a better teacher because with every challenge in front of me I’m forced to find a solution.
After speaking to a good friend of mine on the weekend about the various types of students I’ve taught over the years, she thought it would be helpful to others if I shared my experience and findings. I had never thought about this before because all these solutions I developed were really to help me and my own students. And in some way that is a little selfish, especially if I can help other teachers trying to teach students with disabilities.
So I’ve decided to write a short series of blogs covering some of the students I’ve encountered over the years. From students with M.S. those in wheelchairs, children with growth issues affecting their size and strength, ADD, arthritis and past finger trauma, and others. My hope is that the things I have learnt from these students can help other teachers and students improve faster and better.
Teaching guitar to student L – M.S. student
Over the past ten years I have taught student L guitar – not their real name but you get the picture. Student L has suffered with multiple sclerosis since their early twenties. They came to me with a keen interest in the guitar and probably the notion that learning the guitar will aid their M.S. For me it was the first time I’d taught someone with a disability and student L proved to be a big challenge. My limited knowledge of M.S. at the time came from friends whose parents had the condition and general conversation. So interacting with student L on a weekly basis for over ten years has certainly helped me understand M.S. to a much higher degree.
My initial observations were that student L found forming chord shapes difficult. She could remember the shape in her mind but there were a host of physical issues preventing her from achieving these shapes. One of the main problems was that her wrist position seemed to move quite a bit. Also getting her wrist angle and thumb position to remain consistent was a regular problem. So this meant that she was almost having to learn the process of holding the guitar each lesson. She was also finding it tricky to push the notes down to get a clean sound, but more noticeably avoiding open strings or other fretted notes. So this came down to spacial awareness and touch sensitivity. I would also say finger strength was playing a part in these problems.
The right hand was also interesting. I noticed that strumming in the correct direction wasn’t a problem. However, strumming from a specific string seemed to be more of a challenge. And some times the accuracy of rhythm wasn’t always achieved in the normal time frame – around 5 – 10 minutes. When it came to finger picking, on a basic level student L actually could find the strings relatively quickly but with multiple strings involved and faster rhythms the right hand lost accuracy.
I would also like to mention a little bit about the way in which student L interpreted instructions. With M.S. it affects your hearing and student L’s hearing was gradually diminishing. With the help of a hearing aid this did improve things but I did noticed something interesting. Some times I would ask student L to play something new and it was like her brain couldn’t quite compute what had been said. So I would either have to say it again or in a completely different way. Often this related to a visual concept or a concept that required thinking outside the box a little. I use a lot of metaphors and imagery in my teaching so student L has been great in helping me develop multiple ways to explain the same idea.
Clamp Capo Knob controlled Capo
When teaching guitar to student L we found using capos for songs was initially a challenge. There are certain capos which look like mini claps and require a large amount of hand strength. Student L bought several capos over the years with varying degrees of tension which proved problematic. I thought it might be a good idea to keep using them as a way of developing hand strength but this proved to be an incorrect assumption. We settled on a capo that allowed you to lie it over the fret and then just turn a knob to create the tension. Honestly don’t waist your time with clamp grip capos – it really is very difficult with someone with multiple sclerosis.
What I have learnt from teaching guitar to Student L?
I can safely say that I owe a lot of my knowledge about the nuances of guitar learning to student L. The issues she was finding on the guitar were akin to the difference between catwalk and high street fashion. Where very subtle problems may be found with the average student, because of her multiple sclerosis they were magnified greatly like a caricature. What I can say is that I still teach student L today so the following solutions have helped her improve in varying degrees.
Left hand Performance
In order to maintain the left hand position in both angle and area we have focused on isolating individual parts of the hand consciously. Often her thumb would move around which is the equivalent of the floor moving as you walk. You need stability in the thumb and wrist to be able to give your fingers and tendons confidence and muscle memory. So we have spent many lessons just trying to play a few chords and focusing on the thumb staying firmly in one place. I’ve also found positive reinforcement and regularly encouraging her has also helped. I think this is because it keeps her calm and not stressed as she hears buzzing it hits the wrong string. Maintaining a relaxed persona throughout the learning process is essential.
We’ve also looked at the angle of the wrist which moves dramatically without conscious attention. So we have spent many lessons trying to play single note melodies and simple chords trying to move the bottom of the wrist as little as possible.
Student L is very reliant on looking at her hand to guide it to chord positions. So we’ve taken some time to force her to feel her way between chords. Closing her eyes, looking at me or looking at music have all been used to help her become more in touch with her left hand senses.
I find getting student L to play single note sequences i.e. fingers 1 then 2 then 3 then 4 on the same string has helped with spacial improvement. We’ve done this same exercise in different orders with hammer ons, pull offs and on multiple strings. This has even helped improved the overall sound of barre chords which I never thought would become a reality.
Bends seem to be a large obstacle at the moment so we have avoided them so far to focus on other areas.
Right Hand Performance
As mentioned student L’s right hand has always been quite good at strumming patterns on a basic level. Fast strumming and intricate strumming has proved an issue because it requires quickly turning the hand over in a small area. For this reason we’ve worked on the wrist strength and trying to build strumming speed gradually. We are limited to semi quaver rhythms at the moment but we will be working on building on this even more.
The accuracy of where to strum from has been one of the biggest challenges, especially without looking at the guitar. So this has been more about the elbow positioning. If student L maintains a regular position with her right elbow, this seems to help with her locating of strings. So we’ve worked on this as well as string skipping exercises with the pick.
Another problem mentioned was finger picking. If a chord is fretted whilst working on right hand exercises it seems to confuse her brain so we’ve focused on finger picking with open strings. I’ve developed a little sequence of creating independent finger patterns in varying PIMA orders to strengthen this part of her playing. We’ve also worked on picking multiple strings at the same time which invariably is easier for her.
Teaching Student L new ideas
It’s all about clear instruction with multiple approaches to the same idea. I think there is something to be said about multiple layers and senses working together. For this reason I thought I’d play around with student L’s core senses minus taste and smell – Visual, Touch and hearing. We’ve used colours, visual diagrams, visualisation in the mind, touching certain strings with certain shapes, all with the aim of learning one new idea. This new idea might be a new type of chord like major sevenths or a new rhythm like triplets or swung quavers. I’ve found that by activating all of these senses altogether it helps to speed up the learning process. As mentioned I haven’t tried smell and taste but I have a feeling that these would help also with the learning process.
Student L today
Student L is still a regular student of mine and each week we have new learning adventures. Her physical level on the guitar is still that of a beginner but her knowledge is very much of an intermediate. So our aim is to bring her physical level up to her understanding of the instrument. You might say well what’s the point if after ten years she’s still a beginner. To the average person or teacher this could seem very long, with minimal results and for those will little patience very frustrating. But for student L it has helped her focus on something week to week. She has small goals and has to take life week by week as the condition requires constant monitoring. Some times she has to take new drugs or new dosages of drugs. In these cases she some times is not allowed to drive and is noticeably unsteady with her balance. So any progress made, however little it is, for someone with multiple sclerosis is a huge achievement.
Are you teaching guitar?
If you are teaching guitar and have had similar experiences please do get in touch and share what you have learnt. I feel we can all help each other to improve the way we teach pupils with multiple sclerosis. Let’s give them the best lessons and learning experience possible as a community.
For more information on multiple sclerosis head over to the mssociety website which has tonnes of advice and support for those suffering with M.S.