Teaching piano to students with ADHD
Over recent years I have taught a number of students with ADHD on both guitar and piano. The condition has a relatively new label in the medical world. So I’m sure I’ve taught many more students with ADHD but it is only in recent years that parents and schools have brought my attention to it.
In this blog I would like to feature a student I’ve been teaching for around a year. He suffers with diagnosed ADHD and learns the keyboard. I will discuss common observations I have noticed over this period and some of the solutions I have found to helping him learn better.
Teaching Student E the keyboard
Over the past year student E has been learning the keyboard with me. I was initially approached by a local school to take on the student as a way of helping him focus. The idea was that playing an instrument would introduce a weekly routine and a pattern to aid his ADHD. They originally asked me to teach him guitar but for a particular reason unrelated to his ADHD this was not possible, so we decided to move to the keyboard.
The keyboard is very different to the piano and especially to children with ADHD. There are many buttons on a keyboard which can be very distracting. Each button can change the sound of an instrument being played. And if the child finds a particular sound they like it can distract them from the learning. So be aware that this may be an issue from very early on if the child learns keyboard. A simple solution is to cover up these various buttons with a piece of paper and over time the student will understand not to touch the buttons.
Learning an instrument requires a few key components for any student to flourish. The first is that there needs to be an inner desire to want to learn the instrument and a general interest in listening to music. I would say without these two in place you really can’t teach a student an instrument. If the student does have these two components, the next one is a good attention span. Often learning an instrument requires understanding concepts or ideas and it will take a lot of focus for these to sink in. The last component to learning an instrument is a strong will to practise and repeat something which may sound awful at first.
With student E we could tick the first two boxes quite easily. I would go further to say that he actually had an interest in writing songs or at least coming up with simple melodies of his own. However his attention span and willingness to practise regularly has proved a real stumbling block.
In Lessons Observations
I noticed that student E had a lot of difficulty with basic reading and writing skills. I’m not an expert so I can’t say for certain this is common with all students with ADHD but it was very noticeable with student E. This meant that reading music posed a problem. Part of reading notes requires a kind of photographic or picture memory which student E is fine with. However connecting letters to these pictures has proved very tricky. As an alternative I have devised a more organic approach to his learning process. I’ve managed to teach him the names of the white and black notes on the keys because he has a strong visual recall. He actually really likes to draw and so I decided we would write letters rather than notes as a way to reference melodies. From here we have been able to write and develop simple melodies using both the white and black keys. We’ve covered both single octave ideas and double octave melodies. I feel the note reading may have to be introduced at a later stage once he understands pitch, note distances and note names better.
Something else I’ve noticed in lessons is that if we focus on something too long – a melody or song – his attention will wane. He will ask about playing a different game or even suggest new games to play. This is fine for non instrument based learning but as mentioned the key to learning an instrument is repetition. So this is where the ADHD proves to be the biggest hurdle. While he can only focus for short periods of time on one idea (melody, hand technique, scale, song etc) we will find progress slow.
Lesson Length for students with ADHD
Teaching a student who has difficulty focusing and holding their attention means that the lesson length is important. From my experience in general kids tend to have shorter attention spans anyway so my usual hour lessons are reduced to 30 minutes. I would say that with student E this 30 minute lesson length was basically the threshold point. Anything longer than that and I would’ve lost him, so I made sure we packed as much varying exercises as possible in a 30 minute time frame.
Solutions for teaching keyboard to Student E
I will go as far as to say that ADHD is certainly something that makes learning an instrument more difficult. However it is not impossible. With the development of great music apps to aid learning, these seem to have been a real revelation in helping student E improve. These apps are able to use interactive and fun animated games that deal with separate music ideas. Anything from melody, rhythm, technique, reading notes and more can be found in the app store.
As mentioned before a large problem is the constant need to switch focus regularly. So it’s important to decide on three games per lesson which you know will be cycled throughout the lesson length. Even if you get five minutes of one and move to the next app, you can then come back to the previous one later and it will feel fresh to the student. If you are really clever you can find three apps which essentially teach the same thing but in a slightly different way. By swapping between these apps you’ll end up teaching the student without them realising it’s the same concept. If the student isn’t interested in what you’re trying to teach them then move on. Don’t be fixed on one lesson idea or piece of music. If it’s not working then move on.
Some good app recommendations are My note games, Rhythm Cat and Note Teach Free. Just to say I tried Yousician but for a student with ADHD there is a lot going on and it’s very busy. It can be very intimidating for them and as much as the app has a lot to offer I wouldn’t recommend it to students with ADHD.
For teachers it’s really important you maintain patience throughout the lesson. Never get angry with your student – in general – but especially with a student with ADHD. The more relaxed they are the easier they are to teach and the longer their attention span lasts. You will need to constantly find ways to keep their attention on the task in front of them. Just keep persisting and if they aren’t interested in the thing you’ve asked them to do, move on. They will get quite agitated if you persist on something they don’t like and they’re attention will be everywhere except on the music.
- Keep lesson lengths short (max 30 minutes)
- Keep the content varied (multiple exercises)
- Keep lessons fun (fill them with games)
- Keep the student relaxed (Reassure and praise the student when they do the smallest thing correct)
- Focus on note letters and writing at first rather than reading sheet music
- Give the student plenty of time and patience
- Be reactive and don’t be too rigid about lesson content
If you or your child has ADHD and you’re looking for piano or keyboard lessons, it is very possible to learn the instrument. If you have any questions or would like to learn piano/keyboard or guitar with me feel free to get in touch. I hope this blog has been helpful for students with ADHD and teachers trying to improve their lessons with ADHD students.