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Movement activities for learning-disabled piano students.

Through the implementation of the Music Achievement Award Program, MTNA has affirmed that average students are important and deserve the right to earn tangible awards that recognize their unique achievements.

Many of the students we teach will not perform in solo competitions or earn music scholarships to prestigious music schools. Nevertheless, they can attain remarkable successes in meeting goals that match their aptitude.

Can students with learning disabilities be expected to be musically successful and earn awards as well? It often is difficult for students with neuromuscular disabilities or cognitive dysfunctions to control the movements necessary to achieve the rhythmic accuracy required for successful performances. Often, these students are not encouraged to enter festivals or recitals because their interpretation of a solo may include frequent stops and starts or tempo fluctuations. Teachers of these students need methods that address this issue of rhythm, and research has shown that movement activities may help develop psychomotor awareness and lead to more steady performances. (1)

Background Research

Many prominent music educators have advocated the use of body movement as an aid for developing a sense of rhythm. For example, Jaques-Dalcroze, a European music educator born in 1865, developed exercises for the improvement of musical rhythm. This method became known as "eurythmics," a term that means good rhythm. For many years, music therapists have incorporated eurthymics into piano lessons to improve rhythmic response. (2)

Edourard Seguin, a teacher in the field of music education for exceptional children, advocated moving from gross motor activities to those involving the small muscles and recommended marching for rhythmic and muscular development. (3) Further, the music methodologies of Carl Orff, 20th-century German composer and teacher, also supported movement instruction as a primary step in learning music. (4) The body percussion found in Orff's methodology--clapping, stamping, finger-snapping and patting--provides a way for children to sense rhythms through movement and allows tactile practice performing rhythm before transferring this skill to instruments. (5)

Lastly, Edwin Gordon, a predominant music educator in the United States, asserts that rhythm readiness is associated with the ability to feel rhythm patterns kinesthetically. (6) These patterns can be exhibited through large-muscle movement activities such as marching, walking, swinging arms, running, clapping and tapping.

Despite the overwhelming evidence that large-muscle movement activities have a positive effect on rhythmic accuracy, piano instruction too frequently has included teaching rhythm without the use of body movement. (7) This is especially true when teaching students whose movement is limited because of cognitive or neuromuscular dysfunction. Many teachers are hesitant to ask a student with low vision to dance, for example, when the student feels uncomfortable with movement in unfamiliar settings.

Movement activities, however, are not limited to dance. Any movement that incorporates the large muscles of the arms, legs and whole body can have a positive effect on a student's steady beat performance. A student whose leg muscles are too weak to dance or march can still use the large muscles of his upper body to strike percussion instruments or toss a beanbag.

Current Research

Three learning-disabled piano students in my studio participated in a 12-week study in 2003 to determine if their steady beat performance would improve when activities that focused on large muscles were included in weekly lessons. The three students, all age 11, had various disabilities that limited their fine muscle control, thereby causing some degree of rhythmic inaccuracy.

John was diagnosed with high-functioning autism. He was easily distracted and had a short attention span. Additionally, his arm and leg movements were somewhat jerky due to poor muscle tone and weakness of an unknown origin. Karen had no vision in her left eye and poor vision in her right eye due to a premature birth. She also suffered a stroke and spinal meningitis at the age of 13 months, resulting in poor gross and fine motor skills and weak muscle tone. Mary had multiple learning disabilities and was legally blind; she also exhibited poor muscle tone in her hands.

John had been studying piano for nine months, Karen for two years and Mary for four years. Before beginning the study, the students were tested to determine their ability to synchronize to a steady beat and imitate various rhythm patterns accurately. All three students had difficulty with pattern imitation, finding the steady beat and maintaining the beat throughout a one-minute musical excerpt. Additionally, the Rhythm subtest of the Primary Measures of Music Audiation (PMMA) was administered to measure rhythm aptitude. Their scores were lower than those of the normative population listed in the PMMA Manual.

For 12 weeks following pre-testing, all three students participated in a movement activity at the conclusion of each weekly private piano lesson. These activities incorporated the large muscles of the arms, legs and whole body. The objectives for these activities were: (1) to internalize steady beat in duple and triple meters; (2) to imitate rhythm patterns in duple and triple meters; and (3) to recognize same and different rhythm patterns.

Eleven of the activities required listening to music and responding to the steady beat with the body or with a manipulative. Body movements included marching, swaying, clapping and patting thighs. Activities using manipulatives required the students to toss a beanbag from hand to hand, play woodblocks with a mallet and pull a stretchy band back and forth. The final movement activity was a computer game that required the student to recognize same and different rhythm patterns and imitate these patterns using the computer's space bar.

At the end of the 12-week instruction period, the three tests were administered again as a post-instruction measure. All three students showed improvement in their ability to imitate rhythm patterns accurately and to find and main-rain a steady beat, although not all students improved equally in this area. Research has determined that the ability to perform rhythm patterns accurately does not mean students can synchronize these to a steady beat. (8) This ability may depend on maturity, experience and neuromuscular control, according to the type of disability present. Additionally, learning-disabled students often are hindered by all inability to focus consistently, Nevertheless, the positive results were encouraging.

Improvement also was found in the scores for the Rhythm subtest of PMMA, although they were still below the scores for the normative population. It seems likely that including activities that help a learning-disabled student discover symmetry and its relation to the pairing of beats could have a positive effect on developmental music aptitude.

Suggestions for Teachers

Should piano teachers incorporate large-muscle movement activities as a regular part of piano lessons? Yes! In addition to improving steady beat performance, the piano students in this study enjoyed the activities and eagerly anticipated the last five minutes of each lesson. Enjoyment of piano lessons is a goal that most teachers hope to impart to their students, since a positive attitude can enhance motivation. Varying the lesson with movement activities is a relatively easy way to increase intrinsic motivation, whether or not the student has learning disabilities. However, an understanding of necessary modifications for students with special needs will be helpful to teachers.

Learning-disabled students often need to focus on using one set of large muscles at a time; therefore, activities involving beanbag tosses, playing percussion instruments and pulling a stretchy band are better performed while sitting on the floor. It is difficult for these students to keep their feet in one spot while moving the upper body to synchronize to a steady beat. Quite often their feet will move to a different tempo than their upper body. Because of this difficulty coordinating the muscle groups, sitting on the floor helps them concentrate on playing the instruments with a steadier beat.

When percussion instruments and manipulatives are introduced, distractibility can be a factor in the students' inability to perceive the steady beat quickly. This can be minimized by first swaying back and forth, clapping or patting thighs while chanting a steady beat to help the student focus before performing with the manipulative.

No special equipment is required when introducing movement activities to your students; begin with the body only--modified snapping, clapping, patting thighs or stamping feet. And there are many ways to use the body other than synchronization to a steady beat. For example, one or two lines from a children's poem can be chanted in a rhythm pattern and appropriate body sounds can be assigned to the various note values. Children love this exercise, and it develops a discriminating ear for rhythms while also requiring them to coordinate different body movements.

Teachers do not need to buy many instruments for movement activities, although a variety can alleviate boredom and provide a way to develop different muscle groups. Include some instruments that are struck with a mallet or a hand, instruments that are shaken and devices that have no musical or percussive sound but can be used for steady beat synchronization, such as beanbags, scarves or stretchy bands. I have purchased a variety of instruments from other countries and at art museums. These instruments are visually interesting and have unique sounds. All the manipulatives in my studio are suitable for children with weak muscle tone who require use of the large-finger muscles for grasping.

Modeling also is important for the student to feel comfortable with the assigned movement. Don't sit and watch--participate! Parents of my learning-disabled students attend lessons regularly and are expected to march, dance or play an instrument with us. Even my dog follows us in a march, bringing up the rear.

It is important to match appropriate music to a movement activity. Activities using the stretchy-band work well with music at a slower, more relaxed tempi since pulling back and forth with the arms is a relatively large movement that takes a longer time to initiate. Activities involving clapping, playing a woodblock or rhythm sticks, or tossing a beanbag work well with more upbeat tempi since the muscle movement takes a shorter time to complete. Much good music can be found in the teacher's library. A good CD to use is Music for Movement, (9) which features short instrumental examples in various meters and tempi. Many piano curricula also have corresponding CDs and/or MIDI disks with wonderful instrumental accompaniments. Excerpts from classical literature also can be easily incorporated with the added benefit of developing a love for the arts.


Although it is impossible to generalize the results of my study since the sample was so small, previous research indicates the value of movement to enhance rhythm perception and performance. Movement activities are not hard to create, and it is worth the effort to include these regularly. Any activity that enhances musical learning for learning-disabled students will produce gratifying results. These children can excel in their piano proficiency and attain many successes appropriate to their skill level. As teachers, we will have the satisfaction of knowing that our efforts can give them a lifetime of musical enjoyment. And as we enrich their lives, ours are enriched even more.


(1.) D. Rohwer, "Effect of Movement Instruction on Steady Beat Perception, Synchronization, and Performance," Journal of Research in Music Education 46, no. 3 (1998): 414-424.

(2.) C. M. Boyle, "Dalcroze Eurhythmics and the Spastic," Spastics' Quarterly 3 (1954): 5-8.

(3.) R. M. Graham, (Ed.), Music for the Exceptional Child (Reston, VA: Music Educators National Conference, 1975).

(4.) Rohwer, "Effect of Movement."

(5.) B. Landis and P. Carder, The Eclectic Curriculum in American Music Education: Contributions of Dalcroze, Kodaly, and Orff (Washington, D.C.: Music Educators National Conference, 1972).

(6.) Edwin Gordon, "The Source of Musical Aptitude," Music Educators Journal 57, no. 8 (1971): 35-37.

(7.) M. Uszler, S. Gordon and E. Mach, The Well-Tempered Keyboard Teacher (New York: Schirmer Books, 1995).

(8.) D. T. McDonald and G. M. Simons, Musical Growth and Development Birth through Six (New York: Schirmer Books, 1989).

(9.) J. O. Forseth and A. Blaser, Music for Movement (CD) (Chicago: GIA Publications, 1993).

Sarah Crouch, NCTM, has maintained a private piano studio for more than 30 years, specializing in adaptive piano lessons for learning-disabled students. She is active as an adjudicator and curriculum writer, and frequently presents workshops on incorporating movement activities in lessons. She is an adjunct fine arts professor at Dallas Baptist University and a member of Dallas Southwest MTA.
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Title Annotation:KEEPING THE BEAT
Author:Crouch, Sarah
Publication:American Music Teacher
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2005
Previous Article:Group lessons = positive results.
Next Article:Sight singing for instrumentalist.

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