What Hannah Taught Me: Unlearning the Rules and Rediscovering the Music

Written by: Stephanie Bowman

I first met Hannah seven years ago. Although I had worked with special needs students before, this would be my first foray with Down's syndrome, and I had no idea what to expect. While Anna and I were the same age (early 20s), she was operating on a 6-8 year old level. The first several months were exhausting, as she rarely responded during lessons, even though her mother assured me that she enjoyed her time at the piano. 

I grew up at the piano. Competitive by nature, I knew that the true sign of an accomplished pianist was to be placed last on the program. I remember the exact song I played at the recital that put me "over the top" against a much older student. I was elated and, to be honest, annoying and arrogant. I would continue to work hard on my music through college, playing at festivals and competitions, taking nationally-ranked exams, and performing all over the world. And when I started teaching in Orange County, I knew exactly what kind of teacher I wanted to be. 

I'm sure you've guessed by now that I was dead wrong. 

As a previous teacher had helped Hannah to learn note letters, I focused on next steps like note values and scales. It quickly became evident that this would be an uphill battle: in addition to mental symptoms, Down's syndrome affects the physiology of the fingers, which are tapered and conical and have little to no individual dexterity. This translates to much more effort--every note requires a sort of wind-up and release, with the pressure placed along the side of the knuckle, rather than the fingertips. Musically speaking, it means getting rid of accurate rhythmic subdivisions: there are long notes and short notes, but nothing more complex. I starting writing dashes to indicate held notes. As time has passed, Hannah has become more and more in tune with the rise and fall of melodic lines, so her rhythm improves as she imitates her favorite songs. That's right--rather than working from the basics outward, we've reversed the process so that Hannah can learn from what she's hearing first, not just from what she's seeing. 

Luckily, we also have a few cards stacked on our side. Unlike most instruments, the piano is laid out visually, with the musical alphabet ascending from left to right. All the Es look the same, and so do the Gs and the D#s. This means that Hannah can usually find what she's looking for. Although she'll never sightread, she can follow a melody, particularly if it's a song by Whitney Houston or ABBA. 

Like every student, Hannah's music is shaped by her personality. She is shy, and dislikes extending her arms beyond an octave on either side of Middle C. She prefers flats to sharps, so much of the music I write for her breaks the rules of music theory. And her interests go in waves: at times, we'll go through months of Disney show tunes. Although she'll never play Mozart, she has mastered a C scale with her right hand and has introduced me to every 90s boy band imaginable. And guess what? She practices an hour every morning.

In a few weeks, Hannah and I will attend a recital. She's been to several now and loves to take part, but it always unfolds the same way: her mother will approach me and say, "She's too scared. Will you sit with her?" 

Hannah, every week you teach me that loving music is about more than replication, more than theory, more than a neurotic drive to be competitive and precise. Those things can be part of it, true. But I've never met anyone like you, someone who simply enjoys the sound she's made. 

I'm flattered to sit with you. 

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