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I have recently started teaching piano to a student. They had been learning with another instructor and have a few years of experience.

The students parent let me know in advance that they have mobility issues with their right hand. Based on the prior experience and the parents’ willingness, I thought it was a workable issue. I planned to suggest alternate fingerings when applicable.

Now that I have sat with the student through several lessons, the following is clear to me:

This student struggles to play any interval greater than a whole step with fingers 3-5 on the right hand. They also struggle to maintain proper hand posturing, which introduces a number of other issues. I have suggested alternate fingerings (ones that favor the first 3 fingers), but there’s no way to accommodate chords. They struggle to play a major triad. I suggested dropping one of the notes in the chord.

The issue is that this student does not enjoy entertaining these mitigation strategies. I think it is because they are uncomfortable discussing their mobility issue.

I am not a physical therapist and can’t effectively recommend exercises to improve mobility (not to mention I don’t know the precise medical reason, and have no desire to ask). So I feel my options are:

  1. Keep pushing mitigation strategies and hope the student becomes more open to the idea over time.
  2. Let the student play as they prefer (often just hiting the second and fourth notes in addition to the triad), and focus instead on other aspects.
  3. Inform the parents that this is a very prohibitive issue for a piano player and see how they wish to proceed.

I am a relatively new teacher, so feedback on these options or better suggestions is what I’m looking for.

I should also mention that the parents’ intention is likely not to turn their child into a concert pianist, but instead to give critical music theory knowledge that may be applied to a different instrument later on. But I feel quite bad watching the student become so frustrated with no way to help!

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  • This page is not really well suited for physiotherapeutic advice! Even someone with medical knowledge would most likely not give a lot of advice without knowing any specifics, as that wrong advice could even backfire. Needless to say, if your student has constantly the feeling that he cannot do it he will not have a great time and soon loose motivation. I think it is essential for you to talk with both the parents and the student. You have to be honest with them that this is a big limitation when playing piano, and you need to know what’s going on to have any chance to make things better.
    – Lazy
    Apr 20, 2023 at 20:11
  • Depending on the situation the correct exercises might help the student overcome these issues. Or they might not. And it might just be that the student would invest a lot of time into something that is not suited for him, when he could have spent the time learning something that fits him.
    – Lazy
    Apr 20, 2023 at 20:15
  • As a clarification, before taking on the student, you had met and discussed with one or both parents, but you had not encountered student at the piano until the first lesson. Yes? Also, by "several" lessons, less than a dozen, say?
    – Aaron
    Apr 20, 2023 at 21:05
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    @Aaron, Correct on both fronts, mostly: I only discussed the issue with the father via website chat prior to first lesson, and 'Several' is specifically 4 lessons so far.
    – A McKelvy
    Apr 20, 2023 at 21:16
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    If the goal is not to become a pianist, let alone classical pianist, but to get an overview of what happens in music and to get tools for reasoning about music, and maybe to produce music with computers and keyboards etc. then I don't think fingerings and being able to fluently perform given pieces matter pretty much at all. Apr 21, 2023 at 8:13

6 Answers 6

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Let's interrogate the "third option" you mentioned, and I'll intentionally take it a bit more literally than you truly meant it:

Inform the parents that this is a very prohibitive issue for a piano player and see how they wish to proceed.

I think the word "prohibitive" gets to the heart of the matter, speaking volumes about our assumptions about music-making. As teachers, is it our job to "prohibit"? To be gatekeepers of participation? And what is it that we're participating in?

In Western classical tradition, we do have a lot of boundaries, obstacles, and assessments. We have "the right notes," we have competitions that allow access to opportunities, we have auditions; in music school we even have "juries" that kick you out if you aren't doing enough. (Whereas, in some other traditions, the goal of music-making is simply having fun, and "the right notes" are not set in stone.)

If the student can't play a major triad, they will definitely run afoul of all these classical gatekeeping measures. And yes, your point is not only that the student is unlikely to be a concert pianist, but that these challenges might stand in the way of lesser goals like playing even the simplest works in the standard canon.

But there have been plenty of artists throughout history who have worked around their physical limitations, often by developing a non-standard technique, maybe one that even impacts the shape of the music. Django Reinhardt comes to mind...

... as does Gaelynn Lea:

So you're on the right track to talk about modifications, and other answers have emphasized exploring improvisation or composition, giving the student an opportunity to use their ability as a tool to shape the music, rather than "reshaping" or "reducing" existing music to fit them.

But the biggest issue here is that they're unwilling to take your suggestions. This is a problematic (though common enough) teacher-student dynamic. You're the teacher; they came to you for your advice and help. Unfortunately, it gets complicated: e.g. maybe it's the case that the parents value your advice but the student isn't as convinced of their own need for help. Every student has a different threshold of frustration, a different level of determination, and even a different goal (just to have fun, vs. Rachmaninoff-or-bust). Frankly, four lessons is a short time for you to get a bead on these personal needs, and for the student to build trust in you. Over time, you'll have to find a way to get them to accept your help. This might take some combination of gentle encouragement and patience. Preferably, "encouragement" doesn't mean saying "I'm the teacher, dammit," but gently pointing out that you're there to help, and winning their confidence by steering them into achievable successes. And it might just take patience, watching while they get frustrated, until they're ready to hear you.

Meanwhile, I'd suggest controlling the repertoire. If major triads don't work, don't have them play them! This is a challenge, of course, because you run into chords pretty quickly in beginning methods. If you have time you could write things yourself, and of course you can do a lot (including teach a lot of theory!) by having the student write their own compositions. You might also look to things that are more contrapuntal and less chordal; perhaps some Bach two-part Inventions?

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  • Excellent advice. Thank you. The other answers were helpful, but this one seems to me the best!
    – A McKelvy
    Apr 21, 2023 at 18:55
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I should also mention that the parents’ intention is likely not to turn their child into a concert pianist, but instead to give critical music theory knowledge that may be applied to a different instrument later on

My advice would be to incorporate as much theory as you can into the lessons, and use the piano playing as a way of exploring musical ideas, rather than as the primary or only goal of the lessons.

It is a feature/bug of a lot of classical music training (especially in the early years) that the student is taught which notes to play, but not why to play those notes. As a result, a lot of musicians can play the pieces they practiced really well, but couldn't improvise or song-write their way out of a paper bag.

So look at this as an opportunity to try and do better. Try to impart as much musical knowledge as you can to this student. Explore different musical genres and styles with them. Improvise with them. Let them accompany you while you sing or play another instrument. Play along to orchestral recordings, or improvise four-hand versions of orchestral music. Let them transcribe music for other instruments to the piano. Incorporate jazz theory into the lessons. Teach them all the things that other students are missing out on, because they're too busy practicing Für Elise for the millionth time. Get them excited about making music in general, instead of forcing them to be excited about playing the piano.

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    Good answer. My suggestion is to aim at playing good music on the piano, not necessarily play Schopin. Example is Django Reinhardt, famous guitar player, with three fingers missing after a fire accident.
    – ghellquist
    Apr 21, 2023 at 6:05
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Hello 👋🏼, I'm a disabled piano player with only 1 usable hand, and as a child it was SO hard finding a teacher that would even try taking me on as a student, so thank you for at least looking into how to best help!

What my teacher did (which was absolutely genius), was on an electric keyboard, she would press record & I would play one hand's chords, then play back the recording while I played along to it with the other hand's chords. I'm not sure if I'm explaining it very well, or if that would even be helpful for your student's needs, but I figured I would share what helped me. Also, just practice, practice, practice.

Another suggestion is to lookup accessibility tools on Etsy to see if anything there can help. I've been a photographer for over 15 years and always just held the camera awkwardly, but recently I discovered a bunch of cheap and handmade gadgets to help with it. I never knew that market was being realized and the innovation some people have to come up with those useful tools. Piano is amazing for hand mobility therapy and I hope you encourage them the way you would with any other piano player ♡.

I always hated being placated because of my disability... during jump rope for hearts fundraiser events in my schools gym classes, my teacher once told me to just throw a ball against the wall while everyone else participated 😑. I just tied one end of the rope to a door handle and ended up 2nd for most amount of jumps raised. My mom ended up buying me this cool toy that would spin one end of the rope around while you twirl the other in your hand and I wore that thing out lol. My mom was furious when she heard what the gym teacher asked me to do and chewed him out. He never excluded me again, and I was never unable to participate because I'm very creative and an athlete too.

Hope it helps!

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It does beg the question why (and who) chose the piano, given prior knowledge of restrictions. That alone needs answering. How old/mature the student is will also be of interest, along with is there an instrument to practise on at home?

Given that the physical restrictions are serious, and the desire to play piano in particular are too, you and the student will have to adapt just about everything. So not a lot will sound as it was written, but that shouldn't do more than slow progress down, as alternatives are worked out. re-voicing parts, crossing hands, etc. can be incorporated.

If the piano idea was indeed a whim, then there are several other alternatives (which may well not involve you), such as trumpet, trombone, drums, guitar, bass, harmonica to name a few off the cuff.

As already said, if piano is the be-all and end-all, then use it as a theory explaining tool - it's the accepted one for this anyway. Composition, single note soloing, improvisation, will all be possible.

But, bottom line, first it must be established why piano was the chosen instrument, with good reasons, and steer from there.

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With this handicap the child would be able to play e.g. trombone or electric guitar later.

To be not frustrated they should have to play pieces where their issues don't matter. It's your job to choose the right selection. There are surely a lot of pieces of classical music, pop or modern compositions. It might be even possible to overcome their handicap over time.

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  • Famously, of course, there are Paul Wittgenstein's commissions for left-hand-only piano. Apr 23, 2023 at 11:19
  • If it is really a specific issue of finger mobility in the right hand, why not try the violin? Apr 23, 2023 at 15:18
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Have them do practices such as stretching hands (left and/or right).

Do warm ups for them such as playing chords. (This will help in knowing where each chord is)

Have the student play a moving part repeatedly to help them know what to do. For example, moving to a different chord. In this case, have them go back and forth between each chord.

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