Children with special needs “being celebrated for what they can achieve” through music


We all know that music has many benefits – it helps to strengthen brain functions, improves fine motor skills, teaches communication skills, helps with emotional and behavioural growth, and the list goes on.

But despite all these benefits of music, children with disabilities and/or diverse learning needs often do not have access to an instrumental music learning program. Perhaps their school’s head of music is unable to recognise the unique needs of the child and recommend a suitable teacher, or perhaps parents are left to feel instrumental music is out-of-reach for their own child. No matter what the reason, the Keys of Life piano teaching studio is designed to address these challenges.

With 20 years of experience teaching children with disabilities and diverse needs, founder Daphne Proietto does not only recognise the different needs of each child, but also brings the parents onboard the learning process. And now, Keys of Life provides training for music teachers and therapists to better equip them to unlock the hidden skills these children possess.

Katy Addis has felt the benefits of Daphne’s training programs first-hand. As the parent of a child with autism who learnt with Daphne for 10 years, Katy talks about this program and her role as an administrator at Keys of Life.

Daphne Proietto (pictured) runs Keys of Life, a registered charity and a teaching studio for children with disabilities and/or diverse learning needs. Administrator Katy Addis chats about the program.

Hi Katy, thanks for chatting with CutCommon on behalf of Keys of Life founder Daphne Proietto. Firstly, what exactly is Keys of Life, and how are you involved?

Daphne Proietto has been teaching children with disabilities and/or diverse learning needs since 2000. In 2015, Daphne was featured on60 Minutes, after which she was inundated by requests from families to teach their children with disabilities. Parents and supporters of Daphne’s students realised that there was a huge unmet need in the community.

Keys of Life was formed in 2017 to train teachers in Daphne’s methods, so that her work could expand and continue. KoL also connects these teachers with parents looking for music lessons for their children, and runs a scholarship program.

As well as the administrator at Keys of Life, I am the parent of an autistic child who learnt from Daphne for 10 years. I’m honoured to be interviewed on her behalf.

What is the Keys of Life method to teaching children with special needs?

Children with disabilities and/or diverse learning needs are often seen through a lens of what they can’t do, which is really dispiriting for the children and their parents. Daphne’s method involves harnessing the skills that the children possess — many of quite amazing — and working around the challenges they face.

Children on the autism spectrum, for example, have incredible memories and a very high rate of perfect pitch. But they also experience lots of anxiety, especially around the unknown. Daphne uses aspects of the Suzuki method to prepare the students well in advance of their lesson. They listen to new pieces for at least two weeks, so that they know exactly how the music should sound. This reduces the anxiety, but it also utilises their aural skills — it plays to their strengths.

Lessons always start with something familiar such as revising a piece, but also involve something new so that the students feel they are progressing.

Many students have the lesson steps written out or stuck on a PECS (picture exchange communication system) board. As each step is completed, it is crossed off or removed from the board. Students know exactly what is coming next, which means they can contain their anxiety and make maximum progress. Often, life skills are included in the list, such as sitting still for 15 seconds between each piece. Rewards are based on the child’s interests. For one child, his reward is getting to climb the stairs at the end of the lesson.

There is no emphasis on perfection. Children with cerebral palsy won’t be able to develop perfect technique, but they will still be able to play music. And isn’t that what it’s all about?

For many of these children, they are suddenly being celebrated for what they can achieve, not judged by what can’t

Daphne has regular concerts and her students play together in duos and trios, up to 16 hands at once! Music is used as a tool for the development of communication, but also as a bridge for friendship. Students with disabilities and/or diverse learning needs who attend mainstream schools often find friendship challenging and somewhat mystifying, but chamber music brings these children together and at Daphne’s special concerts they find kindred spirits.

Each child progresses at an individual rate. For a child with profound disabilities, they may take years to play with two hands together. That doesn’t matter. When it finally happens, the celebrations are enormous.

For many of these children, they are suddenly being celebrated for what they can achieve, not judged by what can’t. Having just one thing that they are good at brings a light to not only their lives, but the lives of their families.

Daphne has been teaching students with special needs since 2000. What’s her secret to connecting with her students in such a positive and productive way?

Patience — lots of it. Also, an ability to follow the needs of the child. Daphne’s approach always follows the same basic principles, but is different for each child. Sometimes children take up to three months to settle into lessons. She knows that they will get there in the end, because she has been through it before. This experience allows her to reassure parents.

She is also very flexible in how she structures lessons. I watched her teach a young boy on the autism spectrum once, who had only been learning the piano for a short time. His behaviour was quite challenging, but his knowledge of chords was incredible. Daphne simply followed his passion: trying out more complex chords and teaching him the chord patterns for major and minor scales — things that a VCE music student learns! He had a limited everyday vocabulary, but he knew the names of all the chord qualities. He could name each one as Daphne played it, including seventh chords.

Daphne is the first to admit she doesn’t always get it right and has to try different things to work around problems. But she never gives up on a child and I think that is the magic ingredient in her success.

Daphne’s other secret weapon is the parents. The parents attend lessons and work with the children at home. They video the pieces during the lesson so that they can help their children at home, even if they have no musical knowledge themselves. Daphne puts time into the parents as well as the child, so that they can continue the work between lessons.

An interesting thing to note is that our teachers often tell us that they use the skills they have learnt in our courses with all their students, not just students with disabilities. Once they know how to recognise signs of anxiety, motor control issues, lack of concentration, or other barriers to progress, they have some tools to help address them.

It’s so good to hear that Daphne’s teaching method actively involves the parents too – this is something I wish every pedagogue would incorporate into their teaching! As a parent of a child who learnt with Daphne, did you personally observe any differences?

To be perfectly honest, I didn’t have high expectations when we started. My son is on the autism spectrum and at age 6 he had very poor motor skills and showed little interest in musical instruments. We had a piano at home and he just stabbed it with one finger. His hands were balled into tight fists and I couldn’t see them ever gaining enough flexibility to play the piano. However, several people had told me about Daphne and the work she was doing so I thought, at the very least, it was worth a try.

After his very first lesson, Daphne asked that he practise playing C, D, E, F, and G, all on different fingers. I thought she was asking the impossible. But over the week, I watched on as his little hands unfurled and by the next lesson he had it. I would have never thought it achievable, but Daphne knew better. She spent the first year asking things that I thought were impossible and he always managed. I learnt to trust her after that. She had very high standards for him and he always rose to them.

Music has offered him a lifeline throughout the years

My son struggled with lots of things: speech, motor skills, social skills, change — all the usual things that people on the autism spectrum find challenging. But piano gave him a place to thrive. Seeing him play a Shostakovich piano trio with Daphne’s children was just magic.

At high school, he also took up trombone and was welcomed into the music department. His lack of muscle tone meant that he was never going to be a great trombonist, but the teachers and students at Blackburn High School cared for him and looked out for him in a way that made him feel part of the school community. Music got him through high school — I have no doubt about that. He felt at home in the music department.

The music students accepted him with all his quirks. One day during band practice, he stood up to give them all a lecture on exactly which train they needed to catch to get to the ANZAC parade on time. At the end, they all gave him a round of applause.

About 10 years ago, we discovered the folk music scene as a family and for our son it is now his musical home. He goes to folk music sessions once or twice a week and spends a lot of time listening and writing out folk tunes. Once again, he has been warmly accepted.

Music has offered him a lifeline throughout the years, and it all started with Daphne.

I’m sure music is a lifeline for many, including the educators who are a part of Daphne’s professional development programs. What does it take to become a teacher with Keys of Life? How can the music educators among us get involved?

KoL courses range from three-hour PDs to 25-hour teacher-training courses. We usually run two PDs and one long course each year. The courses are held in Melbourne, with interstate teachers Skyping in and coming to Melbourne for the final week.

This year, our long course was set to run over four days in the winter holidays, enabling interstate teachers to attend the whole course in Melbourne, but that is now, of course, very much up in the air.

Like many other groups, we are developing online training, but nothing quite captures the magic of seeing Daphne and her students in real life. Teachers who have done our courses always say the highlight was seeing the children performing live. That said, times are changing, so stay tuned on the website for resources.

KoL fields enquiries from parents all around Australia, many of whom we cannot connect to a nearby teacher. We are always looking for more teachers to join our community. Any teachers who are interested in becoming a KoL teacher can find more information and contact us through our website.

Before you go, what would you like to see more of with regards to music education for children with special needs?

Music is something that nurtures all children. For children with disabilities, who often experience barriers to participating in so many life domains, music can be life-changing.

I’d love to see every student have access to instrumental music, regardless of the school they attend and regardless of their capabilities.

Visit the Keys of Life website to learn more or show your support.

Say thanks to Jessie for facilitating this conversation

Thanks for supporting Jessie as she volunteers her time for Australian arts journalism during COVID-19.

Disclaimer: In this interview, Katy has included an extract of her family story on the Keys of Life website.

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Image of Daphne supplied. Featured image Jake Noren via Unsplash.