ADHD Kids and Piano

I’ve taught many children with ADHD the piano, all with success.

My personal opinion is that they all shared a problem with focus. It’s not that they weren’t capable of concentrating, but rather that they could not find a way to get interested unless the teacher made extreme attempts to reach them on their own level.

It’s up to the teacher to bring the learning to these kids: they won’t step up and ask for instruction unless they feel secure. Perhaps it’s because they feel insecure from all the other things that are more difficult for them, from reading to following directions.

For example, many other researchers have pointed out that you can expect an ADHD kid to have trouble even staying on the piano bench, because they are so hyperactive and scattered.

This is true. I had one student that I’ll affectionately call Drew (not his real name) who had a very severe case of ADHD. After sixty seconds of application he would literally hurtle himself around the room like a rag doll filled with firecrackers, seeking an outlet for the immense energy within him.

He was what actors call a “furniture chewer,” an individual who would do anything for attention and activity.

My solution was to create that outlet for him. We called it “Controlled Freak Out.” He loved it, and I believe it was the invention of this game that led to his discovery (and mine) that this child was wildly talented at the piano and music in general, almost to the level of genius.

Without this game, without Piano by Number, and within the confines of conventional piano lessons, I’m certain this child’s gift would have never been discovered.

In our game, we agreed that if he could pay attention for a set period of time (usually his attention span, about two minutes) he could have an elaborate “Controlled Freak Out,” in which I improvised wild, loud, swashbuckling piano music for as long as he wanted while he acted out various scenarios we would develop (space men, superheroes, etc.)

I would play if necessary for several minutes, until he was more or less physically exhausted.

But at that moment of exhaustion, he was ready for more music learning, and we would work on music until his next episode, when we would happily go into another “Freak Out.”

He began to become fascinated with the construction of music that he absorbed from the short teaching episodes, and after a year needed the “Freak Out” less and less. We still created outlet games, such as a new one called “Crash Dive,” in which he dived for a huge stack of pillows when he felt frustrated.

The value of the outlet games for him was that he knew there was an approved place for him to go when the energy inside him became too great.

This release from the energy gave him the freedom to exercise his intellect, for however brief a time he could manage.

Luckily, his parents, both doctors, were not in a hurry, and after a year, we began to notice him transposing, a skill that even professionals sometimes have trouble with.

Transposing is the ability to play a piano piece not just on the standard starting key, but any starting key. In layman’s terms, it’s as if a child suddenly was able to speak Greek, French, German, Italian, any language, all in a single day!

Drew could play any song he knew in any key, in fact, he delighted in a game we called “Stump the Professor,” where I tried to see if he could play a certain song starting on any note I chose. He never failed, after a little trial and error.

He did this musical wizardry easily, even though I had never taught him a scale, an interval, or any advanced music theory other than all twelve chords, major and minor.

And all this, mind you, is from a seven year old. He is seriously absorbed in music and piano is still, three years later, his favorite activity.

In short, I have found that ADHD children have a natural ability to analyze things and understand them on their own terms. But the teacher must find a method that brings the child willingly to study. In my experience, if you try to force an ADHD child, you will get apathy.

What is required is a teacher unconventional and patient enough to find ways to deal with the tremendous energy of ADHD children, and then find a useful channel for it.

Sometimes the only useful channel is play, and that is better than blocking their natural energy, which only frustrates them.

As with all children, games are often the surest learning solution.

Visit http://pianoiseasy2.com for a beginning piano method kids really enjoy!

Copyright 2013 John Aschenbrenner All Rights Reserved

Visit http://www.pianoiseasy.com to see the fun Piano by Number method for kids.

8 Responses to “ADHD Kids and Piano”

  1. Ashley Riveland Says:

    I have had many children with attention span difficulties. I have recently, however, met my match. I would appreciate some good advice on demanding children(one’s who think they are the boss at 4 years old) that also have difficulty with attention span. I truly want to help this child but it is a struggle just to have this child play a simple note. I would love any feed back that can be given on ways to help this child.

  2. Rebecca Says:

    I loved this article and it gave me some great ideas for one of my new students. His parents told me about his ADHD/Asperger syndrome, so I plan to implement some of your ideas in our lessons together!

    Thanks so much!

  3. Home Digital Pianos Says:

    My son was diagnosed with ADHD and our doctors prescribed Methylphenidate. Like any parent I am concerned about “doping” my child into submission. Is it possible to supplant his disruptive behavior with a natural emotional stimulant like music? How can I turn his impulsiveness and inattention into a focused concentration that results in something creative? We don’t know what causes ADHD or if it is a chemical or structural defect in the brain but I need to find a way to keep my child off of Ritalin.

    • Sharon Says:

      To “Home Digital Pianos”:

      Regarding “doping” a child, most ADHD children can focus, or even hyperfocus, if they are interested and engaged. My son can build for hours or spend time playing his keyboard. However, I’ve not found anything other than medications that can make it possible for my son to sit through a school day with any success.

      I had the same concerns as you a year and a half ago when we were considering medication for my then 7 year old. It helped me to learn that stimulant medications like Methylphenidate have been prescribed since the late 1930s and they have no proven long term side-effects. They can have side effects while the child is on them, so you have to be willing to try different medicines and different dosages. I recommend working with a pediatric psychiatrist, who has significant knowledge on the topic, rather than your pediatrician.

      Why medicate? No, I don’t dope my son into submission. He still has that spark, and he is still the same out-of-the-box thinking, creative, charismatic kid. However, on medication, he can access all his abilities; they are not blocked any more by his inability to sit still or focus. His self esteem has increased substantially since starting medication. He still has trouble in school, in large part because of various LDs, but he is not in trouble at school, and his school friends parents gladly invite him to their house to play, which never happened before.

      Good luck with your decision. It is a personal decision, and the answer we found may not be right for you.

  4. Sky Says:

    Hi I am a kid with adhd i wanted to learn piano but I thought i could not and this article helped me realize I can and im going to start real soon thank you for the article

    • Sharon Says:

      Bravo, Sky! I just saw your post. Kids with ADHD can do anything, and there are many successful and famous adults with ADHD. My 10-year-old son with ADHD found piano was not his thing, but drumming and ballet are. He is excelling at both (like, top student) and loves them. Pursue your dreams!

  5. Kersi N. Gazdar Says:

    Hi. I found your experience of teaching Drew very inspirational and interesting.

    I am a piano teacher from Bombay and currently have begun lessons with an 8 year old child. I have observed extreme stiffness in his hands. Have you faced the same with other students with ADHD and do you have any suggestions about the same?

    Would appreciate if you could spare a little time and share your experiences.

    Thanx,
    Kersi.

    • pianobynumber Says:

      I find that kids often have a lot of tension in their hands. To demonstrate a proper hand position, I play a game called Hobbita Jobbita. In this game, you shake your hands for a moment and then stop (Hobbita Jobbita is the noise we make, like a cartoon character shaking senselessly.) When you stop, the hand will be, for a second or two, very limp and loose. Get the child to feel this looseness, and then place the hand on the piano. Alternatively, I try to get the child to make their fingers “limp noodles” as opposed to “stiff breadsticks.” If you sense stiffness, play the game. Also, stiffen your fingers, and have the child try to move them, explaining that that’s not what we want.

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