Miss Marcy works with students who are gifted, with High IQ’s, and learning disabilities including Autism, Asperger’s Syndrome, ADD, ADHD, Einstein Syndrome, Dyslexia, and other forms on the Spectrum. She has proven success in assisting these students to mainstream back into traditional activities and the school system.

The Art of Teaching Music to “Twice – Exceptional” Students 

By Miss Marcy Greer  

Children are considered gifted when their abilities are significantly above the norm for their age.  Giftedness can manifest itself in a plethora of venues, including intellectual, creative, artistic, leadership, or in a particular academic field of study, such as language arts, mathematics or science.   While being gifted may manifest itself in a variety of demographics, it also varies based on personality type and can also be classified as learning disabilities.   Intellectually gifted students often have learning disabilities, and frequently, the two go hand in hand. Statistics reveal that 14% of gifted students, which in itself represent 4% of the population, are also learning disabled, which is categorized as “Twice-Exceptional” learners.  The actual numbers of students in this classification throughout the US is estimated at approximately hundreds of thousands. The Twice –Exceptional students are very easily overlooked, and consequently are left on their own to handle their school work without any special services or obtain the stimulation required for their achievements.  These students tend to score high on standardized tests for giftedness, however, they often do not achieve exceptional, or even moderate status in gifted programs.  Instead, these students typically are labeled as “underachievers”, or “lazy”, and therefore do not stand up to their gifted peers in these programs.  In addition, these particular students, while performing exceptionally high on standardized tests may not perform well and they are then placed with “special needs” students, who are not intellectually gifted, and thus, they are not challenged with the scholastics in these programs.  Others are often identified as having emotional issues. Finally, often these students give the impression of being average in ability, as their strengths and weaknesses with regard to their exceptional intelligence, combined with their behavior, tend to cancel themselves out, and ultimately, these students do not qualify for gifted programs on that basis. The “twice-exceptional” student typically portrays extrordinary talent in a particular area, often math, drawing, verbal communication, or music.

The most common types of these twice-exceptional students include autism spectrum disorder, where the student focus on a small item, can handle one task at a time, are awkward with their speech and around others, have impaired speech and are often loud, and have some peculiar voice qualities and speech.  Also, these students tend to be preoccupied with a specific item, interest or issue. Other types of twice exceptional students include ADD, ADHD, and Dyslexia. Finally, Oppositional Defiant Behavior, which is rarer, is evident in 1% to 16% of school age children, and it is generally seen in conjunction with ADD or ADHD.  Here, the student has an ongoing pattern of uncooperative behavior, and hostile behavior toward authority figures.  

There are specific strategies that can be utilized in teaching music to the twice exceptional student.  These strategies include focusing on strengths, and giving less attention to the areas of challenge.  100% of the students in my performing arts academy have been labeled as “gifted”, intellectually. Over 65% of the students in my music academy are considered learning disabled, and have either been identified by the school, a professional psychiatrist, or myself.

The performing arts academy was established approximately nine years ago, and focuses on a specific niche of students – the highly gifted student, with specific regard to their IQ. This niche was developed based on the demographics of the geographic region of the academy.  The socio-economic area is considered will above average, with regard to the family income, family’s higher level of education, and status in the community. In addition, the number one ranked school in the State for academics, and the number five school in the country, Pine View School for the Gifted, is located in the county of the music academy. This particular school is somewhat of an anomaly, in that it is a public school by definition, yet students must pass rigorous tests to be selected to attend the school: IQ scores must be 130 or above, achievement and standardized texts must be in the top 1% nationally, and prior school recommendations with respect to the students leadership abilities are rated.  The school then totals these three areas, and based on the total score achieved, the student remains either in the public school based on their locale, is eligible for a pull out gifted program, or is eligible for attendance at Pine View, which begins in the second grade, and continues through the student’s senior year of high school.  Being situated in this county, word of mouth became a strong referral source regarding the style and methods of teaching and the results of the students in the academy. It became widely recognized that each student was taught on an individual basis, not in a standardized manner, and additionally, it became known that the students in the academy developed musical performance, music theory, and note reading skills faster than any other music school in the region.  It is based on this recognition within the community, that the statistics (100% of the students being gifted) that the academy achieved the status of teaching this highly gifted niche of students. 

Early on during the establishment of the academy, I recognized the uniqueness of each and every student, as well as the commonality of the students. It rapidly became noticeable that each student was intellectually capable of learning advanced level music, including the reading of notes in several clefs, a difficult task for any student, learning of music theory, and the art of playing the piano. This was the commonality of the students. However, many distinguishing differences quickly appeared. I noticed one student had a sincere love for playing the piano, yet was easily distracted by any number of outside issues, including a bird chirping outside the window, and then leaving the piano to observe the bird, an airplane over head and looking out the window to decipher what type of plane was flying, a fire truck outside blowing its horn, a siren, someone mowing the lawn.  Another student would consistently leave the piano bench, and would look carefully under the piano at the way the piano was built, and would then look inside the harp of the piano, and try to decipher the strings and hammers and how the piano actually worked. One student enjoyed playing the piano, yet could barely sit still for more than a second or two, without pumping their legs, and moving their body, resulting in their hands not being able to stay in one position on the piano. Another student was able to look at the music, yet was unable to look at me teaching, and would instead look at the piano keys, or their hands, while I spoke. One student was so rigid in their stance and overall body position, that it was nearly impossible to have any sort of a hand position to strike the keys.  One student, while learning to read the notes in each clef, consistently rearranged the notes and found it impossible to memorize the correct notes in the correct order. Another student spoke exceptionally loud at all times, in an exaggerated style, almost as if the child was on stage in a huge auditorium, and came dressed as a particular character, in a costume, and then sat at the piano and explained to me who he was that particular day, and who I was as well, and continued to portray this role throughout his entire lesson. One student focused on one particular part of the piano, and could not move on from this one particular part, and for an extended period of time, he consistently would only focus on this part of the piano, and nothing more. One student talked excessively throughout her lesson, to the extent that within an hour, perhaps five minutes included the actual teaching of the piano. One student starred at the ceiling during their lesson, and was unable to even look at the piano or their hands for more than a split second.  It became clear to me, from the onset of my studio, that there was one common thread to each of these students – they were all intellectually capable of learning, and were clearly gifted in a multitude of ways, which each student exhibited frequently in their own ways.  Some were mathematically gifted, and when I worked with the many patterns that occur in music, and specifically, the piano, they picked up not only the concepts immediately, but the nuances associated with the patterns as well.  Some students, as young as the age of two, spoke the English language on par with a high school senior. Some students, as early as the age of four, could read on the level of a college student. Other students could write stories that could easily be accepted by a high school senior professor. All of the students were intellectually gifted, and most were academically gifted with regard to their grades. However, it rapidly became clear to me that I would need to work with each student on an individual basis, incorporating their specific learning style, their personality, and the almost “peculiarity”  of their speech, stance, and overall “being”, in order to successfully engage the student in a way that they could actually listen and learn what I was teaching.

I found that flexibility was very important, and being highly organized and structured was critic al, being repetitive in my approach and I developed a specific rapport and relationship with each and every student.

I developed a group class, which I called “Note Bee” class, that was similar to that of a traditional “
Spelling Bee”.  I noticed that every one of these students were competitive, however, their specific learning disabilities often caused the student to not respond to their capabilities Hence, I tailored the class to accommodate everyone’s learning styles and particular disabilities.  In addition, the class was very fluid, and was also totally repetitious weekly. The student rapidly knew what to expect, and the order and sequence of the questions. With the students knowing what to expect, there was more of calmness to each student, which resulted in more enhanced learning. Part of the class involved memorization, which several of the students excelled in, while other parts of the class involved critical thinking questions, where the other type of learning disabled student could excel.  The levels of the students ranged from beginner to advanced, and ages 4 to teen, so questions were structured and geared to each particular student, creating a “par” so that each “point” achieved, was on a level playing field. Prizes were highly in demand, and I found whether it was candy, or a pencil, each student had the same goal: to win. And, each student had different methods of achieving this goal.

Note Bee class has been one of the most successful parts of my overall academy.  The newest students are acclimated rapidly, similar to that of a Montessori approach, with different ages and diffaerent levels, and a mentor/mentee scenario. I use humor and sarcasm as often as possible, and this enables outstanding behavior in what otherwise could be a disastrous classroom. Every class begins with my asking students, going in the same order around the flower shaped, kid-sized table, and reviewing the rules for note bee class.  For example, I call on the first student, always starting from right to left, or counterclockwise, and never deviate from this program, and ask, “How many points are deducted if I call on you and you are starring into space or looking at the ceiling and not paying attention?”  The student will answer: 5 points. I will then reply, “Correct, one point”. I will then ask the next student, “How may point are added if I turn around from the whiteboard and see someone sitting up perfectly, not fidgeting, in their chair? “The student will reply, “1 point”. I will respond, “Correct, one point”.  I will then ask, “How many points are deducted if I see someone touch another person, invade their space, or attempt to invade their space?” The student will respond, “10 points”. I will then say, “Correct, one point. And, is there any way to win note bee if you lose 10 points?”, and the student will reply, “No”.  The ground rules continue, and each weekly class continues with this series of questions for the first three to five minutes.  Next, I l use visual techniques, since many of the students do well with visual aids. Also, the student may ask to use the pointer, and approach the white board, and they can then also see and touch, to enhance their learning. At the whiteboard, I begin with memorization techniques; each student is asked to name a particular note, and their particular note is based on what I feel they are capable of memorizing at that stage of their time on the piano. The students know the drill, and if they cannot answer within two seconds, they know to say “pass”.  That tells me that I need to work on that note recognition with the student, and it also does not enable the student to use one of the other three “systems” I have developed for reading notes, as there is not enough time to utilize the other systems, only memorization can work within the two second rule.  The students watch as other students are asked harder or easier notes, and are put in the position of learning through others.  After the memorization portion of the class, which is generally about five minutes, we go to the “let’s take a vote” part of the class, which is everyone’s favorite part of the class. I write both clefs on the whiteboard, and go around and ask one student at a time to tell me the “best” system that should be used to determine how to figure out what that note is.  Each students name is located on the left side of the whiteboard, and after the student gives their decision as to the “best” system, or systems, I write the abbreviation of that system next to their name. Then I ask the student next to the student who just answered, again, only going to the left, counterclockwise each time, if they agree or disagree with the student’s choice of system(s). This continues until every student has had the opportunity to either agree, or disagree, and then tell me what system(s) they would choose.  The students are not allowed to name the note at this point, and they all are reminded consistently that if they name the note, they will lose one point (from their overall score). Often I l challenge a student who appears to be “copying” another student’s answer and who says “agree”, but I can tell they do not really know why that answer is or is not correct. I challenge that student, and say, “Ok, defend your answer”. The students all know this may occur, and then they have to explain to me why they agreed or disagreed with the former student’s answer.  Often they will ask to come to the whiteboard and use the pointer to demonstrate why their answer is correct. When the student cannot defend their answer, either correctly or not, they will lose the opportunity to get a point, even if the system they named is correct. When everyone has either agreed or disagreed, and everyone has a system(s) listed next to their name on the whiteboard, I state what the correct answer is, and those who had it correct will get one point.  Then, the student who started has to name the note, and may use any of the four systems to name the note. Since the student has the choice to utilize any of the four systems, I remind the students that there should be no reason to get the name of the note incorrect.  If the student names the note correctly, they receive a point.  If the note is exceptionally difficult to name, I often award two points, or one and a half point.  (The students rapidly learns about fractions and math and patterns through note reading class, even at a very early age, such as the age of 4). The student who typically is the most advanced is allowed to be the scorekeeper weekly and is on the honor system for recording points, for the students and themselves.  The “voting” section of the class is approximately 10-15 minutes.  Following the voting class, I ask critical thinking questions.  Some of the students excel at this versus memorization, so this enables the student who is weak at memorization to score some points rapidly.  Typical questions may be, “Why did I ask that question? What was the purpose? Why is that important?  When would we use that system? Why are we using that system? Why is it important to know xxxxxx?” Often I accept several answers and give points based on how close the student was to answering in the best manner.  For the last three minutes of the class, when time permits, we do one of the kid’s favorites, “speed round”.  Here, I place the two clefs on the whiteboard, put up a note, and the students, again, sticking to the same order of counterclockwise, will have two seconds to answer the note to obtain double points, and five seconds to obtain one point.  At the end, points are totaled, and we have a first place winner, second and third, and the prizes are always the same. Also, at the beginning of the class, one of the rules that discussed is, “What happens if you do not win? Do we cry?”  The answer is shouted out by everyone, “No, we try harder next week”.  This is done to predict and prevent any potential behavioral disasters at the close of the class when prizes are distributed.  Often, if everyone has worked very hard, and no one has lost points for distraction, or invading anyone’s space, everyone receives a “bonus” prize on top of the first, second and third place winners.

Discipline is very strict, but is accomplished in a nurturing and fun manner, with use of humor and sarcasm.  If my back is turned to the students, and I am writing on the whiteboard, and I hear issues behind me, I may say, “The funniest thing just happened to me!!!!!  For a second I could have sworn I heard people talking and not nicely to the others, but I know I must have imagined it, as no one wants to start off the sessions with negative points”, and I say this with a big smile.  Those who were the culprits will immediately get the point, and will calm down. Often, while I am in the middle of question, and I see out of the corner of my eye someone misbehaving, I will simply turn to that student for a split second, and either say “warning”, or minus one”, and then immediately continue asking the question as if nothing had happened.  The entire situation is handled in a split second, thus, not enabling the culprit to whine or produce an outburst as I have already moved on.

Note bee class is a good example of one of the most positive and rewarding techniques that has shown the highest results in learning how to read notes, which is critic al to playing the piano.  The group setting works well for several reasons: 1. The students are extremely competitive, and they all recognize that they are all highly intelligent and they also can easily see the learning disabilities around them (they may not understand what they are seeing, but nonetheless, they see “differences” in the other students and how they act), 2. The students learn from each other, as some students are at a higher level of note reading, 3. The students learn from visual presentation, verbal, and touch.


Each student has private lessons in addition to note bee class. Lessons range from 15 minutes, to ninety minutes, depending on the ability of the student to focus and their level of learning disabilities.  Some students take one lesson per week, others take three.  I have found repetition has the highest results when working with learning disabled students.  Each student’s lesson is customized to that student, based on their learning style, their ability to focus, and their personal learning disability. For those student’s with moderate to severe autism, and Asperger’s,  I strive to obtain eye contact whenever possible, and I review at every lesson the item or items that the student is preoccupied with, so that it is possible to move on to the subject at hand. Often I will find a myriad of ways to explain the same topic, especially if the topic is one that the student is over focused on, and preoccupied with.  One example is a student with severe autism, who displays a peculiar and very loud voice, who dresses up for each lesson as a different character, and who tells me what character I am that day. This student has repeatedly had an issue with where his hands should be based on the clefs of the piano in relation to the sides of the piano. For example, while it is highly possible, and in more advanced music is often seen, the bass clef, typically located on the lower set of staff lines in music, and played in the lower half of the piano, or the left side, is shown in the upper staff lines, and the hands are actually played on the higher half of the piano, or the right side.  When playing scales, which is the key element of all of music, from which chords, harmony, and music, is based, notes are played in a series of octaves, which is a series of 8 notes in a pattern. As the student advances, more octaves are played, thus, it is possible for a gifted student, as young as the age of 5, to play 4 octave scales, and play from the left side, or lower bass class, up to the right side, or treble clef.  In this situation, the student is actually using their left hand and playing keys that would normally be played with their right hand.  For a severely autistic student, this is not only hard to ascertain, but it is “unacceptable”, and the student will argue with me vehemently for their entire lesson, and will continue to repeat this argument at every lesson for months.  Even after displaying one type of example after another to explain why this is acceptable, a year later, that student may, totally out of the blue, bring up again why he cannot use his left hand to play on the right side of the piano.  Frequently, I have used the technique of telling the student that the “character” he is emulating, or the person he “believes he is”, actually plays the piano in that fashion, and I will show the student a particular piece of music whereby the composer, who the student “is being”, actually plays with the left hand on the right side of the piano.  Then, I will use humor, such as, “Well Preston, I doubt we can change what Beethoven wanted in this piece since he’s dead! Are you going to tell him he’s wrong?”  The student will laugh, and the tension is released, and I will then move on to another example to explain why playing with the left hand on the right side of the piano is, in fact, acceptable, and continue to give examples fortifying this technique. For my students with ADD and ADHD, I use a considerable amount of organization and repetition, and I continue to be fluid with my lessons, not remaining too long on any one activity.  For my students with Oppositional Defiant Behavior, I tend to have the parent stay nearby, and I am more strict with the student, and do not allow the student to move off track. If I see an episode of serious defiance begin, I try to cut it off rapidly, for example, I will close the top of the piano and not give the student the ability to touch the keys. The student learns over time this pattern, and knows when I start to move the top of the piano, that they have breached their lesson, and have caused me to stop the lesson, either temporarily or permanently, for that day. They begin to learn that there are consequences to their behavior, which is extremely difficult for the oppositional defiant student to comprehend.

Considering every one of my students has some form of a learning disability, and every student is intellectually label as gifted, I am very consistent with my teaching style. I always use a music journal, which not only tells the student, in an exact order, what to work on when they practice, and how, but it also reminds me of what we are working on, so that I can keep track of each students progress.  I review with each student at the end of each lesson what I have written down, and those that cannot read, which is only a few, as even my youngest students, age 3, can typically read, what I have asked the student to practice and I make certain they understand what they have been asked to study.  The journal is consistent weekly, and it always is numbered, and always has the same order. In addition, the students know when they come in for their lesson, the order of that they are expected to play: 1. Hanon (for technique), 2. Scales and chords, 3. Their repertoire in the order I listed each piece. Finally, I praise each student consistently throughout the lesson, and utilize techniques that are specific for each student. I also have little “rewards” for each student that every student is made aware of. When I draw a colorful flower on their lesson journal, they know they have done well that day.  When inside the flower I have drawn a face with “eyelashes “on the eyes, they know there lesson was exceptional.  When they receive two pieces of candy, instead of one after their lesson, they know they have been rewarded for an exceptional job.

Twice-Exceptional Students cannot improve their focus or their results of their lessons or their studies by simply “trying harder”.  Unfortunately, many teachers and parents do not understand this issue.  Specific teaching methods truly must be used to enhance the student’s ability to process the lesson. These students have true neurological differences that can be observed, which make the learning process difficult for the student.  While these neurological “issues” certainly result in challenges for the student, it should also be noted that these students have the ability to perform at exceptional levels in many areas of learning, and most definitely in the area of music. To quote the words of Kenneth Dunn (1987), “If they are not learning the way we teach them, let’s teach them the way they learn!”