Notes by Scale: Special Education and Music

(nonfiction)

by Ada Wofford

“I can try,” said Derek as he awkwardly placed his chubby fingers on the fretboard. I told him that this was the third position of the A minor pentatonic scale and explained what a great tool it is for a beginner to first cut their teeth on; but none of that registered with Derek. I knew my words were falling on distracted ears. I could see him blocking everything out, focusing on the Low E string, trying to play that first note. But I also knew that, regardless of the fact that Derek had made zero progress with his previous teacher, I’d get this kid to play something. Why? Simple, because I believed in him and that’s all it takes. 

I knew Derek and his mother from my job as a teacher assistant at Derek’s school. It was a small special-needs school that my little sister also attended. My sister and Derek both have Down syndrome. Now, typically when I meet one of my guitar students for the first lesson, they are the epitome of what it means to be humble. They know that they know nothing and find this flaw of theirs deeply embarrassing. First lessons usually involve a lot of encouragement and reassurance on my part and a lot of frustrated sighs and headshaking on their part. But not with Derek. If Derek could bottle and sell some of his confidence, not only would he be rich but he’d still have plenty left over. He’s the type of kid who knows everyone’s name, always has a smile and a handshake for you, and always plays it cool. If anyone was nervous at our first lesson, it was me. But Derek has never been intimidated by any song or scale. He gives an honest effort to everything I show him. It’s because of that commitment and enthusiasm that Derick is the best student I’ve ever had. 

 

Derek’s previous teacher tried to teach him using a very traditional method but I knew that wouldn’t be conducive to Derek’s learning style. Instead, I ignored everything I knew about the instrument and closely observed how Derek interacted with both the instrument and the material I would write out for him. 

The first thing we did was the A minor pentatonic scale. Derek had no idea what it was but by the end of the first lesson he had it memorized backwards and forwards. But really the scale was irrelevant. The point was that, after one hour, Derek was competently playing through twelve notes and picking each of the six strings. I don’t think anyone has ever been more excited to play a scale. His face lit up like Christmas! He called for his mom to come in and listen to the new thing he could play. Slowly but surely, Derek picked his way through all twelve notes. His mom had no idea what he was playing, she knew it certainly wasn’t a song, but that didn’t faze her. She threw up her hands in applause. Her son was playing guitar. 

In the months that followed, Derek quickly blossomed. During the first month or so, a guitar teacher can immediately tell how much a student has been practicing by paying attention to how much stronger their fingers are becoming; and I can say for a fact that Derek practiced his butt off.

 

Derek wasn’t the only one studying. Every week I learned more about how Derek processed the material, how he read the tablature, and how he saw the fret board. I began coming up with new accommodations for him. I instructed his parents to get him a classical style guitar because it has softer strings and a wider fret board, which would fit his fingers better. I put a strip of masking tape on the neck of the guitar and numbered the frets so he could easily find his place. And, for our first song, Ring of Fire by Johnny Cash, I modified the chords so they were easier to play, then I wrote out my own form of notation for him. Each chord sat exactly over their corresponding lyrics and were separated with clear divisions. I broke the song down into several little bite sized chunks that were just the right size for Derek to grasp them. 

After several weeks of working chord by chord, Derek finally had something that sounded like a song. Derek was over the moon! He couldn’t believe that music was being created through his own hands. His parents were astonished. I’m not sure they thought he would ever get that far and especially in such a sort amount of time. But I wasn’t surprised at all because I knew the music was there.

It’s said that a sculptor does not create a work of art, but that one uncovers the work within the material. A teacher should view their students in a similar matter. To borrow from an old Zen concept: The student has already learned the skill, it’s the teacher’s job to help them discover how they learned the skill. This might sound a bit irrational but the benefit of this perspective is that it removes the option of failure. If you are patient and work hard, success is inevitable. 

This thinking guided Derek and I through the rest of the year. We worked through those twelve months note by note, just like the twelve notes of our scale; each month with its unique reverberations but nonetheless, coming together into a harmonious whole. From the beginning we had a very specific goal to accomplish. A landmark way out on the horizon that once surpassed would bear nothing but ever higher planes. I’m speaking of course, about the school talent show. 

People at the school knew I had been teaching Derek the guitar but their reaction was always the same; an unconscious smirk and a, “Well, that’s nice!” As supportive and loving as all my coworkers were, I don’t think any of them believe Derek was actually learning how to play the guitar. And who could blame them? These were the adults in charge of students just like Derek. The same people who taught these students how to read and count, yet none of them knew how to play the guitar. They found it intimidating, difficult, the type of thing that requires being born with musical talent. So, when I told them that Derek would be performing at the talent show, many an eyebrow was raised. Was this to be pleasantly surprising, or an embarrassing disaster? 

On a steamy June afternoon, during the last week of school, we all piled into the auditorium and took our spots on our hard, gray folding chairs. I sat there shaking my leg. I knew for a fact that I was more nervous than Derek, if Derek was nervous at all. He opened the talent show with a short rendition of God Bless America. Just the simple melody played on guitar, no singing. I don’t think I breathed the entire time he played. We had worked so hard for him to get on that stage. He played it perfectly. I began to tear up a little as the audience erupted with applause. Derek held his guitar up as if it were a trophy and waved to the crowd as he walked off stage. 

But that was just the opener. His real performance was a bit later on; a rendition of In My Life by The Beatles, with his classmate accompanying on vocals. When they went into this I swear the entire auditorium fell silent. Well, as silent as an auditorium filled with rambunctious children can fall. There were some stumbles and hiccups but I was the only one who noticed. They sounded terrific! It was possibly the proudest I have ever felt and one of the most touching renditions of any song I’ve ever heard. They received a standing ovation from the teachers and assistants. And all that week I was congratulated and patted on the back for the, “Great job I did with Derek.” And to each person I said the same thing: I didn’t do anything. 

That was all Derek.

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