I have to admit, when my husband first suggested piano lessons for our son, Jackson, I was skeptical.
It was the spring of 2006. Jackson was 5 years old. He had trouble attending to a task or even sitting still for more than a few minutes. He rarely spoke in complete sentences and had trouble expressing his needs and wants. He needed a picture schedule and rigorous structure to make it through the day in his special ed classroom. All pretty typical for a child with autism.
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And his extracurricular activities were pretty typical for a kid with autism, too. Occupational therapy, speech therapy, swimming, adaptive soccer, social skills group and even music therapy. But piano?
Here was a kid who was sensitive to loud noises. In music class, he would tolerate the music, but he never sang along or seemed overly engaged. We had a stack of children's music CDs -- Raffi and Ralph's World and They Might Be Giants -- and while Jackson sometimes seemed soothed by the familiar tunes, he never requested a favorite or sang the words. So piano seemed like a stretch to me.
But when my husband, the son of an elementary school music teacher, read about the Beethoven's Buddies program at Community School of the Arts at Wheaton College, he saw a way to get music into Jackson's life.
The brainchild of faculty member Beth Bauer, Beethoven's Buddies is an innovative piano program for students with all kinds of special needs -- autism, fragile X, ADD/ADHD, Down syndrome, vision impairment, auditory and visual processing disorder and dyslexia.
So I put Jackson on the waiting list and promptly forgot about it.
About two years later, Bauer called. Jackson was at the top of the waiting list. Were we ready? I didn't think so. I put it out of my mind again.
A year later in the fall of 2009, Bauer called again. Were we ready?
At this point, Jackson was 8. He was doing better in school and had matured considerably. But he still had serious problems focusing and attending. I wasn't sure if he could handle it. I detailed my concerns for Bauer, but she was completely unfazed. "Sounds like a lot of my kids."
If she was up to the challenge, then we were too. We signed him up and dug out the old Casio keyboard that had been collecting dust under the guest room bed.
I had never taken music lessons as a child, so I was expecting a sterile room and a stern instructor. Instead, Jackson walked into a warm, nurturing environment tailored to his needs. There was a visual schedule on the wall, a trampoline in the corner and fidget toys on the shelf.
Bauer had prepared a lesson just for Jackson based on his Individual Education Plan from school. He started with a classic -- "Mary Had a Little Lamb" -- with the keys color coded. Twenty-six notes never sounded so sweet.
Something about piano suited Jackson's visual style of learning. He took to it right away. Just like that, our boy had music in his life. We bought a piano a month later.
At the time, I don't think we realized how truly innovative Beethoven's Buddies is. After an injury ended Bauer's performance career, she started teaching piano to a neighbor with Down syndrome. The Wheaton native and Wheaton College grad went on to get her doctorate from Indiana University in music education with a minor in special education. She applied the special ed techniques she learned to piano.
"At the time, the only thing out there was music therapy," Bauer said. "I didn't want therapy. I wanted to teach kids how to play piano."
Beethoven's Buddies began at Wheaton College's CSA with just three special-needs students. At first, all of the students had Down syndrome, but then she added students with attention and sensory issues and autism.
"You start to see so many similarities among disabilities, but you individualize to the child's learning style," she said.
If students are visual learners, she uses flashcards and emphasizes finger numbers. If students have visual impairment, she uses the Suzuki Method to teach by ear.
If students need a break, she lets them take a few minutes on the mini-trampoline in the corner. If a student is sensitive to noises, she turns off the room air-conditioner and fluorescent lights to eliminate the buzzing that sounds like white noise to most people but can drive a child with autism to distraction.
Bauer knows her students work best when motivated, so she tries to find the right reward. Some kids earn stickers and candy, others earn hair bows or cold, hard cash.
And she teaches more than piano. Most of her students need to work on their social and conversational skills, so Bauer makes a point to learn their interests and talk to them about movies or video games -- not just piano.
Beethoven's Buddies has grown to include more than 40 special-needs students and two CSA faculty members. Beethoven's Buddies also offers group classes for students not quite ready for private lessons, or for piano students who want to learn to play in a group setting.
But not all of Bauer's students have special needs. The combined studio is run on an inclusion model with typical students mingling with those with disabilities. The students aren't segregated, even at recital time. "The whole goal was that kids could see both sides of the coin and be good role models," Bauer said.
Jackson is now starting his fourth year of piano lessons. He is not a prodigy by any means, but there is something about piano that really suits him. He has learned to read music and Bauer says he is progressing at a pace similar to many of her typical students. And just like other kids, Jackson does not always want to practice. But we work with him to provide plenty of sensory input and help him stay focused. He works hard, and we are immensely proud.
He has taken part in three spring recitals. That first year, I don't think I took a breath during the two minutes it took him to walk up to the stage, bow, play his piece, bow and walk back to us.
There he was. Our boy. And he was doing it.
We couldn't have asked for a more warm and supportive environment for his debut. Every audience member is appreciative of every student, no matter their ability. In fact, often the kids with the greatest challenges get the greatest applause.
And best of all, we never feel like the token "special family." Instead, we are surrounded by parents and students who truly appreciate the immensity of Jackson's accomplishment.
Thanks to Beethoven's Buddies and Beth Bauer, our son has music in his life; she has brought out the music in him. We couldn't have asked for a more precious gift.
• Deb Finken is a copy editor at the Daily Herald. She lives in Lombard.