Piano instructor finds fulfillment teaching students with disabilities

  • Beth Bauer in her studio at Wheaton College, where she developed a program called Beethoven's Buddies to teach piano to students with developmental disabilities.

      Beth Bauer in her studio at Wheaton College, where she developed a program called Beethoven's Buddies to teach piano to students with developmental disabilities. Paul Michna | Staff Photographer

  • Beth Bauer goes over a piano lesson with Christy Kosirog, who has Down syndrome.

    Beth Bauer goes over a piano lesson with Christy Kosirog, who has Down syndrome. Courtesy of Dr. Beth Bauer

Published12/23/2009 12:15 AM

Ten-year-old Spencer Hua of Naperville is taking his piano lesson at Wheaton College's Community School of the Arts and needs a break.

He asks instructor Beth Bauer to let him jump on the trampoline in her studio and she agrees.


"There is some correlation between jumping and getting the brain back to focus," Bauer says.

Spencer, who has autism, is one of 30 students in the Beethoven's Buddies program Bauer started five years ago to teach children with developmental disabilities how to play piano. He's been featured on "NBC Nightly News," and recently received a standing ovation when he played for a school program.

"Spencer is amazing. He gets it," Bauer says. "Once he sits down on the bench, you would never know he has autism."

Not all of Bauer's special needs students are as musically gifted as Spencer, but under her tutelage they all perform in ways many find amazing. Autism, Down syndrome, fragile x syndrome, vision impairment, attention deficient hyperactivity disorder and an array of other disabilities don't stop them from learning to play the piano.

"Every child who walks through the door is capable of learning something," Bauer says. "It's my job to figure out how to make sure they do."

For children who can't read, that means creating picture schedules. Children struggling to learn to read have separate flash cards to identify the symbols for notes and the names of the notes. All lessons begin and end with a bow.

"The key to all this stuff with special education is consistency, structure and boundaries," Bauer says. "They love it."

Change of direction

Bauer didn't set out to instruct children with disabilities or even to have a teaching career. The Wheaton native, who now lives in Winfield, wanted to perform after graduating from Wheaton College and going off to Northern Illinois University to work on her master's degree.

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Damage to her ulnar nerve led a doctor to tell her she had a choice - continue to perform at the level she was and lose her ability to play altogether or aim for a more academic career.

Unhappy with her dilemma, Bauer had surgery on her nerve and went to her parents' home in Wheaton to recover. She was looking for a subject for her master's project when she asked to work with a neighbor's Down syndrome daughter and teach her how to play piano.

The paper she wrote on the experience came to the attention of the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, which invited her to pursue the subject further while earning a doctoral degree.

"There's lots of stuff on music therapy, but mine was different in that I was actually teaching the kids how to play an instrument," Bauer said.

She earned her doctorate and took an administrative position with a music school in Chicago. She was bored. All her previous jobs - from camp counselor to starting a piano studio when she was a college undergraduate - had involved children.


"I missed kids," she said.

Bauer was invited to return to Wheaton College to teach half-time in the Community School of Arts. The college's music conservatory also hired her to work half-time teaching pedagogy and directing internships.

Jody Grandlienard, director of the Community School of the Arts, said it's easy to see why Bauer couldn't be happy doing just administrative work.

"She's a natural teacher," she said.

Grandlienard said Bauer sets high standards for all her students and backs it up with individual attention, whether they have special needs or not.

"She cares so deeply. She's involved with every aspect of their life," Grandlienard said.

Bauer has been known to give her students rewards - or bribes as she calls them - to achieve results that go far beyond learning music.

Seven-year-old Sophie Netzel of Wheaton, who has asperger's syndrome and sensory dysfunction, received the "Tinker Bell" DVD she wanted from Miss Beth after six weeks of "super practicing" and no behavior issues.

"Beth is just a wonderful support," said Sophie's mother, Dee Netzel. "I don't think a regular piano teacher would work for Sophie."

Like most of the students, Sophie showed an interest in music before she started taking piano lessons from Bauer about 21/2 years ago.

"It (music) made her happy," her mother recalled.

Sophie now practices every day, even when she was home from school for 11 days with the flu. Netzel said learning piano has improved Sophie's fine motor skills and given her status among friends who don't play piano.

"I think there is a positive self-esteem. This is something I can do," Netzel said.

Tom Hua said his son, Spencer, is so devoted to playing piano that when he realized one evening after he had gone to bed that he had forgotten to practice, he got up to do it.

"He's very disciplined," Hua said, adding that children with autism often have short attention spans. "They learn to stay focused."

Spencer performs in local retirement homes and joins other students, with and without disabilities, in recitals.

Zachary Katzbeck, 9, and his brother Benjamin, 7, both take piano lessons from Bauer. Zachary, who has autism along with multiple other medical needs, often struggles to do what comes naturally to Ben, said his mother, Debbie. But Zac showed an interest in music even as a baby.

"It's amazing what he's retained," Katzbeck said. "She's taken a natural gift from God and she's enabling him to use it. She's given him the gift of music."

Right place to be

Bauer, who also gives private piano instruction, said she personally teaches a total of about 20 students with disabilities. Although she has them throughout the week, many come for their instruction Thursdays and Fridays.

"I love Thursdays and Fridays because I get the most hugs in the world," she said. "All my students with disabilities give the best hugs."

She's been bit, hit, kicked and spat upon, too, but she brushes that off as a part of teaching children.

"There's never a day that I don't want to come to work. I love my job," she said.

Beethoven's Buddies has been so successful that it has a waiting list. The name for the program was chosen to avoid the special needs label, Bauer said.

"Beethoven himself was deaf toward the end of his life," she said.

CSA now plans to start a Little Maestros program for younger students with developmental needs.

Bauer has spoken at a couple conferences on her work, but is wary of people who have expressed an interest in the program with anything less than the good of the kids in mind.

"I won't exploit my students," she said. "We're just kind of figuring it out as we go."

Outside of teaching piano, she and her husband, Todd Starowitz, lead a high school group in their church and share a love of sports. Bauer added that she still performs on occasion, but whenever the performances become too frequent, the old nerve damage starts acting up.

"I just feel I'm where God wants me to be," she said.

For details on Beethoven's Buddies, call the Community School of the Arts at (630) 752-5567.

• Do you know someone with an unusual job or hobby? Let us know at sdibble@dailyherald.com, (630) 955-3532 or 4300 Commerce Court, Lisle, 60532.

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