By Scott Flavin | From the May-June 2022 issue of Strings magazine
Some years ago, I taught a private violin student, an adult amateur who was a highly respected neuropathology specialist at the university where I teach. Sometimes he would have to cancel lessons for work, and on one occasion I told him, “Well, at least playing the violin isn’t brain surgery,” to which he replied, “In this case, my work is brain surgery!” As with many professionals in non-musical fields, “Doc” had a deep love of music and of the violin, just not a great deal of time to practice it! Eventually, our lessons dropped off, so I was surprised to hear from him recently. He had retired and was interested in studying the violin again.
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In our first lesson in almost 15 years, I realized quickly that he seemed to have short-term memory loss. I wasn’t, therefore, surprised to hear from his nurse that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. He remembered me, our lessons, and the violin, but would tell the same stories and jokes every few minutes—a favorite of his, “Have you booked me yet for Carnegie Hall?” delivered with a wink and a smile. Nevertheless, I set out assigning him scales, études, and repertoire, with a view to building skills as I would with my university students. In the following lessons however, it became evident that scales and études were too great a challenge—he only seemed to be connecting with the repertoire. It was time to try something different.
Finding a New Path
As a professor of violin at the Frost School of Music, I am accustomed to working with students striving for professional careers, helping them build their technique and musicality to the highest level. While I still wanted to facilitate forward trajectory and personal growth for Doc on the violin, I understood that his condition might impact his long-term growth as a violinist. I needed to consider the bigger picture here: What were my goals for this student, and what was the best way to achieve them?
I determined that my goals for Doc were to make the lessons therapeutic, both physically and mentally. Hopefully, this would maintain if not improve his mental acuity and physical command. In order to achieve these goals, I would need to rely heavily on celebrating the skills he already had (a teaching technique known as “scaffolding”), while gently introducing new challenges, all the while keeping him playing, moving, and most importantly, enjoying the violin.
With the challenges to his short-term memory, his personal practice became much less important as a factor in our lessons; I have focused instead on making our hour-long lessons as full of physicality, thought, and engagement as possible. Standing, body movement, deep breathing, and physical activity are hugely important; in addition, the sharing of music, telling stories, and even laughter help make each lesson useful.
Strategies for Success
One of my most important tenets as a teacher is empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person. Using empathy at the deepest level has become central to my lessons with Doc.
I have found, along with that emotional investment, that the following strategies work well for teaching music students with Alzheimer’s:
- Play along
- Flexible tempo
- Frustration avoidance
Modeling: Knowing that my goals for Doc are actually important to his well-being has instilled in me the great importance of modeling extreme energy and positivity in our lessons, from the moment the door is opened until we say goodbye. Some days, it can be difficult to find, but because positive, energized behavior is a strategy to success, I have learned to make it a constant in the lessons.
Enlarge it! I enlarge Doc’s music from standard size to 11 x 17, which has really helped him see the notes and markings better, and start to improve reading ahead. (An added benefit is that I, too, can see the music more easily, allowing me to focus on Doc’s playing almost entirely.)
Play along! Contrary to the way I teach college students, I play with Doc almost entirely in lessons. I try not to dominate but give support where he needs it (scaffolding). In sections that are easier for him, I play so softly I can hardly be heard; at other moments, I’ll play louder to help encourage a big tone or to give support to difficult rhythms or technical sections. This can be a great challenge but is very engaging, as I’ll sometimes adjust my playing volume “on a dime” to accommodate Doc.
Flexible tempo: I try not to stop too often; rather, I adjust tempo for technical difficulties (for example, difficult technical passages in the left hand, string crossings, and double-stops). While it was very difficult for me to relax my usual drive for ironclad rhythmic control, I have found that this flexibility helps prevent Doc’s frustration and improves his sense of flow. In my teaching, I have learned to watch his left and right hands constantly and make tiny adjustments, achieving a balance between encouraging a constant tempo and making allowances for difficulties. In some cases, these tempo adjustments are minute, but make all the difference in Doc’s ability to create a satisfying flow as a player.
Frustration avoidance: This is an overall tenet, and one that I make sure to notice throughout each lesson. If Doc is frustrated, he’s not learning.
Goal-setting: While lessons are at his home, I make an effort to create goals for us. Chief among them is creating performance opportunities by making videos for his family, including including hiring a professional pianist, dressing up, and performing repertoire together.
Fun! I work to keep it fun by focusing on dynamics and phrasing, engaging with eye contact and body movement (sometimes with humor), and encouraging laughter—all of these contribute to a sense of joy in playing and making music, not to mention a good aerobic workout!
This experience, while sometimes a challenge, has turned out to be a great and fulfilling joy. My favorite moments happen at least once a lesson, when we’ve finished playing a Kreisler piece or the slow movement of a Vivaldi concerto, and there’s a moment of quiet after the sound has died down. We share a conspiratorial look and tell each other how lucky we are to be violinists!