Lessons With Jimi: Tips for Teaching a Piano Student with Alzheimer’s

windy and jimiThe following story comes from piano teacher Windy C. in St. Petersburg, Florida. Last fall, Windy began the challenging journey of teaching piano lessons to a student with Alzheimer’s.  Below she shares some helpful tips she’s learned as a result of working with her student, Jimi. Thank you for sharing such an inspiring story, Windy!

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Last fall I began teaching a 90-year-old woman who has moderate stage Alzheimerʼs. Knowing this in advance, I thought I was up for the challenge; however, things changed when we sat down at the piano for our first lesson and she looked around the room with a confused look on her face and said, “Iʼm sorry, I have no idea what Iʼm doing here.”

I can honestly say I might have had some second thoughts at that point. I looked at her and calmly replied, “Well, Iʼm Windy and youʼre here to play the piano with me. So letʼs have some fun!” But in my head I was mildly freaking out and thinking “Oh my goodness, what the heck have I gotten myself into? How am I going to do this? I never learned how to teach someone with no short-term memory in college!”

I came home after that lesson and scoured the internet and college text books for tips on teaching music to people with dementia, but I came up with nothing. What I am about to share is what I have learned through my experience with Ms. Jimi. I am not a doctor, nor am I an expert on how the brain functions, but I strongly feel that what I am about to share can help anyone working with people who struggle with early to moderate stage dementia or Alzheimerʼs.

Over the past year, Ms. Jimi and I have built a wonderful relationship and I look forward to her lessons more than all my others because I never know what to expect.  All the orthodox ways of lesson planning, goal setting, and progressing go out the window and our 30 minutes together are more like a session of music therapy. Here are five practical things that I have learned from teaching Ms. Jimi:

1. Give The Student The Opportunity To Reach Small Goals

Early on, I realized that Jimi was not going to progress as a typical student would. She could not remember from week to week what we had played the lesson before, so it was obvious that our lessons together needed to be taught in the moment, as an exercise time for her brain.  For 30 minutes, Jimi and I play through pieces that she enjoys and that challenge her, but do not frustrate her.

Ms. Jimi can play simple songs with both hands in C position, G position, and middle C position. We have about six songs in each position that we cycle through. Occasionally, I will add a new one. Usually I will help her through the song the first time. Then we will play it again, and she almost always improves the second time. I’ve noticed when Jimi can play through an entire song by herself, she feels very accomplished. However, she never remembers from week to week what we played during the previous lesson.

2. Use Teaching Aids

As I said, Ms. Jimi is 90, so her eyes struggle at times. Large note music, with the letter written inside the note head, help her immensely. Sometimes I put stickers on the keys to label them just like I might do for a child when he or she is first learning a position. Having the keys labeled is one less thing she has to figure out, which allows her to play through the piece more fluently and enjoy the melody.  I have also found that staying in the same position for an entire lesson helps her to feel more successful. Switching positions between songs causes her to become confused, which then leads to frustration.

3. Know When To Take Breaks

Jimi loves chocolate. If I sense that she is having a rough day and not enjoying the music, we eat a chocolate together.   Sometimes I pull out books that I’ve brought along and ask her if I can play a song for her. She loves “Claire de Lune” and each time I play it, she reacts as if itʼs the first time I have played it for her. “Oh Wow! I love that song!” she will say, often teary-eyed.

4. Know When To Keep Quiet

There are times when Ms. Jimi says “Donʼt touch my fingers this time!” or “Now let me do it and you donʼt talk!” I love her wit, her will, and her determination. And I have definitely learned that it doesnʼt have to be perfect, but she needs to do it on her own. Sometimes I just need to sit back and let her play; if she stumbles, I try to let her figure it out unless Iʼm asked for help.

5. Be Flexible, Creative and Make it Fun

Iʼm always looking for ways to improve Jimi’s experience at piano lessons. Even though I know I could teach Jimi the same exact lesson every single week and she would probably never know – I WOULD KNOW. I mean, good grief, if I live to be 90, I hope that someone makes sure Iʼm still having fun!

One time her grown son came to town and brought her to her lesson. We worked on a simple waltz. She played it for him. Then I asked her if she wanted me to play it so that she could dance with her son. They floated around the room and it was a special moment. On another occasion, I showed her a YouTube video about a 100-year-old woman who was a Holocaust survivor and still loved to play the piano every day. Jimi loved it!

Each music student has different needs. No two students are the same, and that’s what makes our job as music teachers exciting and ever-evolving! My challenge for other teachers is to take the time to experiment and think outside the box to help enrich the lives of their students, not only musically, but also emotionally and spiritually. Music reaches deep into the soul and can bring so much joy into the lives of others!

Enjoy the Journey,

Windy C.

Windy Cobourne

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