In addition to offering music therapy services, another thing I love to do is offer adapted music lessons to children and teens with ASD.

I’ve been teaching piano lessons to a teen and recently was starting to feel stuck with the lesson book. Plugging through it week after week was becoming a bit dry.

Have you ever had that feeling?

I noticed that the student I was working with loved to explore the keyboard and make up her own little melodies.

So I decided to give that structure and incorporate some improv within our lessons.

Here’s what we did:

  1. I prompted the student to try out different styles on the keyboard and choose one she liked (my Yamaha has a TON of cool styles to choose from – everything from the rhumba, to the blues, to rock ‘n roll.)
  2. Once she had chosen a style, we started the beat and I prompted her to improvise a short melody on the keyboard (we talked beforehand about what it means to improvise).
  3. After her improv came to a resolution, I started my improv. I tried to mimic the overall feel of her melody. If she played staccato notes in various places around the keyboard, I did something similar; if she played slow legato notes on the black keys, I played in a similar fashion.
  4. When my improv came to a resolution, she played again. We went back and forth a few times in this way and then I brought the improv to a close.
  5. At the end, we discussed what that improv sounded like to her (one in particular sounded like a Nintendo game – that one was very cool!)

After we had gone through this process a few times, I thought about all the things that were accomplished during our improvisation session:

  • First, I noticed positive affect. Rather than being frustrated that she couldn’t remember the notes in the bass clef notes from her lesson book, she was able to feel incredibly successful. With improv there are no wrong notes! More than that, if the music therapist sets up the environment correctly (by providing an authentic-sounding style on the keyboard, etc.), the music that’s produced can sound very professional. This student said one improv even sounded like a movie soundtrack to her!
  • Second, we’re working on nonverbal communication skills. The back and forth nature of our improv mimics the back and forth of a conversation. This can be a tough skill for some teens on the autism spectrum to master. I think the musical version of this is a great way to practice the skill of communicating during a conversation. It requires the person who’s not playing to listen so they can reflect back what the other person is playing, just as you would reflect back the feeling of someone telling you they’re excited, sad, or upset.
  • Finally, this student was validated. Every time she played something, I validated it by reflecting it back in my playing. This let her know that I was picking up what she was doing and responding to it. I would imagine there are times in school and in life where she might be told what she’s doing is wrong or inappropriate. But, in our lesson, whatever music she created was perfect.

If you’re feeling a bit stuck moving through lesson and theory books with your teen students, I highly encourage you to try this technique!

When you do, please share how it went in the comments below!