By Marivir R. Montebon
The greatest sign of success for a teacher is to be able to say, “the children are now working as if I did not exist.” Maria Montessori
New York – On the grand piano, music teacher Jean Nabong nimbly struck the ivory keys, playing Posca and Chopin’s ‘By the Sea’, as we spoke. Sometimes, she mused, “I hear my students play so well, I believe they have become so much better than me.”
Jean, a native of Cagayan de Oro city, is a private music teacher in the US for ten years, and had taught children the art of playing the piano, including youth who have special needs. She finished her Bachelors in Music, major in Piano and Minor in Voice and Chorale at the University of the Philippines Diliman in 1991.
Jean remembered having started with six young students in 2010 and now in 2020, she has 24 students under her wings. She loved seeing her students come out of their shell to become budding pianists. She spends an hour with her students, either in her home, or theirs, at least once a week. She makes sure that the parents practice with their children before the next class.
“I would know whether my students have practiced or not. They’d usually come prepared,” she said.
All throughout this musical journey, there came a great inspiration in Ezekiel, who has learning and language challenges. He began his piano lessons with Jean at age six and had persisted until his most recent recital on January 24, 2020 at the Philippine Center. He played John Field’s Nocturne and Hating Gabi (midnight), a Philippine classic, during Jean’s 10th Annual Recital which was participated by 21 of her students.
Jean said Ezekiel started with spastic hands. “Now he is expressive and has graceful hands.”
Constant practice and the support of parents at home molded Ezekiel to be a good pianist. He became the pianist of his school in 2019.
Ezekiel’s mom, Dinah, said Jean is phenomenal at what she does – “firm yet gentle and patient.”
Dinah said that her son was verbal but incomprehensible when he started piano lessons. “Maybe about a year of lessons, he started conversing,” she said. Ezekiel had poor dexterity and could not hit the keys. “This was a challenge for Jean and I couldn’t be more grateful for what she had done.
Parents of regular students are as appreciative as Dinah. Marilou Mateo, mom to Samantha Rose, 13, and Lauren Jane, 11, said she and her husband were pleased at Jean’s technique, which is a combination of patience and professionalism as a piano artist. “Our daughters became receptive to her method of teaching and developed the love to pay music. She has continually raised the bar, setting high but achievable goals.”
Lynne Domanas reiterates Marilou’s observation: Jean’s sensitivity to adjust her instructions according to the age of her students. Her children, aged 15, 13, and 7 have shown great progress in the art of playing the piano.
Lynne and Marilou both appreciate Jean’s open communication in involving them in their children’s learning journey, informing them of their children’s conduct and making follow-ups if they practiced at home. “She is a real gem,” quipped Lynne.
Jean’s background in Occupational Therapy complements her piano teaching, particularly on teaching her students speed and rhythm. She specializes in classical music, both theory and sight reading.
“I have a technique for my students to read fast,” she quipped, a matter that only she and her students know. She also encourages them to be imaginative to be able to express their artistry deeply.
Asked about her perspectives as a piano teacher, Jean said she will focus on teaching more children with special needs, with a music foundation in mind. “Music therapy can do wonders for children. I will dedicate more of my time for them. As for me, I continually feel the joy of seeing my students perform,” she beamed.
Excerpts of our interview.
1. As a piano teacher what is the best way of motivating your students to play and be focused?
I motivate and encourage their personal desires – which ultimately results in them achieving a satisfactory level of performance annually. I instill in them the need to practice and play as often as possible, but that it is imperative to enjoy every moment of doing so. It’s always a good reminder that they are doing this for themselves, and attaining great results pays off tremendously. In that, I often make reference or showcase other children or students who are accomplished in the field to motivate and inspire them. I also try to implement various ways of ensuring they meet monthly targets by having them apply the same dedication of standard studying such as – time schedule chart to practice, highlights or pointers documented in their books to practice on areas they often struggle with.
2. Is there a technique for teaching children with special needs? Tell us about it.
With special needs students, repetition and being playful is key. It is necessary to ask questions to gather feedback so as to ensure they comprehend the lessons, and seeing that they stay focused as often times it’s crucial to be more firm as it can be a challenge with them being quite inattentive.
On the other hand, some students have a harder time with grasping various techniques such as hand positioning, which requires one being very patient towards their individual needs. When they get bored or otherwise distracted, I divert into playing and having them sing along so as to have them unwind for a moment.
Special needs students also love recognition and to be praised when they do a good job. This truly motivates them as they realize their potential and only strive to accomplish more.
I have a student with autism, who I try to condition beforehand as preparation for the lessons. Commencing the lessons slowly with a few keys / chords, then progressing to a group of keys / chords so he absorbs all the essential details taught.
3. How do you decompress after a grueling day?
For the most part, I truly never feel very overwhelmed or stressed during my lessons – as I enjoy what I do, despite the obvious challenges of teaching students with varying attention spans. This is more like a hobby for me, so there is not too much pressure involved. But I do make it my duty to ensure the students absorb the lessons and see to it that they have the best outcome. I find music to be very cathartic, and being with my students aids in me unwinding from my day in general and from my main job, being an Occupational Therapist. Thus, I never bring home the energy of what my teaching sessions entails on a daily basis.
4. You said that being an Occupational Therapist helpful in teaching music? Why is that?
Yes being an OT is very complimentary with being an effective music teacher. In both fields, we deal with students and children with special needs. There is a clear understanding that while I am there as a great support and guide, they are truly responsible for independently developing their ‘musical muscles’ by pushing themselves and creating that drive to accomplish goals they set their minds to. So, it should be a routine for them to exercise their skills and to challenge themselves. Also, with special needs kids, there are different approaches taken to ensure I achieve the desired outcome.
For example, those with occasional tantrums, I try to hold them firm and let the student sit and remain focused. This technique of restriction helps to discipline the child so he remains calm and more centered.
5. Is there hope for children with special needs through music?
Yes, of course there is hope. Special needs kids can do and accomplish just as much as the other students and the average person. Music teaches them to be very attentive to details, which results in them being very disciplined and focused. It teaches them responsibility, which carries over into their studies where they ultimately do well in other subjects and also in their daily life, making them more confident in daily interaction and everyday exchanges with other individuals.
One student of mine, Ezequiel, with special needs is now the official pianist for his school, so clearly we can see where music has created that breakthrough and confidence in his daily life.