Wait! There’s Got to Be Something We Can Do

By Sufen Wu, FCSN Parent


One day I found myself lost in a forest. When I looked up, I saw bright golden lights shimmering from a distance, but I could not find a way out. When I looked down, I saw only mud and rocks; how I wished I could walk to that golden light. Do I give up? Not acceptable. Continue? There was no visible path out. Caught in what seemed like a dead end, I screamed “There’s got to be something I can do!”

This is a glimpse into the learning process that Chiling and I have gone through. Let me share our stories with you: 

1) Piano

Though piano playing is Chiling’s first endeavor and his greatest achievement, he continues to face challenges in the learning process.

In the beginning, he had difficulty playing at louder volumes, because his fingers are not strong enough. To compensate, he used his whole arm to play, which is a common mistake made by beginners. Piano players have to manipulate the wrist to play the notes loudly, while maintaining good quality sound. This is difficult for beginners, because the muscles in their fingers are not yet developed.

In order to exercise these muscles–apart from occupational therapy (for example: exercises involving picking up coins or beads)–I place a limbo stick between him and the piano (see picture 1), positioned at about the same height as the keys. Because of this, when Chiling plays the piano, he has no other option but to use the strength of his fingers because he has to refrain from touching the stick. We continue to use this soft PVC pipe during practice, constantly reminding him to use proper form while he plays.

Also, Chiling’s sight reading skills are very limited. He plays simpler pieces by ear; however, playing complex classical pieces like Beethoven and Chopin poses a much greater challenge. Some referring to the sheet music is necessary while learning and practicing each piece. Unfortunately, the little “bean sprouts” on the page were confusing to him. By writing out each note by letter name, he was able to recognize and play the correct notes immediately. Writing this by hand for each musical score became my regular task. Only through this way, he can play challenging pieces such as Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata or Schubert’s Impromptu.

2 Recorder

Ever since he was young, Chiling had a tendency to drool because of his flaccid facial muscles. For this reason, we generally did not consider any wind instruments for him. When he initially tried to play the recorder, the effect was like a running faucet–wetting his shirt even before he hit the first note. We had no other choice but to hold off at that time.

At Chiling’s high school, seeing the other students play in the band, working on tightening their lips and controlling their facial muscles, I told myself that we have to succeed this time. It suddenly dawned on me that I can tie a plastic bag to the other end of the recorder to catch the saliva, sparing him the embarrassment. After replacing the ‘sandwich bag’ twice, Chiling has mastered all the scales, and can play any of the songs familiar to him.

Chiling later joined a band to play saxophone. Unlike the recorder, the saliva is all trapped inside the instrument. Before the sound becomes “watery”, I always drain the saliva out of the saxophone. Actually, Chiling is not the only “culprit” in wetting the carpet: all the other trumpet, trombone, and saxophone players also regularly emptied their spit onto the carpet. Band room absolutely is a place that is full of DNA!

I had the experience of coaching kids to play the recorder at FCSN’s South Bay Regular Gathering. I noticed most of the kids’ muscles in their cheeks and fingertips were not strong or coordinated enough. These kids could not multi-task; they were unable to blow into the instrument and coordinate their fingers simultaneously. Covering five holes at the same time presents a big challenge to them. To address this, I covered the whole recorder with tape, leaving only the top hole open. As soon as the kids managed to hold the recorder in place and make a sound, I uncovered the second hole to challenge him/her. Eventually, a few kids were able to play some simple songs. This is called “simplifying the task”: we break down a complicated task into its basic parts. Isn’t this the process that all babies have to go through as they grow and learn? Only in this way can our children and adults with special needs succeed. 

3) Sheng

The sheng is a traditional Chinese instrument with a unique shape. One has to hold the sheng with two cupped hands, while moving the fingers to cover and uncover the holes to change notes. Playing a scale is not difficult for Chiling; the greatest challenge was maintaining his hold on the instrument as he played. Whenever he tried to change notes, the sheng would start to slide out of his hands. How could he hold the sheng firmly then? I found a pair of gloves, and cut off the fingertips so that Chiling’s fingers can move freely. Then, I sewed some velcro to the middle of the gloves and the bottom part of the sheng. This way, when he is holding the sheng, the velcro will hold the instrument in place while he moves his fingers to play. (see picture 2)

4. Cello

String instruments can be challenging to play, as the musician needs to be very precise in order to stay in tune. Chiling has a very accurate sense of pitch, so this was less of a concern; however, after taking a few lessons, we realized that he had difficulty coordinating his fingers as he held the bow. The standard bow grip uses primarily the thumb, index, and middle fingers to stabilize the bow: Chilling has to use all five fingers. As a result, Chiling has to use his whole hand to manipulate the bow, resulting in decreased agility and speed when transitioning between notes.

To resolve this problem, I had to think of a way to position his three fingers on the bow while preventing them from slipping. We couldn’t use tape to position his fingers; I tried using velcro based on a former teacher’s suggestion, but it didn’t work in Chiling’s case. After searching around for a suitable item, I eventually found a round plastic cap from a broom. I asked my husband to secure the cap onto the bow: this fit around the thumb like a thimble (see picture 3). I then used a velcro loop to position the other two fingers (see picture 4). Once these three fingers were properly placed, Chilling did not have to maintain such a tight grip in order to play. After practicing for a few years, Chiling’s grip of the bow has improved, and playing the cello became an easier task for him.

Chiling’s former occupational therapist introduced me to a plastic material called Shape Lock, which softens and is easily molded when heated. This can be used to form any number of tools or assistive devices. My ideas of designing facilitative tools originated from this information.

5. Drums

Playing the drums seems like a relatively simple task. Chiling was the drummer in his junior high school band. Staying on tempo is not hard for him, but playing with good technique presents a problem because he uses his entire arm instead of his wrist to play. His stiffness prevents him from playing faster tempi.

When playing the drums, the arm is used for large movements, such as switching between drums. For the actual act of striking the drum head, a supple wrist is required. To execute a tremolo (drum roll), the wrist and elbow must be relaxed. But “relaxed” is difficult for Chiling, who ends up overly relying on the muscles in his arms, rather than his wrists or fingers. 

At one time, instead of using his wrist, he was turning the drumsticks using his arm muscles, moving his whole body in the process. I had to hold his upper arm and elbow firm, to prompt him to use his wrist only. To address this, I wrote the numbers 1 and 2 on his palm and the back of his hand respectively, asking him to alternate looking at the 1 and 2. By doing these motions, he is naturally isolating the muscles in his wrist, thereby performing the appropriate actions.

Rome was not built in a day. Over the years, I have been trying hard to face and overcome the challenges that arise. My philosophy is “To put my feet in his shoes.” Why can’t Chiling hold the bow when it seems so easy for others? Let me hold it too, where does the problem lie? By identifying the cause of the problem, I am able to design a device or simplify a task. As long as one does not give up, every step is an accomplishment. Chiling my child, keep on learning and exploring, you are making your life meaningful, proud of you!

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