093 – Rebekah Maxner: How to Help Students Who Are Not Reaching Their Full Potential

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Episode Summary

Canadian composer, piano teacher, and blogger Rebekah Maxner shares insight for piano teachers of all levels – from beginner to advanced – on what it can mean to teach a neurodiverse student. She touches on nearly 15 indicators and how certain characteristics can be signs of neurodiversity.


Guest Host

Rebekah Maxner is a Canadian composer, piano teacher and blogger with an international following. Her piano solos are published by the Royal Conservatory, RCM, London College, LCM, and listed in the NFMC. Visit: https://rebekah.maxner.ca for more information.




Items Mentioned

045 – Teacher Talk with Rebekah Maxner

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Related blog post: What every piano teacher needs to know about Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) (Rebekah Maxner)

Related blog post: What every piano teacher needs to know about Autism (ASD) (Rebekah Maxner)

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Hey there, teacher friends! I’m Amy Chaplin, creator of the Piano Pantry blog and this podcast. Today, I’m excited to present you with the final guest host for 2023 – Rebekah Maxner. If you’re been listening to this podcast or following my Friday Finds blog posts for a while, you’ll know that Rebekah is one of my favorite content creators.

She’s also one amidst a very small handful of people to have made it onto this podcast twice outside of my real-life piano teacher pals Christina Whitlock, Janna Williamson, and Kate Boyd. Rebekah first joined us for a teacher talk episode at the end of last year. Scroll back to find her in episode 45.

I know she’s done a lot of research for this one and has some upcoming related blog posts I’ll publish to the show notes very soon. Whether you teach beginner or advanced students, Rebekah covers what it can mean to teach a neurodiverse student, including nearly 15 indicators and how certain characteristics can be signs of neurodiversity.

Before I hand you over, though, I need to give a hearty shout-out to one of my awesome Patreon supporters, Mindy Ward from Iowa. Mindy has a small crew of students but jumped on board right away to support the work that’s going on here. As an insider, she gets access to our monthly email-focused power hour and a surprise quarterly special meeting with the Insider crew, which is coming up here at the end of November.

If you would like to join Mindy in supporting this ad-free podcast, visit Pateron.com/pianopantry.

Rebekah Maxner is a Canadian composer, piano teacher and blogger with an international following. Her piano solos are published by the Royal Conservatory, RCM, London College, LCM, and listed in the NFMC. Visit: https://rebekah.maxner.ca for more information.


Have you ever heard a piano student say, “But I played it so well at home”?

Have you ever taught a student who was physically tense, who just couldn’t seem to relax, no matter how you tried to help them.

Or a student who only practices their favorite pieces…or only music that relates to their special interest? Who completely forgets to practice things like scales, or to do their theory, or simply doesn’t follow any of your written instructions?

How do you feel when a student sits at your piano at the beginning of their lesson and without even saying hello, begins to play. Or, during your lesson, they constantly play over your voice as you’re trying to teach them?

Here’s one: Have you ever had a piano student who shows so much potential, but they can’t seem to finish the pieces they start. They forget to practice, and in general, seem to be letting themselves down and disrespecting your teaching.

This podcast is for piano teachers of all levels, from beginner to advanced. My name is Rebekah Maxner, and today we’re going to have an honest discussion about what it can mean to teach a neurodiverse student – what kinds of indicators there can be, and how certain characteristics can be signs of neurodiversity.

Some children have been diagnosed, but others haven’t. Just because they haven’t been diagnosed doesn’t mean they’re not neurodiverse. It may be that others have missed the signs and that your student hides their struggles. You might be the first one to pick up on it.

I want to point out that it isn’t the piano teacher’s place to attempt to diagnose neurodiversity. We aren’t psychologists. We should not mention -suspected- neurodiversity to students or parents. But becoming aware of signs and characteristics can help us better understand a special segment of our student population and help us support these kids with real strategies that work.

The truth is that many creative and intelligent music makers are neurodiverse. I want to help you to help your students make the music they want to make. What you’re not going to find in today’s podcast is pat answers, judgement for neurodiversity, shame, or blame.

On the other hand, people can have these experiences and not have ADHD, which is Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or ASD, which is Autism Spectrum Disorder. What I’m going to describe today are experiences that any child can have some of the time in piano lessons.

However, for the neurodiverse student, there is an overall collection of experiences and struggles over an extended period of time that impacts their ability to function as a productive piano student. That’s when the signs may indicate that your student is neurodiverse.

Let’s get down to it!

  1. Let’s talk about the student who says, “But I played it so well at home”?

They sit despondently on your piano bench, disappointed in themselves, feeling like a failure, and you have thoughts in your head that you might not want to say out loud.

It is very common for the ADHD child to be hypersensitive to distractions in their environment. The extra distraction of playing the music for you in your studio takes their mind away from their usual comfort zone of playing it on their own, where they have no distractions.

They might be distracted by the different smell of your room, your presence, the difference in the piano keys.

In this situation, it’s important to hold your judgment and simply believe them. Help them settle in and feel comfortable. Give them a moment to focus. Give them another chance to play for you.

For long term performance goals, there are many practice strategies that help solidify what has been learned – memorization techniques and ways to help. But it is possible that these students will never perform up to their own expectations under pressure, regardless of their preparation.

  1. Let’s talk about the student who sits at the piano at the beginning of the lesson and begins to play without saying hello.

Or, while you’re teaching them and speaking, they interrupt, change the subject completely, or play the piano over your voice, seemingly not paying any attention.

Gently explain some of the social niceties that you’d like to observe in the studio, like greeting one another, speaking in turn, and listening when the other speaks or plays.

Or perhaps your student is very talkative. It becomes stressful because you feel time slipping away, and you seem unable to focus them on the actual piano lesson.

In this case, you might say, “I don’t mean to interrupt you, but I feel we’re getting a little off track, and I’m wondering if we could refocus on music right now. Could we…” and suggest the next music activity.

Sometimes, you’ll notice that a student has a difficult time making or maintaining eye contact. Accept them for who they are and realize that it’s nothing personal; it’s just their own way of managing.

  1. Let’s talk about the students who frequently forget their lesson books.

This is a sign that the child has difficulty organizing their things.

When they forget, have your own duplicate studio books for the times they arrive without books. Getting upset won’t change anything – it won’t teach them how to be more organized. Simply be ready to roll with it.

Or, at home they can’t organize their materials when it’s time to practice and do theory.

Sometimes, parents also lack the organizational skills to help their child, so you may want to lightheartedly ask which parent is the most organized and enlist their help. Give very specific instructions on when and how the parent can help set up their child’s materials for success.

Use sticky-notes to flag the pages you’re working on. The less they notice the sticky notes, the bigger the sticky note gets. For some forgetful students, I also write on the sticky notes with black marker.

  1. Let’s talk about kids who take longer to develop firm fingers.

ADHD and connective tissue disorders often go hand in hand.

For example, you may notice that a student’s joints bend backwards or at odd angles, and they may find it extremely difficult to develop a traditional-looking piano hand.

You may repeatedly try to teach the proper piano hand and may think they’re not listening, but in reality, it may be joint hypermobility (in combination with not remembering).

Kids with hypermobility may try too hard to conform to the hand shape you’re teaching, and may force their hand to look the way you want it to look, but meanwhile, they’re developing tension on the inside, which may lead to injury.

I’m not sure what advice to give for this. I believe there needs to be more research into hypermobility in the piano student and what a healthy technique can look like for them.

  1. Let’s talk about kids who watch their hands instead of reading the notes.

Overall, neurodiverse kids tend to be less ‘body aware.’

These may be the kids who watch their hands while they play the piano because they have no internal sense of which finger is moving. Therefore, it may take these kids longer to learn to read music because they are continuously watching their hands, not the page. This is a domino effect. First, they don’t know which finger is moving, therefore they watch their hands, therefore reading is delayed.

Proprioception is the awareness of the body in space. For some neurodiverse kids, you may need to come up with some special games to help. You could cover their hands with a book to hide them, and see if they can track the printed music and play by feel. But all of this needs to be done with patience and accolades for being brave and trying something that’s so tricky for them.

  1. Let’s talk about students who are physically tense.

Some students have a lot of tension and just can’t seem to relax their shoulders, arms, or wrists.

It’s important to ask permission of parents and students to allow you to check joints with your hands so you can get a feel. Is there tension? It’s impossible to tell just by looking.

Neurodiverse children might not even feel their own tension.

This is something to work on through each and every lesson. My piano teachers were constantly doing little inconspicuous checks of my wrists and elbows in the middle of playing. Just little pushes and nudges that gave them an idea of what was happening physically.

When your student learns a scale, don’t just teach the correct fingerings and keys; be sure week by week to check for fluid movements and no tension.

Speak to students about body awareness and do little check-ins on how their body is feeling. If you bring it to their attention, they’ll be more likely to think about it.

If this student already has the tendency to hyperfocus or obsess over perfection, they might be at a higher risk of repeating their passages to the point of self-injury without even being aware of pain or discomfort while they are practicing. When this lack of body awareness is paired with a lack of a sense of the passage of time, they might practice at a harmful level of intensity for too long. They may not realize that they are injuring themselves until it is too late.

  1. Let’s talk about the piano student who frequently arrives late.

Sometimes you’ll have a piano parent who has difficulty organizing time. They underestimate how much time it takes to get out the door and travel to the piano lesson. And they never learn from experience.

Not only is this stressful for the lesson because it starts late, but it also indicates that there may be a lack of organization at home during practices. This may be the family that has difficulty creating a practice schedule that works. We’ll talk more about this with the next point.

  1. Let’s talk about students who are frequently unprepared for their lessons.

These kids may have difficulty getting started with their practice each week. They may have trouble with motivation and procrastination.

After their piano lesson, they may coast a bit and not practice, and only begin practice when it’s urgent. Ask their parent to help kickstart the week of practice as soon after the lesson as they can.

You may have heard of the “Eat the frog” concept. It means to get the most difficult thing out of the way first or to practice the hardest thing first. I hate to break it to you but this doesn’t work for a person with ADHD. If the most difficult thing is put first, they might not start.

Instead, I recommend what I call “Oreo Cookie Practicing.” This is when the student is encouraged to practice their easiest or favorite thing first. Then in the middle, practice the trickiest things (and it’s best if the parent sits with them for these elements). Then, they can finish the practice with their most challenging or favorite parts again.

Telling a child with ADHD that they have to practice before they play with friends may kill their love of piano lessons. Work before play just doesn’t work. It is NOT motivating. It works for neurotypical kids, not neurodiverse kids.

The college-level student who has difficulty with motivation might want to organize their practice around very focused goals with a timer, followed by a break. Create micro-blasts of practice.

  1. Let’s talk about the student who consistently forgets to practice some things.

You might feel like saying, “If you can practice this piece so well, why can’t you do this other thing, too?”

This student might ace their favorite piece, but never practice their scales, avoid reading music, or never do their theory homework. What you’re noticing is a big disparity in effort between the various things that you assign. You might even mistake this for laziness.

Most of the time, that thing that they’re always forgetting is the very thing that they desperately need for their own progress.

Neurodiverse kids are driven by their special interests. They become so focused on one piece, subject, or musical style that nothing else even lands on their radar.

It isn’t that they are unable to do other things; it’s that they’re not interested in them. Once you discover what they like, it might be okay to let that be a main focus for a while.

You might also contact their parent. Gently ask if they’re willing to check in on weekly preparation to be sure the child is covering those few things that are usually forgotten.

  1. Let’s talk about students who don’t -ever- read your instructions.

I’m talking about the student who isn’t even aware that you wrote in their dictation book. They might not even ever look at their dictation book.

With a neurodiverse child, they may not have the organizational skills to match the instructions from one book to the music in their other book. There are just too many steps involved.

Instead, write instructions on the point of performance. This means write on the piece of music. Instead of writing in the dictation book, “Fix rhythm in measure 6,” write directly on measure six the strategy that will help them fix the rhythm. This may be counting or creative lyrics that sound like the rhythm. Whatever helps the child.

Use the dictation book only as a checklist for the teacher and information for the parent.

Ask parents to read assignments early in the week and make sure the books are open to those pages on the piano, then keep them open so they don’t lose the pages you’re using.

  1. Let’s talk about kids who are easily distracted.

They may be practicing, but their use of their practice time isn’t efficient, and they’re not getting a lot done. There’s a lot of wasted time between repeats, or bunny trails that lead nowhere.

In the middle of practicing one thing, they might get distracted by something else, whittle away their time on that, and run out of time to practice the thing they’re learning in piano lessons.

Ask for help from their family to design a practice-friendly environment free of distractions.

For the college-level student, practice in a place where no one can find you or interrupt. Turn all notifications off your phone. Use your phone as a timer instead. Play games, “Can I nail this very specific passage in this amount of time?”

  1. Let’s talk about the student who has trouble sticking with a task.

These students may start pieces but not learn to the end very well. Or they may begin composing a piece but never finish it. Or they may take too long to learn a piece.

You may want to ask them to assess how easy or difficult something is – do they need help?

It also works to create clear deadlines. For advanced pieces, don’t learn with an open-ended “let’s just learn this for as long as it takes.” When you first assign the piece, break it down into weekly goals – first thing. Write the dates right in the music itself. Let’s learn this much by the end of week 1 (write the date in), etc. This will help them get more done with clear goals and smaller, more frequent deadlines.

With some teen and intermediate students, it’s too confusing to learn more than one piece at a time. It is daunting to be at the most difficult stage of learning with two pieces at the same time. So, have a conveyor belt of pieces. Have the student learn the notes to only one piece. When that piece is in the fingers, continue to polish it as you start teaching the notes of the next piece. They’ll feel less overwhelmed and get more done.

  1. Let’s talk about the ADHD piano student and the piano exam.

ADHD kids are the most likely to do worse on exams than they are capable of.

Exams take extreme focus. The ADHD student will be distracted by the unfamiliar piano and surroundings and the unknown examiner. Most neurotypical students will struggle, too, but for a child with ADHD, this is a nightmare.

There are rules in an exam about how many times the examiner can say the name of a scale or clap a rhythm. Hypothetically, this gives every student an equal chance. However, a child with ADHD can hear the spoken request and then completely forget what they heard. This is because their brain has poor working memory.

I’d highly recommend online exams. This would eliminate the distractions of unfamiliar surroundings and piano.

It’s also time for exam centers to understand neurodiversity and have a list of accommodations that support students without seemingly giving an advantage. These supports would simply level the playing field for neurodiverse kids. For example, letting the child know it’s okay to clarify the scale name (etc.) a second time. Or, have the scale name written on a piece of paper.

  1. Let’s talk about neurodiversity and performance.

Some piano students may be overly frustrated with themselves over mistakes they make. They may be openly angry or hostile. That’s because neurodiverse people can have trouble managing their emotions and may overthink their disappointments.

A student might feel like a failure if they make a mistake in their lesson or after a performance or exam. Remember, this is just how they feel about it themselves when their performance might have been fine in anyone else’s mind. They build up their own sense of failure to the point that they think they might as well just quit piano. This may lead to a phase of burnout, which can happen to those with ASD.

If you have a talented student who wants to quit all of a sudden, give some time away, but make it very clear to them that you feel strongly that music means so much to them that they might want to come back when they’re ready. Leave the door open for them.


Oftentimes, parents don’t know what neurodiversity looks like, especially in quieter children, so they don’t even realize that their child is struggling. Classroom teachers don’t always catch it. It might be up to you to take the lead in helping children in your studio who show characteristics of neurodiversity.

Usually, it’s the quiet, smart kids who fly under the radar and miss detection. But just because they are smart doesn’t mean they’re doing fine. Often the smarter the child, the more shame they carry for their shortcomings, and the more they are told they aren’t meeting their potential.

These are the kids who can be frustrating to piano teachers. No matter what you say, you can’t seem to help this child meet the potential you know they have. It’s the dichotomy of having potential and seemingly doing nothing about it that is frustrating.

Some neurodiverse people reach the teen years, adulthood, or late adulthood without realizing how much they’ve been struggling or that there might be ways to help make things a little easier for them.

And neurotypical people can also have some of these experiences some of the time. It’s not ‘does it happen,’ but how often does it happen? Is it having a negative impact on the student’s ability to perform their role and responsibilities?

When teaching piano to neurodiverse children, always ask: What are the strengths of this child?

Begin there.

Thank you so much to Rebekah for all her work in bringing this great content to us today. Please give her a shout-out on social media when you see this episode in your newsfeed and spread the love by sharing.

OK guys, so I have a confession to make. Last year in episodes 1-50 since the podcast was new, and I wanted to help you get to know me, your hots a little, I shared fun facts about myself at the end of every episode.

This year for episodes 50-100, I’ve been sharing all kinds of random tip both teaching and life-related.

I want to be real here and I just have to use this one to say I’m running a little out of steam and random tip ideas as wear come to the end of this years season of episodes. So, I would love to throw this back at you!

I would love to feature YOUR tiny tips here in the last few episodes of the year. All you have to do is visit the show note and click on the link to send me a voicemail! I would love to feature your voice. If you’re comfortable, feel free to share your name and where you’re from as well.

Could be fun – I look forward to hearing from YOU!

Have a great week!