The Plus of the Compensation

If a blind or deaf child achieves the same level of development as a normal child, the child with a defect achieves this in another way, by another course, by other means. And, for the pedagogue, it is particularly important to know the uniqueness of the course, along which he must lead the child. The key to originality transforms the minus of the handicap into the plus of the compensation. (Russian psychologist, Lev Vygotsky)

My love for the work of the late neuropsychologist, Oliver Sacks, has led me recently into the writings of some of his primary influences. I have been reading bits of Alexander Luria’s The Mind of a Mnemonist and am increasingly interested in his own teacher, the Russian psychologist, Lev Vygotsky. All three doctors made careers of studying brain function by studying and documenting the stories of their patients from a phenomenological perspective. With each individual they strove to uncover a map of function and learning that not only explained their difficulties and dysfunctions, but, revealed, moreover, what gave rise to exceptional genius, creativity, artistry—the phenomena of the compensations for the difficulty that allowed them to not only work around difficulty, but to function in some other way at a very high level.

This work interests me as a teacher for each of my students and clients, but it is particularly relevant when the difficulty is seemingly more obvious and yet the compensation and the way into successful learning remains quite elusive. In the following case, as is more often than not, it was my own inability to perceive the compensation beyond my assumptions of what it might be that had to be overcome for the best learning to occur. I am publishing this account of our work with her permission.

One of my violin students suffers from low vision as a result of oculocutaneous albinism. She is legally blind and often walks with a cane, but is able to and prefers to read by placing material very close to her face. She reads well this way, but the conditions have to be ideal in terms of lighting and text/music size, and even the background behind the text makes a huge difference.
When she came to her first lesson with me, with the intent of becoming a professional in music, she played almost all of her music while reading with her eyes 1-2 inches from the music stand. She had to position her violin on the opposite side of the stand, extending out from the back of the stand, in order to be close enough to read what was on the page, affecting her posture and limiting her ability to move.
I have taught students with various visual challenges before, and most have a very strong aural sense that compensates for the visual loss, so it seemed natural to me to have her begin to work on learning music aurally and playing from her aural memory. I was surprised that she had reached such a high level of proficiency in her playing without working this way.
However, as we began to try to work this way, it became fairly clear that this was not a simple task. Her ears were excellent in making small corrections, and she was able to sing back what she heard with accuracy, but mapping this into some kind of physical coordination in playing eluded her.
We tried multiple ways of building aural sequences in her playing, but it seemed like she always wanted to come back to the reading as a primary means for learning her music–an arduous task, which, even with visual aids and large print, still took months to internalize.
Over time, I began to notice that in addition to her surprising visual dependence, she was also very dependent on physical organization — leaving her fingers down to “hold her place” on the fingerboard as she played — a habit that also produced quite a bit of physical tension in her playing. She recognized this tension, but struggled to “let go” and become lost in what seemed to be a vast, unmapped space of the violin…she seemed to have mapped the relationships she felt in her hands but not connected that so clearly to the violin. For example, she could find various intervals using the relationship between one finger and another once she found a starting place on the violin, but she didn’t know where these notes existed between her body and her own instrument independent of finding a starting point.
Recently I tried a different kind of experiment with her finally allowing her to use her preferred tactile sense to illustrate a new concept for organizing her practice. I had her close her eyes and I handed her various objects to identify. Some I handed her right-side-up and others in various orientations; some objects were familiar and others had familiar features, but she had not actually seen or felt them before. I asked her to describe the features and tell me what she thought they were. As she turned them over in her hands, her descriptions became very detailed with regard to texture, volume, weight, and other features. Even with the unfamiliar ones, her descriptions were complete. I asked her how she knew how to identify them, and she recognized that she had to turn them over and examine each from as many perspectives as possible, sometimes feeling just one element and then relating it to the whole. She realized that she could find any starting point and begin to map the whole.
My idea was to show her this capacity to explore fully from multiple starting points in order to get a tactile “picture” of the whole, and then to show her that this could happen with the kinesthetic in relation to the aural in learning music, too. She got this immediately, and we both began to recognize how important honing this kinesthetic strength and attaching it to her aural sense AND particularly in changing perspective so that she felt it and heard the music together in many ways was an important step in her memory. She noticed that her usual approach was to find the same starting and stopping points. So I began playing parts of passages that she already knew but starting 2-3 beats into the passage and stopping on various ending notes for her to reproduce. At first this was extremely difficult, as she felt she could only start at the beginning of the passage and stop at her normal ending to play it. But as we continued in this way of always reproducing parts of the passage within changing limits and then stringing them together with the limits overlapping, her memory began to become increasingly clear and reliable.
A week later she returned to her lesson having learned and memorized the full exposition of a Mozart violin concerto and could play through this segment without stopping. When I quizzed her on sections, playing them for her with different starting and stopping spots, she could immediately identify their location in the music, recognize the relationship to the meter, and we could discuss discrepancies in bowing and fingering that were making her uncomfortable. Instead of having to micromanage every physical detail of the playing, she was, for the first time, connecting the parts into a clearer whole. She was able to relinquish rather easily some of the physical tension tied to her “place holding” tendencies on the instrument.
When I asked to describe her practice, she said that she was able to find her own ways now to create starts and stops in each section to “turn them over” in her mind until the pieces fit together clearly. I asked her how much time this took compared to previous weeks, and she responded that her practice time was the same, but that the results came faster.
It was a great lesson to me with a student whom I had struggled to determine whether or not she was really putting in the work to learn. The difference was so striking in the outcome, that I realized how important it is to help each student find the kind of work that plays to their greatest strengths.

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