Many parents wonder how a game can really bring even special needs students into real musicianship. While our method is award winning, and proven, we recognize that some special needs, gifted, or just non-neurotypical people may require some extra adjustment. Some require LESS stimulation, or greater simplification, others are too easily bored, and want more more more, until they choose songs or levels where they fail outright, without knowing how to get back on the ladder. Others simply hit a wall, a surprisingly complex section or song, and despair of breaking through.
We have solutions to all of that, because that was ME. I started learning music as an adult, and I guarantee no one felt less talented, more challenged, or more frustrated. But I persevered, and in my struggles, found some amazing insights that lead to this breakthrough game system. But I NEVER forgot that I wanted to REALLY PLAY MUSIC. And, unfortunately or fortunately for me, really complicated music. So this "game" is actually retrofit with some hidden features that allow even the most complex views or songs to be broken down and simplified, something that I built remembering my struggles. And ironically, it has proven to be that if it could help me, it can help almost anyone, because I was, musically, at the bottom of the totem pile, and needed (but did not have) all of these features to help me at some time or another. Happily, this probably means "even you can play!"
Our whole philosophy, and how we found a surprising resonance with the special needs community, is that music is a birthright for ALL. We ALWAYS designed the game to include features to simplify and INCLUDE everyone possible, through a "graduated complexity" model. We basically tried to "atomize" music so that virtually anyone could take some small part of it, and SUCCEED, and then add musical or visual complexity or abstraction as they mastered the simpler steps. NOTE: Some of these features are built in (Steps 1-4) others were to be added "as needed". This sometimes requires the facilitator, parent or teacher, to do more adjustment and set up, but the game allows AMAZING focus, isolation, refinement and mastery of the music, in bite size pieces, no matter where you start.
That said, we also knew our adult audience was not computer techs or music teachers, but lay people, trying to help their kids succeed. With that in mind, we created a VERY simple series of video help files, basically "Show and Tell" to help a non-musical, non-teacher, non-tech person the ability to use the program to help virtually anyone play in minutes, not months. What we had never done before was put these somewhat hidden features in a useful list for even parents of the most challenged students to be able to use. First of all, the overstimulation has multiple possible solutions or ways to lessen it, that are built in, but not always apparent. The features are covered in both the Acsdemy Quickstart DVD, (A great place to start, it is thorough and gives a great overview) and in the Help section, and online at the helpdesk, but I now realize that we should perhaps outline each of those in this article especially for special needs families, as this is where it often arises as more critical. So, I am going to list various features that were designed to make sure and simplify the game playing so that almost anyone can play, and provide an online link to a video help file of each feature. Even if it doesn't end up helping you, perhaps some other families will find it a valuable resource, that until now has been buried in the normal help files but not really highlighted with people on the spectrum in mind specifically. Note that most of these features are part of Premier mode, which allows much more fine tuning of their experience than Easy Mode. Annette, I realize this list may seem overwhelming to you, let alone the idea of working through these with your child, but I want you to see that hidden in the game are MANY possible solutions. I am a "visual" guy, that is how the game came about, so I made the tutorials VERY visual, and much easier than the text you see below, but I wanted to be comprehensive for you. FIRST: Extended Guarantee and return instructions if needed. Let me assure you that I am perfectly willing to extend your guarantee for several more months if need be, if you are willing to make an honest effort and see if the game can help you change your child's brain and give him the gift of music, we are here to help! If not, if after trying these suggestions (any one could make the difference) then just contact Eliana@MusicWizard.com and ask her for return instructions. I do have one request, very sincere, Should you work through these and find success, PLEASE share with us what worked, and what didn't. We are developing "version 3" right now, and I would love to hear suggestions or underline important features. The special needs community is NOT a "profit center" for us, we just try not to lose money in it, but it really matters to us personally, and inspires us when we see whole families transform through the power of music. That is what we earnestly wish for you, and we are here for you as a resource and to support you on your journey. Below are ways to simplify or reduce stimulation of the game, more or less in order of the ease or usefulness. In other words, start with the first suggestions, and then perhaps try or add some of the others as well. They can be used alone, or in any combination, or even all at once. We love a challenge, and welcome your feedback which ones worked best for you. A) Tempo http://www.pianowizardacademy.com/video/32.swf (Tempo demo starts on Slide 9 of the demo) Tempo has 2 ways of controlling it. First thing to check is Options Tab in Premier mode, make sure the Manual Tempo checkbox is checked. This allows right and left arrow keys on the computer keyboard to be used to slow down and speed up DURING GAMEPLAY. This allows you to quickly and precisely adjust the best tempo while the game is being played. Often we slow it down TOO much, then have to ratchet it up a bit (tapping on the arrow button instead of holding it down let's you do more incremental changes) Kids will start slow, but be bored if it is TOO slow. Every song has a challenging section as well, so that may be slowed down and then speeded up once they are past that. Tempo also can be set from the Options Tab in Premier mode, if for example you know already that your son likes things half or a quarter as fast (each song varies of course) you can start there, and still have the option during gameplay of speeding it up or down. B) Visual Tab and simplification http://www.pianowizardacademy.com/video/38.swf As much as we strived to make the backgrounds and animations fun, they CAN be distracting, even detrimental to gameplay. Luckily we built in some ways do reduce or eliminate that into the Premier Mode. 1) Visual Tab is one of the most useful ways to play with this, and pretty easy to understand, test and use. We structured it like those old time overhead projectors with the transparencies, where you can layer, or unlayer, different effects. If you look at the list, you have a few options to play with regarding the backgrounds. You have a slider to change the opacity or brightness of the background, if the game objects are difficult to see against a particular background. You can also UNCHECK the background and you will get a generic blue background instead. 2) Sometimes kids will get anxiety about the score, even though they get applause no matter what they score. You can also UNCHECK the score during gameplay in the Visual Tab. 3) We have a colored guideline to show where the game object is going, usually this is helpful, but when you get to levels 3 and 4, we recommend you UNCHECK them because they get confusing with the staff lines in the background. 4) You can also add either fingerings (numbers) or note names (letters) on top of the game objects. We only recommend using them on levels 3 and 4 to start to wean the player off of the color coding. NOTE: IF you can get them to sing the fingerings or note names, or colors, this usually really really helps cement the song and the correct notes into their brain, NO MATTER HOW OFF KEY you or they are. This is shown in the Academy Quickstart DVD, and while it can be tough to get them to sing, if YOU do it, and invite them to join you, they can surprise you and even after a dozen songs, just start singing too. Even if you end up singing alone, it helps them learn faster, and your participation and support are one of the surprisingly bonding experiences that many autistic parents have discovered. I don't know about your child, but many have difficulty talking, looking people in the eye, hugging or even touching others. Yet the game and the music have proven to open up avenues of communication that even if "nonverbal" are like oxygen to both parent and child. Because of the surprising effects our game has had on cognitive development, I have researched more and more on the new neuroscience, and one book, "Your Brain at Work" by David Rock, though again not designed for people on the spectrum, gave me some insights. It turns out that "relatedness" is a primal need, EVEN WITH PEOPLE WHO ARE NOT GOOD AT IT! They doubly suffer, because they need it and yet can't handle the interactions well. So if music can be a bridge, even just as a listener, I say be open to it and fan those flames. Other parents have said once that bridge is started, other modes can pick up as well, as long as they feel safe. Back to the game features that may help. 5) Visual tab also lets you choose which Level (1,2,3 or 4) you are on. We encourage parents not to push kids to levels they don't feel comfortable with. Visual tab proves to be one of the most useful ways to customize/simplify the game interface to the right levels. C) World View http://www.pianowizardacademy.com/video/39.swf Shorter game objects are best, as the long game objects (meant to practice "legato" style playing) are harder to hit correctly (only the "head" counts). The other think to look for is more "round" game objects, these have more surface space so the colors stand out more. These include Flying Saucers, Eggs, Pianos, Alien heads, Turtles, etc. D) Keyboard Tab http://www.pianowizardacademy.com/video/30.swf You may have noticed that Easy Mode uses a smaller keyboard (3 octave) as the default view. This is because with less keys, each key is bigger, as are the game objects. We have a few other "tricks" to make that even better. In the Keyboard tab you can see (and set) both the manual keyboard size (is it 4, 5 or more octaves?) and choose a (different) visual keyboard size to be displayed on the screen. These adjustments will only be seen in the Premier mode, but for example if you set the manual keyboard size to only 2 octaves (leaving out the other available octaves on the keyboard when pressing the left and rightmost key) and set the visual keyboard view to 2 octaves, that fills the screen with less keys, bigger game objects, which are sometimes easier to see. We use this especially with visually impaired users or very young, so it is something to consider. NOTE: That adjustment will require some further adjustment in the "Tracks" Tab, explained next, which has some further and more precise adjustments possible. E) Tracks Tab http://www.pianowizardacademy.com/video/34.swf This is the most complex tab, perhaps comparable to the Visual Tab in fine tuning control, but it has some great capabilities, and becomes one of those that people love the most as they learn more and more about the game, music and MIDI. 1) Tracks Tab helps simplify in several interesting ways. Most MIDI files (music files that the game uses) are arranged in different parts, i.e, for all the Easy Mode or Academy songs, we arranged the right hand to be in Track 1 as the default, (and "on") and left hand in Track 2 (in accompaniment mode as a default unless selected in the Tracks menu). Obviously selecting JUST the right or left hand tracks can simplify the parts the child needs to play. OR you can have both tracks enabled, and YOU play one, and ask them to "help" you with the other. We have also seen where the parent took MOST of the right or left hand, but asked the child to "help" with just one of the notes, then two, etc. 2) It may have 3 or more OTHER tracks in accompaniment as well, as background instruments or music, that are not designed as parts to be learned, but as enhancers to the experience. These are set to "accompaniment" as the default, but THEY CAN ALSO BE MUTED. Sometimes the background accompaniment disrupts or drowns out the lead part they are playing, i.e, overstimulates or distracts from the gameplay. (NOTE: This can be muted in general from the Audio Tab with the Background music slider, but the Mute radio button selection is exact.) 3) You can ALSO change the instrument chosen for ANY of the tracks, so if you don't like the piano sound, you can choose another piano sound, or a different sound entirely, like Vibraphones or Flute, etc. I for example think the "sax" sound on most computers is irritating, so I mostly change it to something percussive, like Jazz guitar or smooth like Piccolo. Its fun to experiment, and if the child can tell you what sounds they don't like, one of the other strong nueroscientific survival buttons we all have is "autonomy", so just giving them choice opens up whole worlds of fun. 4) WHEN you select a track to "Play", you will notice on the bottom of the screen an 88 key keyboard, with a green or blue area of it shaded in. THIS is where THAT track (or TRACKS!) overlaps on the full keyboard. The RED brackets show where the smallest (Manual or Visual) keyboard view fits in that full keyboard. The red bracket must overlap the shaded track portion or those game objects are out of the keyboard range and will not show up. This feature in the game allows the user to select not just our MIDI files, but hundreds of thousands of others online, and use them in the game, with hundreds of other possible MIDI compatible keyboards, because you can: Select a MIDI file Select a track (or tracks) See where it fits on the 88 keyboard scale (bass on the left, soprano toward the right, etc) Shift your particular keyboard (4 octave practice keyboard included) to the right or left until it overlaps with this MIDI track. 5) But we put in a "MAGIC" feature on this Tracks Tab. We found that some kids could only handle a small part of a song that they liked, but was beyond them. You will notice on the bottom a button called "Choose Keys". This allows you to choose ANY two keys to narrow the available "play" area to something managable for anyone. This does not effect the size of the keyboard view, but it can make any piece simpler. For example, "Piano Man" by Billy Joel, is not included, but can be found online, with one arrangement having the right hand part in Track 3, but the melody covers about an octave. Often melodies like that are easily split up into right and left hand parts, but the "arrangement" did not do that. YOU can choose JUST the right four keys of the melody (in this case, D, E, F, and G) as "active" in the song and they can practice THAT arrangement, then you can switch to the left four keys (G, A, B and C)and make those "active" for the left hand practice. The REST of the notes not in that range are automatically counted as "accompaniment" and play in the background, not as visible game objects. So you can take any existing arrangement, and break it down even simpler for your child, in bite size pieces, and they can have a full and satisfying musical experience. Think of it as being in an orchestra, and you only have to play the simplest parts, but you still feel part of the whole thing. This of course requires more understanding and set up from you, but the game allows an incredible amount of control over what they see and have to deal with. F) Note Stretching http://www.pianowizardacademy.com/video/32.swf This is again on the "Options Tab" which we saw above but for Tempo, but this is a more subtle feature, one that I LOVE, but it is sometimes tricky to use at first. One of the issues with overstimulation is that on some songs there are multiple game objects on the screen at the same time, coming all too fast! Some of this is in that song's arrangement, or just the nature of the song. For example, "Jingle Bells" has some really fast repeated sections that can blur into each other. What to do? Even worse are files we import, that may have "sub-optimal" arrangements, or things like "trills" or ornaments that are very confusing and stacked on top of each other. This feature basically takes the same song, and STRETCHES the notes apart, so if 4 notes are on the screen all at once, after stretching the score, you only see 2 of them or 1 on the screen at a time. CAUTION! This almost always MUST be used together (at first) with TEMPO. Think about it. If I double or triple the space between notes, but the TEMPO is the same, then I need to get 3 times as much SPACE past you in the SAME amount of time, so those spaced out notes are now FLYING past. Just HALVE or QUARTER the original tempo when you stretch it, and THEN test it. Adjust the tempo/note stretching until you find a good match for that song (or section, sometimes you only need this to practice one part then can go back to standard view). G) Phrase Looping http://www.pianowizardacademy.com/video/32.swf ALSO part of the Options Tab, this allows a difficult section to be sectioned off, and repeated until you master it. So, to sum these features up A) Tempo, i.e, slow it down (Options Tab) B) Worlds Tab Pick short game objects, that are easy to see against the background. C) Visual tab, make it simpler, no background, lines, fingerings, etc, stay on level 1 D) Keyboard Tab, pick smaller visual keyboard size, means bigger game objects. E) Tracks Tab, Choose the correct or appropriate Track, mute others, and even "Choose Keys" to simplify the track even more for gameplay. F) Note Stretching, (Options Tab) lets you reduce the number of game objects onscreen at once, AND works great with slower tempos, i.e., makes them still seem exciting, but manageable. G) Phrase looping, (Options Tab) take a difficult passage and put it on Repeat until they can't fail. I like to set it very slow and gradually tap the tempo up to correct speed while they master it at the slower tempos. Feels like a video game tempo challenge, and you can always slow down again. As you can guess, we really do care, and hope this list is not annoying, but insightful, helpful and ultimately, successful in helping your child connect with the world of music, his family, and the world at large. Let us know any other questions, feedback, ideas you may have. We are committed to your success, and will do whatever we can to help. Thanks Chris
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