For transparency, Mr Ivan Lim, whose Facebook saga over a Yamaha music teacher who had declined to teach his autistic son went viral a few days ago, is the editor of The Pride. As there is a conflict of interest, The Pride’s editorial team ensured that he played no part in the development of this story.
Last week, a 12-year-old boy went to Yamaha Contempo Music School for his second music lesson, only to be turned away at the door by his teacher.
Alex, who is on the autism spectrum, had enjoyed his first lesson a week before, and had even practised for the next class, as coaxed by his grandmother.
But in a Facebook post published by his father Ivan Lim, 51, he shared that when he arrived at the Plaza Singapura outlet last Friday evening, he learned that his son would not have his lesson because “the teacher had said he did not want to teach Alex because of the boy’s autism”.
Yamaha has since apologised to Mr Lim over the incident, and he has accepted it. Rather than lay more blame on the feet of the music school, The Pride decided to find out what the policies of other music schools in Singapore are when it came to teaching children with special needs.
Lawrence Holmefjord-Sarabi, co-founder of local music school Aureus Academy, told The Pride that students with special needs deserve the same opportunity to pursue a love for music.
Having taught such students himself, the award-winning pianist said: “I feel very strongly that music is a universal language that nobody should ever be barred from learning because of their background.”
First opened in 2013, Aureus Academy now has some 3,000 students enrolled across six centres islandwide. Holmefjord-Sarabi estimated that the school has taken in more than 50 students with special needs since its inception.
The school’s teachers are encouraged to have an interview with the parents of these students, who understand their children more intimately and can guide the teachers on how to coach them more effectively.
“Each child is so different, there may be things that could set them off in different ways. It’s a learning process. It can be very difficult, like when a child has a meltdown. But working with the parent to develop a plan that’s best for the child is what’s most successful.”
Aureus Academy’s teachers are encouraged to persist and seek guidance from more experienced teachers in order to become a better coach to the child. Describing rejection as potentially “confrontational and traumatising” to students, especially those with special needs, Holmefjord-Sarabi said: “A teacher will never be allowed to say – I’m not going to teach this person. But they’re welcome to reach out for help or ask for advice.”
In contrast, T’ang Quartet violinist Ang Chek Meng felt that not every teacher is capable of handling students with special needs.
Ang, who teaches at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory and also coaches privately, recalled once having a student who was a high-functioning autistic in his class. Coaching him was challenging at times because of his mood swings and lack of confidence: “He could be very expressive, or very uncommunicative, depending on the mood he was in. I had to learn when to comfort him and when to be strict.
“Unless you’re really trained, it’s quite unfair to expect every teacher to be able to cope with a special needs student.”
Ang always conducts trial lessons with his students before taking them on, and professed that he has turned away students if he felt he would not be able to handle them. He said: “Music lessons are a two-way street. As a teacher, you want to enjoy teaching the student. But if it doesn’t work out, the student may learn better under somebody else.”
So while he has some sympathy for the Yamaha teacher if he had turned Alex away as he felt he couldn’t manage, Ang felt that the situation could have been handled better.
Teaching at a music school like Yamaha, he may not have been given the choice of students he was assigned, as compared to private coaches who can decide who they want to mentor. But instead of turning away his student at the door, which Ang described as “unprofessional”, he should have taken it up with the school to have alternative arrangements made.
Ang, whose eldest son is a high-functioning autistic, observed a general lack of empathy and understanding towards those with special needs, saying: “We are still very much a society that longs for well-behaved children and anything out of the ordinary is frowned upon. Not just music, but in schools, in all segments of society.”
Citing talents such as Jacob Velazquez, an autistic 9-year-old piano prodigy whose talent has gained a worldwide following, Holmefjord-Sarabi hopes that more people will lose the misconception that people with special needs lack musical abilities.
He said: “If someone says an autistic child can’t learn an instrument, they’re simply wrong. They’re not aware of how it works and all the astoundingly gifted people out there who may have autism. One of the biggest things that could help is more efforts towards awareness.”
In fact, challenging students are not limited to those with special needs, said Ang, who once took a student who was tone-deaf under his wing. What may be more important, is the learning journey and the effort put into nurturing their love for music.
He said: “If you want to be inclusive, there may be certain limits to how far you can go, but that’s not to say that the teacher can’t at least help you along, or encourage you to be as good as you can be.”