Mrs Paval’s Patience
A teacher from Bistrita learned from a child with special needs that sometimes we don’t pick the music, but the music picks us.
Having won the first prize in an online piano competition playing Brahms’ Rhapsody in G minor, Eduard said something to his teacher, Lidia Paval, that left her speechless. They had won other awards over the ten years they’d been studying together, but for this competition they prepared under special conditions. For two months, while in lockdown due to the pandemic, they had distance classes. She listened to concerts via Skype or on the phone, sometimes through parasitic noise. She gave him precise guidance: more piano here, you should take a break and breath there, correct your body posture.
Dudu, as the teachers affectionately call Eduard, paid close attention to her and tried to play better.
Dudu is a student in the 10th form at the “Tudor Jarda” Music High School of Bistrita. At twenty-one months of age, he was diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. The piano, which he’s been studying with Lidia Paval since he was 7, was his salvation. The prerequisites for enrolling in a mainstream school alongside children of his age were: six years of uninterrupted therapy (still ongoing), his mother’s perseverance and struggle for his rights, as well as a teacher who took him on when all others turned him down.
When Dudu won the online contest and, though not in his nature, said to the teacher “I wouldn’t want to learn piano with other teachers”, Paval sensed in his words a kind of love she had never received in her 40 years as a teacher.
At the beginning, even she didn’t believe he would manage. “At the time, it was out of the question for a special educational needs (SEN) child to go to school with typical ones. Nobody imagined that a child who does nothing but yell and jump can learn to talk or play the piano flawlessly”, says Paval. But she promised his mother, Ana, who had been her student for eight years, that she’d give it a try.
When Dudu wasn’t yet 2 years of age, Ana noticed that his behaviour was atypical. He no longer used the words he’d learned, he never pointed his finger, when she picked him up, he’d block her with his knees, and he’d only go out of the house carrying a coat-hanger, like other children take their teddy bear with them. After several visits to psychologists and two mistaken diagnostics with mental retardation, a Cluj-based physician carefully examined Dudu and gave the mother a sheet of paper that read “infantile autism”.
From a medical perspective, autism spectrum disorders are a group of complex brain development disorders characterised by difficulties in social interaction and verbal and non-verbal communication and by repetitive behaviours. They may be associated with focusing and motor coordination difficulties. In other words, autism is a brain disorder that impacts the child’s capability to communicate and interact socially. Full recovery does not exist. However, if diagnosed early (around the age of 2) and if therapy starts forthwith, there are chances for recovery and social integration.
When Dudu was diagnosed in 2006, very little was known about autism. There were no therapists in Bistrita-Nasaud specialising in working with autistic children, so Ana started to look for solutions. She started to learn about the Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) therapy, the only one scientifically proven to help the recovery of autistic persons. With the help of a journalist friend, she set up the Association “Autism Europa Bistrita”, the first in the County to provide information, awareness raising and education services for the benefit of children with autism spectrum disorders, their families, experts and communities. One year later, the two took advantage of the City Hall giving out grants to NGOs and established the Autism Resources and Referral Centre “Micul Print”, specialising in the recovery and integration of autistic children in mainstream education.
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According to the Association, in Bistrita-Nasaud there are currently some 900 children with SEN, 13 speech therapists, 36 education counsellors and 22 support teachers. A 2018 study on the inclusion index shows that share of SEN children integrated in mainstream schools in the City of Bistrita has been increasing, to 2.32%, yet is still half of the 4.44% European average.
Whilst Dudu was the first autistic child integrated in mainstream education in the County, now almost all the 50 children of the Centre go to school.
The music school was the natural direction for Dudu. When he was 3 and a half years old, Ana bought herself an upright piano to help her wind down on the days filled up by Dudu’s therapy. For about a month, he wouldn’t go into the room where the piano was – the new piece of furniture that let out strange sounds scared him. After he got used to it, he started pressing keys and learned the notes. On his first contact with the piano, he played perfectly four connected bars.
In playing, Ana noticed that Dudu had absolute pitch (he identified any musical note without seeing the instrument on which it was played). He was in the kitchen when she called out to him from the piano: “What note is this?” “C.” “What about these two?” “C and E flat.” “These? „D, F sharp, A, B flat, E. You didn’t get them quite right, mom!”.
A few months later she started looking for a teacher for him.
For two years, Dudu took private classes and the piano became the only thing he learned happily. He’d spend eight straight hours at the piano without budging. He wanted to play faster, but couldn’t, because he had small hands and the muscles didn’t help him either to keep the rhythm. He cried for not being able to play as fast as the teacher. When the first teacher had to move out from town, he asked many of his colleagues to help enrol Dudu at the music school. They all refused. Ana than asked her secondary school piano teacher, renown in town for her performances with students.
“School must first of all accept children with special needs.”
When Paval heard Dudu playing for the first time (three seamless pieces of his liking), she saw that he had musical skills. She told Ana: “Let’s try”. For the whole summer they met every week, to make friends before starting the first form.
Lidia Paval is 63 years old, she is from Cluj-Napoca and, same as Dudu, has been studying piano since kindergarten. She attended the local music high school and Conservatory and, though she graduated with high GPA, she didn’t get assigned to a position in a city. She could have taken a teaching post in Bucharest or, as she dreamed, at the seaside, at Constanta, but she preferred to be closer to her family. She chose Bistrita simply because, unlike Zalau, which was the alternative, they had hot water on tap every day.
Her first hours with children were shocking. If you are perfectionist and make music at a certain level, when you start with children from scratch, is like learning music over again yourself, says Paval. She quickly understood though that she was very patient with children. She can spend hours and on with them practicing, even though they haven’t done their homework. “Whether they are earnest or less earnest, I still use myself up all the same. I have infinite patience when I work with them, because children do not fight back when you tell them how to play or what to practice at home. Most of them heed my requests.” She believes that her patience is inherited from her parents – they were good people and never quarrelled with anyone, so that neighbours from the entire block of flats came to them to share their troubles.
Students know that she is demanding, and she knows that this is what they say about her on the corridors. “Uhmmm, I’ve got piano class again and didn’t practice. She’s gonna’ give me a hard time!”, she mocks them laughingly. She is amused because she knows they are saying this lovingly. She did not want to shape them such as to fear her as they would a taskmaster, but rather understand that they must be industrious and serious if they want to perform.
She discovered Dudu a little at a time. He is her first and only SEN student. “I had children who were more difficult than him, who came to class and said: «I only want to play what I like» or «I’m not at all in the mood »”. from the very beginning, she found him scrupulous and talented and gave him to play difficult sonatas, as she gave his colleagues. Dudu complained that he had to repeat songs he had learned in previous years, but Paval would take his hand and say: “Look how much your fingers have grown. We must do exercises to improve your fingers’ span, resistance and strength every year. That is why you don’t press the keys evenly. It seems to me that last year you were more even on 5 with 4 and 3 but look how small 5 has remained now”. And then Dudu would understand.
She also understood something important in her over 40 years of school teaching. “School must first of all accept children with special needs.” Dudu showed her that all children have the same rights, and each should be supported to realise his/her potential.
Ever since she set up the Association, Ana wanted more teachers to be like Lidia Paval, so she got involved directly. She specialised in cognitive-behavioural psychotherapy and ABA supervision and therapy and started to deliver courses and training sessions to teachers and families. Since 2012, the Association has been delivering the Antidiscrimination Awards, where prizes are given to County schools that include children with special needs in mainstream education (last year, five schools of Bistrita received diplomas for the almost 230 SEN children attending them).
For Dudu, the help his teacher gave him came sometimes with stories and jokes. “Look, you must raise your hand slowly, like a crane, and keep your arm up, even if it hurts. If you can’t hold it up, I will hold it up for you, but only for a little while. And should you drop your arm, the crane will collapse on your legs.” If she wants to explain to him how to play a short note, to be able to produce more sound effects, she tells him: “Imagine raindrops falling on the keys, this is how your fingers should fall too”. Sometimes, Dudu surprises her by asking simple things. Like when he was in the 6th form and, at the end of an explanation, asked her: “What does ‘and’ mean?”. And she answered: ‘You know, it’s like when you say that you like Bach and Chopin and Liszt”.
Now the two work together four hours each week. When he doesn’t do his homework, Dudu comes in panicked, because he is prone to overreacting, and she must placate him. She knows that he doesn’t like crowds and noise and sometimes feels assaulted when somebody touches him lightly with the ball. The advantage is that they are on their own at class and nobody fiddles around or stares at him.
She is awfully amused of him calling her “Paval”, and not “Mrs” or “teacher” and never tried to correct him. Or when he suddenly says: “I can’t go on, I am tired” and goes to lay down on the bed she improvised for him on two chairs.
Dudu still can’t stand her touching his fingers on the keys. To explain how a note should sound, beyond any stories and jokes, she must put her hand over his. “I need to provide him with a model of how the piece should sound. And for this I must press on the keys for each note. I basically stop at each finger he must play”, says Paval. Sometimes, she demonstrates how the piece should sound, gives him examples on YouTube and, when he sees for himself that he can’t get it right, then he lets her touch his fingers. Paval knows that Dudu needs to feel the sound, because this is the only way it will become imprinted in his memory and his hand will know how to play it.
First, I start with 5 centimetres of the sheet. Finger by finger. For 6 minutes, the duration of Brahms’ rhapsody, Dudu must practice 6 months to sound perfect. In the future, he might go to the conservatoire, so Paval gets him to work in each session, because music is not a degree for which you can start learning two years before admission. She tells him that, as a great pianist put it, performance is: “After you have played a piece 100 times, only if you play it 200 more times you can say you have mastered it”.
And she has all the patience in the world to help him.
This article was written by DoR with the support of UNICEF.