The Playground

The Simply Music blog

Simply Music Teacher – Cathy Hirata

Found in: Simply Music Community


Class one starts with a student who has refused to demonstrate at home that he can actually play at all, but then surprises everyone by playing both hands together perfectly for his teacher. Class two is a breakthrough because a non-verbal student has said his first sentence. Class three features a student with severe echolalia who had not been able to express his needs but when asked, makes eye contact and says “yes”. A student in class four has moved the majority of his songs to his “independent list” and proudly displays that he no longer needs his mother’s assistance. Welcome to a typical working day for Cathy Hirata, Simply Music teacher and maker of musical miracles.

Cathy’s down-to-earth manner hides a strong formal musical background, including high-level classical voice and piano training and performing with the San Jose Symphony and San Jose Opera throughout the U.S. and Canada. A scholarship recipient and graduate of San Jose State University, she has a Bachelor of Music Degree in Vocal Performance, and has taught music in both elementary and high school music programs. She is currently completing her certification in autism studies with the University of California Davis Mind Institute.

In addition to being a Senior Associate Simply Music Teacher, she is a Certified Signing Smart Educator and is the music director for Autism Tree Project Foundation in San Diego. Cathy is a Kindermusik Maestro recognized for her work with children with special needs. Her studio was nominated for Heroes of Hope and she has won several awards for Best Music Studio in the East Bay Area.

We asked Cathy to tell us a little about her teaching life.

What do you think drew you to pursuing a career in music?

My family has a long history of music teachers, performers, singers and college professors. My great-aunt was a pianist for the silent movies. My ambition was to be a classical concert pianist so I studied for years to that level. It’s not an easy thing to do, I remember long 6-10 hour days of rehearsals. It’s like being an Olympic athlete. I was also an accompanist for many shows in the Bay Area as well. But I was a better singer, so I turned to opera, which I was better at and enjoyed more, but I could tell it still wasn’t a passion. Believe it or not, for me it became a choice of becoming a chef (a hobby I still enjoy) or a music teacher. Once I started my student teaching in college I became absolutely clear that performance was not something I wanted to do – it didn’t make me feel whole or complete, but when I was teaching, I felt at home, like I didn’t have a job. I knew it was what I was supposed to do.

My sister introduced me to Simply Music. Her son was taking lessons and I clearly remember her showing the program to me and immediately dismissing it because “they don’t learn to read”. She kept pushing me and I finally relented and said “okay, I’ll look into it”. I ended up buying the Learn at Home Program for my son. He called me about 3 hours later and said “Mom, this is exactly what I wanted to do-listen”. He played almost every song in the book. I was completely baffled. I had to know more. Now what I realize is how much I missed. When you learn classically you are so restricted and so limited. I had had no exposure to blues or jazz. I now enjoy playing even more than I did before.

I love seeing the results in my students, knowing that I can have a long lasting effect on them and make a difference. Watching them grow and be successful in performance and their day-to-day lives.

You have a particular interest in working with students with special needs. How did that interest come about?

Honestly? They came to me. But as I look back on my life, I understand the reasons why things occurred the way they did for me. When I first started teaching Simply Music, I would get calls from parents who thought it would work for their children, so I thought why not?

What was disturbing was the stories parents would tell about how traditional teachers would refuse their children because they had some sort of disability or their IQ wasn’t high enough. Or because they couldn’t talk there was no way for them to understand the instructions. I was embarrassed and could not believe that my colleagues would discount the education of an individual because they were missing a hand, were blind, had autism or some other developmental disability. When did we get to be so arrogant? Clearly they had forgotten the research done on the long-term effect of music education and the brain. Everyone deserves the opportunity to play an instrument, learn about music and just have fun.  Just because someone can’t speak doesn’t mean they can’t learn. It’s as simple as that. That’s all it took for me. I felt driven.

Even though I have a mixed studio of students, over time people kept telling me this was my calling and I needed to pursue it further, which is what I’m in the process of doing right now with my expansion. It feels right – my vision is very clear now.

What do you most enjoy about working with special needs students? What’s unique about them?

Knowing that with Simply Music I can and do make a difference. I know traditional methods very well. Most students struggle with them, let alone those with concrete thinking patterns. Seeing students talk for the first time, seeing the connections made that affect their lives in all areas is really a gift for me.

And it makes me happy to see the results I can get from these children. Parents who were inquiring about lessons would cry on the phone saying, “My child just wants to learn. Will you please try?” Or out of sheer desperation, they would lie about their child’s condition, then bring the child in for an assessment, apparently thinking I would not notice.

Having a child who is severely hearing impaired, this really hit home for me. I could easily empathize with these parents. I made it my mission to make sure that I was educated, and understand the learning ability of each student so I could go to the core of their needs and help them progress in a way that was clear and concise to them. I relied on books, internet, movies, whatever it took, including discussions with other parents to help my understanding of how to move forward. I had to because even the founder of Simply Music had no knowledge of working with autism. It was up to me.

Unique? There really is nothing unique. They are as varied as typical children. Each and every child/student is unique in their own way.

How much do you need to ‘tailor’ the program to the needs of each student?

That depends on the student and what their learning abilities are. Sometimes I tailor it a little, sometimes I just start with getting their fingers moving, or doing rhythm, dance, some exercises, whatever it takes to reach the student.

What does music provide for special needs students?

The ability to do something they are often told they can’t do. As strange as that may sound, here anyway, life is black and white in special ed classes. They are right or wrong. There is no freedom of expression, so often children will come in to class afraid to try. Once they understand that’s it’s okay to enjoy piano, lessons become fun and engaging. But I think more than anything I see confidence, socialization, motor skills, increase in abstract thought processes, language, all of the modalities of learning presented in single thought processes.

How does it make a difference for parents?

When I have parents say to me, “please just take my child, all he wants to do is learn” it’s really heartbreaking. I have a hard time telling parents I don’t have times available. Parents actively participate and create their own diagrams, learn in class, understand what’s going on, will ask me do you think this is okay to try? It’s great to see their participation. Some have formed somewhat of a bond supporting newer parents and talking about what works for their students etc. It’s great! But more importantly, my studio is all-inclusive. Parents want their children treated in the same way as others. Parents really appreciate this and they tell me frequently.

Can you tell us about a few of your students?

The first story that always comes to mind for me was a particular Saturday. This student has autism, speaks only in broken words and has a lot of echolalia (repeats tv commercials etc). He was thumbing through a Disney book while his mom and I were talking. He found a song called “Someday” he wanted to learn. He put in on the music stand took my hand and put it on top of his, pointed to the song with his other hand and said “Teacher help me.”

I recall another time when I had a student who hated music as a child, refused to listen to it or hear his mom sing. At his first recital his mom was very nervous, but I knew he could do it. After finishing The Pipes he jumped up and down exclaiming, “I did it, I did it!”

I recently started a 5 year old with autism who only talks when he wants. His mom said to me that he never responds to his teachers at school. But he immediately started talking to me at his first lesson. His mom and dad couldn’t believe it. He repeats instructions, sings songs, calls himself silly and says I’m silly.

Another student, Casey, has been with me for about 5 years. She has autism, is 16 years old and a straight A student, and has been composing music since age 3. Her mom had tried traditional lessons but they didn’t work. Casey immediately began to vary the Simply Music pieces to her liking. In fact in 2008 when she met Neil, she played Sit By My Side for him. She asked him if he could tell where she changed it. He said yes and asked her why she changed the piece. She said “because I like mine better.” She has had difficulty expressing her needs and communication can be difficult for us when discussing abstract subjects. She never liked to perform in public but does now without any fear. She is an amazing composer and can complete a 5-7 min piece in about 1 1/2 hours. Her songs have always been complex. She just completed a piece called “The Haunting” and was runner up in her school music contest. Casey is currently writing a book for children about Simply Music and her experiences taking lessons.

One of my students with autism has severe echolalia. Before playing he would say “and now a musical interlude.” He was verbally unresponsive but I would occasionally get him to look me in the eye. For the first time a few months ago I explained a hand position to him and he said “pinky on C.” He now requests practice time at home and asks to go to lessons.

After two months of lessons another student played and sang Dreams Come True at a recital for an audience of approximately 700 people, and brought tears to many eyes. He stood up after and applauded himself because he was so proud.

Many students with autism suffer from high anxiety disorders. When one of my students first started with me, she was afraid to touch the keys of the piano, spoke very little, and apologized constantly. She has since asked her parents to not sit in lessons anymore because she wants that time for herself. She has also performed in recital. I was recently given the gift of her singing Over the Rainbow to me in class. This was a huge accomplishment for her and a moment I will always cherish. And this past January she stood up in front of all the Simply Music teachers at Symposium and said “No Woo Hoo’s but clapping is ok”. During a school field trip to a local hotel he asked to play the piano and played his entire repertoire. But the most startling revelation to me was when his mother said that he was now teaching his sister how to play.

Some students show remarkable abilities in the area of composition. One of my students is quite advanced in this area, wanting to own a studio and write the background music for movies. Her mother had told me that there was no way traditional piano lessons would work for her due to the anxiety it was causing from having to study multiple concepts simultaneously. In the five years I’ve had her as a student, she has composed over 40 pieces in various forms, all musically complex.

Another 7-year-old student with autism after three months of piano decided he wanted to play in a talent show at school. In front of his peers and all their parents he chose to play and sing Dreams Come True. Upon walking onto the stage he turned to the audience and said, “Quiet please.” He then played and sang his song, stood up said ” I love you all” and left.

Another student, Jaegar, was asked to perform at an autism fundraising event. To our great surprise he was asked to accompany and sing with Grammy Award Winner Michelle Williams of Destiny’s Child. At the time of his performance, Jaegar had had 27 lessons and never accompanied anyone. In addition, this was his first public performance ever with over 200 people in attendance. I couldn’t have been more proud. He was absolutely perfect.

You also teach Kindermusik and sign language classes. How do you juggle these responsibilities? Do you do any other work (as if that wasn’t enough)?

Due my expansion right now Kindermusik and American Sign Language are on hold. I hope to bring them back to the studio in the spring. The way it has worked in the past? My daughter Lindy, who is also a Simply Music teacher, is my ASL instructor. She runs an ASL program for hearing infants & toddlers. This has been very successful, and the results she has had with apraxic students is remarkable. She also teaches Kindermusik and I have had a Kindermusik teacher work for me in the past. My focus has to be on Simply Music right now due to my expansion. I have just hired new teachers and have just opened my new location in San Diego.

I’m also the co-chair of the International Simply Music Teacher Symposium which I do each year with my pal Bernadette Ashby – we love putting on this event for the teachers. But the most exciting thing is that I am working on a collaborative study with Arizona State University and Simply Music and will measure the effects of Simply Music and autism.