Adria's Story

By Sharon Johnston

As a private music teacher, every student is unique – they all come with their own talents and capabilities, and I feel so privileged to help each of them on their musical journey. There are some, however, who connect with you in a special way, and they end up teaching you more about yourself and your relationship to music, than you ever dreamed, and just when you think you have it all figured out! This is a story about me and my student, who is a very special friend, Adria Graham.

Adria is a brain injury survivor, having drowned at the age of four. After her accident, she had to learn to walk and talk all over again, and she still struggles with coordination, reading and writing, speech and many tasks that you and I take for granted.

I met Adria when she was 18 years old, and she started coming for weekly "lessons". I had no idea how to teach someone with special needs; although I was a music teacher I had never taught the harp before, and I was barely competent myself. Our relationship began when I was contacted by Adria's mother, who described her daughter's challenges. She told me how Adria had always loved the sound of a harp, but had never seen or touched the instrument.

Adria's mom wanted to give her some harp lessons as a Christmas gift, with the understanding that she would come to my studio and we would explore my harp together. We had no idea whether Adria could handle the fine motor skills necessary for any musical instrument, plus she wanted to see whether Adria's interest in the harp would last for more than a few weeks. There were no harp teachers within 200 km, so finding another teacher was not an option.

Once I met Adria I had to think long and hard about how to make this a positive experience for her – she has had so many challenges and barriers in her life, that the last thing she needed was to have another door shut for her. I decided that no matter what, we needed to have fun, we needed to make beautiful music, and I needed to get rid of any preconceived notion of "progress".

Adria started out painfully slow, and her fingers would not cooperate at first. She has more patience and perseverance than you can imagine, and it became apparent that this was not going to be a passing fad for her. Within a few months she was able to purchase a harp of her own, and start practising regularly. It was probably a year before she was able to play a recognizable "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star". Adria had difficulty playing at a steady pace, she had trouble remembering finger numbers and patterns, and she was not good at reading, so even writing out letter names was a slow process for her. I realized that I needed to recognise every small step along the way, and continually notice her progress.

What did amaze me, and still does, is Adria's memory. She can remember almost every piece of music that we have ever worked on. Within a few years she had learned a collection of folk songs and easy pieces, and they sound beautiful! Adria still plays very slowly, and has to labour long over each new piece, but once she has learned it, she will remember it! She easily has a repertoire of 20 to 30 pieces at any given time. I am probably more proud of her than of any other student I have worked with.

Adria made me think about what everyone wants when they take up a musical instrument – they want to have fun, and they want to make beautiful music. Everything else, whether they are making "progress" or not, is a byproduct of those two goals. I started accepting more harp students, and I treated each one the same way – how can we have fun, and make music together? I also realized that everyone would like to make music in a group setting, and started organising my harp students to play together as a group, so that everyone, even the beginners, can take part. I now have a collection of about 35 harp students, and all the music that they learn has beginner, easy and intermediate parts, so that all students can play at their level and make music together.

Back to Adria – I have known her for about 20 years now, and she still comes for weekly lessons. She lives and works on her family farm, where she is very involved in their Alpaca breeding herd. Deedee, her mom, is very musical and plays the piano, but I have discouraged her mom from taking up the harp – it is the one thing that Adria can do that no one else in her family can do. Adria performs with me frequently at churches and various events, even at weddings. Her motor skills and coordination are improving in all areas, which I think are a result of her music practice.

What has Adria taught me? That everyone can and should have music in their life, that it really doesn't matter what your playing level is, or what your mark on your latest exam is, or how many pieces you can play. What matters is that you enjoy your music, that you enjoy sharing it with others, and that you can make music with others and have fun together.

Adria is a living example of what the power of music can do!

Video of Adria

Video of Adria and Sharon