Flourishing through music: Local teacher helps special needs kids thrive with piano lessons


LATHAM, N.Y. (NEWS10) – A Capital Region woman is using the language of music to help children with special needs flourish.

Parents often seek extracurricular activities for their children to help expand their horizons. It’s not an easy task, and it becomes even more complicated when a child has special needs.

But in a small studio in Latham, special needs, like autism, don’t just speak; they sing.

Chris Sumner has been tickling the ivories for more than a decade. He’s a professional pianist with autism. His place on the Autism Spectrum seems to evaporate when he sits at the keyboard.

“He finds ways that he can make a living with his talents,” Dee Cucinotta said.

Cucinotta has been working with Sumner since he was a young boy. He is just one example of the 35 to 40 students that Cucinotta teaches at a time – all of them with special needs.

“Autism, Asperger’s, ADHA, Down syndrome, children with behavioral issues, children with process issues,” she said.

Cucinotta discovered her gift of giving children with special needs more confidence when she was young herself.

“I grew up with a neighbor that had down syndrome back in the 60s, and when I was a music student at Queens College, her mother asked if I would give her piano lessons because they had a music therapist and she wasn’t getting anywhere,” Cucinotta explained. “They went from two years of almost nothing to two weeks of this girl playing and that started me. That was it.”

When she became a mom, Cucinotta’s mission became even clearer and more personal.

“I have a child with special needs,” she said. “I work very hard to make sure that these parents trust me because I can’t let them down. If I was trusting my child to this teacher, I know what I would want from her. And that’s where I work from. So I can’t let them down. That’s it.”

The lessons are slower placed. They’re more visual and tailored to each individual student.

While they all learn a little differently based on their needs, the end result always seems to be the same: barrier breaking.

“It’s going to make me cry even as you say it,” Cucinotta said. “I think it’s the most wonderful thing for them. Their parents see it. We all love that kind of stuff. That’s what telling us that the hard work – and it is hard work – that practicing that we put in, the amount of work parents and I put in behind the scenes is all worth it because their self-esteem goes through the roof.”

A child who only wants to fit in will become extraordinary.

“They haven’t had that kind of experience that people are coming up to them and telling them how great they are, and that motivates them for lots of things; not just playing piano,” Cucinotta said.

Visit Piano for Special Kidz’s website to learn more.

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