Guitar Student with Disabilities and His Teacher Learn From Each Other

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When musician E.J. Simpson learned that he would be giving Duncan Haines, a student with disabilities, guitar lessons six years ago at Danny’s Guitar Shop in Narberth, Pa., he was not apprehensive.

“I was curious how the lessons would pan out. I looked at it as to be open to what is possible,” Simpson said.

Simpson and Haines started talking about music and notes. “I quickly learned that it wasn’t going to be just another lesson for another student,” said Simpson. “It was going to be a unique experience. Haines was 14 when he began taking lessons. Now at age 20, Simpson still teaches him on Wednesday afternoons.

Simpson described Haines as creative and playful and just being in the moment. “That’s how it is when I work with him,” said Simpson. “That’s a fun situation to be in, but I’m not sure what type of memory he has. I don’t know what type of brain retention he has or his cognitive abilities. I might not be able to teach him certain chords or songs. I enjoy teaching him.”

“EJ’s a good guy,” said Haines. “I like him.”

Duncan’s father Chip Haines said that Simpson has done more for Duncan than just giving him music lessons. “E.J. taught Duncan about making commitments and managing his time. He also taught Duncan that he can accomplish a lot if he puts his mind to something. Duncan practices the guitar and drums every day.”

Asked about Duncan’s disabilities, his father answered: “He was diagnosed with Down Syndrome.”

“I don’t have a disability,” said Duncan Haines.

“OK, Duncan doesn’t agree with the diagnosis,” his father said.

“I don’t have a disability,” said Duncan with finality.

The interview transitioned back to Duncan’s lessons with Simson.

‘The lessons are fun,” said Duncan.

Simpson elaborated that lately Duncan has been playing less guitar and singing more.

Duncan usually now brings three bags with him to his music lessons. One bag contains his microphone, another a laptop computer, and his third consists of stuffed animals.

Simpson said that Duncan likes to take the stuffed animals out of the bag, place them on a shelf, and then pretend that he’s giving them a concert. After certain numbers, he will share what they thought about the performance. “’I think Mr. Fox liked it; so does Mr. Monkey.’”

Simpson elaborated that he likes how Duncan is passionate about music.

Duncan is not just playful during his music lessons. Sometimes, he and his mother Susan will enter a nearby cafe and place a food order. Duncan informs the cashier to put the name Big Bear on his food order. His mother reminds the cashier: “Do it and I’ll give you a bigger tip.” Duncan once pointed to his mother and told the cashier to put the name Mama Big Bear on her food slip.

Have you or a loved one with a disability taken music lessons?

Share your experiences with our community in the comments below. 

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I am a legally blind freelance reporter and documentary producer/director. I have made eight documentaries, many of which focused on people with disabilities facing adversity. Some of my films won film festival awards and were televised. I earned my Masters' in Journalism at Temple University in Philadelphia in 2017.

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