Finding harmony

Island pianist brings music to special needs kids

Elizabeth Celms
Mercer Island Reporter

Islander Connie Wible has a natural gift for music and patience. Over the years, she has learned to harmonize the two into a career.

The long-time Island piano teacher, who has nearly 60 students, offers more than piano theory and composition. She offers youth with special needs — from Autism Spectrum Disorder to hearing impairment to Attention Deficit Disorder — the chance to discover themselves through music.

“I had to invent a whole new way of teaching,” said Wible, who has completed college courses in psychology and music therapy. “It’s all about learning styles. You do whatever you can to hook these kids. It’s like teaching through the back door. You have to allow them to be creative.”

The mother of four has been teaching piano since the 1980s. She began in the basement of her North-end home, teaching every day after school and into the evening. Her students ranged from kindergartners to adults.

Today, Wible has three music rooms — one upstairs and two downstairs — with two digital pianos and two acoustical pianos. Oftentimes, her special needs students love to “race back-and-forth between the rooms,” eager to experiment with each piano’s unique features.

“It’s sometimes hard to contain the kids,” she explained with a smile. “I have a student with Autism Spectrum who likes to wander around the entire house. I told him the first week we have to stay upstairs, then we can go and try the downstairs pianos as a reward.”

Wible is no stranger to learning disabilities. Two of her four children were diagnosed with ADD and Aspergers Syndrome, inspiring the pianist to open her arms to others.

“They teach me so much. They help me grow,” she said, speaking of both her students and children.

Yet Wible’s children also bear exceptional talent — both visual and musical. In particular, Wible’s eldest daughter, Katrina. At 27, the vocalist, who sings in a band called Soul Kata and a jazz trio, has already seen promising success: two CDs — with a third due out in July — a growing reputation among local venues — from the Island’s Cellar 46 to the Sorrento Hotel in downtown Seattle — and plans to direct her first music composition class at Experience Music Project later this month.

When not in front of the spotlight, Katrina is home with her mother, teaching piano to children. She currently has 12 students of her own and often helps her mother with lessons, learning as she goes.

“It takes lots of experience and patience,” Connie said.

There are musical tools the teacher uses to help her students: namely, her prized digital piano — the Yamaha Clavinova.

In addition to radiating the commanding presence of a grand piano, the electronic keyboard offers an alphabet of acoustic alternatives: a digital scale of strings, pipe organ or a bubbling river (among a host of other options), a record and play-back feature, pre-programmed songs, back-up demos, vocal harmony and other digital candy for the ear.

For Connie, this state-of-the-art piano is more than just a toy. It provides her students with a spectrum of music, tempts them with creativity, stirs their imagination and, most importantly, keeps their attention.

“ADD kids are often right-brained and kinesthetic learners. They have good attention when using all the lights and bells and whistles,” Connie said.

There is a growing need for mentors like Connie, both in the larger community and on the Island. According to statistics, the incidence of autism today is one in 100, and ADD is more common than that. Mercer Island is a welcoming place for children with learning disabilities. Between the Autism Spectrum program at Lakeridge Elementary, the special education program at Island Park and the nationally acclaimed Children’s Institute for Learning Differences, the Island has become a bastion for parents with special needs children.

While these programs focus on developing a student’s academic skills, Connie gives children the opportunity to bloom musically.

“Playing music stimulates them. It helps them connect with the world. It helps them feel like they’re someone who counts,” she said.

This summer, the piano teacher will take things a step further. In August, Connie will introduce the Island’s first music technology camp for autistic children. The idea grew from the success of a similar camp that she created for music students three years ago. Island Park teacher Susan Hamp helped Connie pioneer the project over summer break 2005.

“Going into it, we were a bit tentative. But within the first day, we had kids telling us that it was the best camp they had ever been to,” Connie said.

This summer, the teacher will lead three regular music camps, followed by the camp for autistic students.

“It’s going to be a lot of fun,” she said.

To register your child for a 2008 music technology camp, e-mail Connie at

Performing live

Katrina Wible will perform tomorrow, March 20, at Cellar 46 for its one-year anniversary party. Wible will sing jazz with Josh Rawlings accompanying on piano. For reservations, call: 407-3016.

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