Q&A: Jazz Hands For Autism Teacher-in-Training Tyler Roberts on Classroom Management, Confidence, and Booking Gigs

The Ensemble seeks to connect and inform all people who are committed to ensemble music education for youth empowerment and social change.

Q&A: Jazz Hands For Autism Teacher-in-Training Tyler Roberts on Classroom Management, Confidence, and Booking Gigs

Donna Pignatiello-Iarocci, Teacher Trainer and Job Coach, Jazz Hands For Autism


Jazz Hands for Autism participants and staff pose on stage. Photo: JHFA.

Jazz Hands For Autism (JHFA) is a 501c3 talent advocacy group that provides pathways to expression and employment for musically inclined neurodivergent individuals on the autism spectrum. One of those pathways focuses on career development, empowering participants to find their interests and specialties within the music industry. JHFA’s Music Teaching Training Program (MTTP) supports adults (18 and older) who are interested in teaching music to learn and grow their skills, covering topics and skills from creating a lesson plan to assessing and evaluating students to encouraging engagement in the classroom. The program is individualized; some students complete their training in as few as two years, while others take a bit longer. As part of their training, aspiring teachers are sent to non-public schools, where they develop on-site experience teaching small groups of special needs students.

In the words of Founder and Executive Director Ifunanya Nweke: “For us, inclusion is much more than being present in a space or visual representation—it must also include reciprocity. The aspiring musicians who attend Jazz Hands For Autism learn that their interest and passion for music is something of value that they can share with their communities, and the JHFA staff advocates for spaces in the community where these contributions can be received and acknowledged.”

JHFA Teacher Trainer and Job Coach Donna Pignatiello-Iarocci sat down with Teacher-in-Training and drummer Tyler Roberts to talk about his journey into music and music education. Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

The rain has finally ceased here in Southern California, and not a moment too soon. Downtown Los Angeles usually sees about ten inches of rain for the season. As of this writing, we’re 12 inches ahead of schedule.

Happily, the recent precipitation hasn’t dampened Tyler Roberts’ spirits. He’s got a lot to beam about: he’s the sunny spot at the center of a classroom at Kayne Eras Center in Culver City, CA, where he teaches drums to five spunky elementary students. Tyler’s smile lights up the room and his laid-back, inquisitive nature serves both him and his students well.

Let’s get to know a bit about Tyler, his gift for teaching, and what’s on his horizon.

Donna: Welcome, Tyler! We’re here to talk about what it’s like to put what you’ve learned in our Teacher Training class into practice.

First off, tell us about your drum journey. When did it begin? 
Tyler: My drum journey began when the video game Rock Band came out. I was in my early high school years, and I was the only person to play the drums. My other friends played the guitar.

I had an interest in music prior to that, though. I took tenor sax at maybe nine or ten years old. I was also making music on the electric Casio piano.

How were you supported at home?
My parents were willing to support me. I know there are a lot of stories where parents wouldn’t support their child because it was noisy for them, or because they thought that music wasn’t a consistent career path. My parents were understanding.

What also helped was that when we moved to a specific house, the people who lived there already had built a recording studio in their garage. What were the odds of that happening—that they would have the proper set up?

Tyler Roberts and Donna Pignatiello-Iarocci. Photo: JHFA.

Wow, that’s a gift, huh?
Definitely a gift.

Tell us how you made the jump to Jazz Hands For Autism.
One of the assistants at an independent living program I was working with told me to go to this school where you take classes, and they find you work.

What has your experience been with the Music Teacher Training Program?
I was kind of on the fence about whether it was really stuff I needed to know. I questioned myself: “Can I really get out there and teach people what I know, in a proper way?”

Over time, I learned the proper steps on how to teach students—from breaking it down as simply as possible, to learning the information myself, to staying in touch with the students’ needs. Eventually, while out in the field, I learned about the concept of review and how important that was to make sure that, days and weeks later, they still have even the beginning rudiments of the drum kit in their minds.

You’re talking about teaching at Kayne Eras Center in Culver City. Share with us what you’ve learned from applying concepts from our classes there. What was tough about it?
Teenagers want to goof off, so you have to keep them in control. That can derail the class, especially if you have to focus on one student, because they are disruptive at the ages of nine or ten.

You also have to know what you are teaching to the students. Even if you know it at an advanced level, it can be hard to explain it in the simplest way possible. That actually required me to rethink the way I look at the things I know.

Yes, take a step back, right? The old saying is “you don’t know what you don’t know.” So now, talk about the flip side: what positive benefits do you get out of being in the classroom with your students?
The students said that it’s one of their favorite classes of the day—surprising, considering they’re coming from P.E. They’re still bouncing off the walls when they get to my class, but being able to get them to sit down and play along is the fun part for them and for me.

Engaging them in a lesson and actually seeing them enjoy themselves tells me that I am doing things right.

And how does that make you feel?
It makes me feel pretty good.

As it should! There’s a saying: “confidence is knowing that you have something to give; community thrives when giving becomes reciprocal.” You certainly need confidence when facing adversity. What’s an obstacle you’ve recently faced in the classroom, and how did you deal with it?
Time management: I’m constrained because the kids come late from gym. It’s tough to get everything down into a manageable timeframe.

Because things can go sideways right? An example of that would be that you come in with this beautifully structured lesson plan, and it’s broken down into minutes, right? You’ve got your Introduction, Ice breaker, Emotional Check-in, Lecture portion, etc. Then, here comes a new student in class. Boom—thrown a curveball.
That happens a lot, actually.

So, what do you do? What have you learned from your students when this happens?
My teachers, you and Jason, pointed out that students may just want to go home if they’re not involved, but if you involve them in the teaching aspect, they become engaged in the lesson.

First, I would call on the best performing student to have them help me get the new student up to speed—but that would leave out the other students. So getting them involved is very important. I learned that a lot of the students are very eager to tell the other students about what they learned in the class and are willing to help the new students integrate.

JHFA participants at work. Photo: JHFA.

What was that like to see that in action?
It was kind of a relief that I didn’t have to worry about one student being far behind, but it was also important that the other students weren’t running around and grabbing drumsticks, yanking them from one another, and acting out.

It’s great to see the progress in your teaching capabilities from the beginning of Teacher Training class to the present day, where you run the class from beginning to end.

Let’s talk about what’s happening today. You’ve been asked to play with [JHFA Teacher Trainer] Jason’s band, Astral Voyage. For those who don’t know, Astral Voyage has a sound inspired by bands like Earth, Wind & Fire, Tower of Power, and The Temptations, all music in your wheelhouse. They’ll be making their Los Angeles debut at the long-running L.A. music institution, The Mint, on April 4—and you, my friend, will be sitting behind your drumkit!
I was kind of shocked because I thought the only way that I would find a gig like that would be to constantly search job after job. The majority of the time you get no response, or just get turned down.

To know that I’m going to be doing what I’ve always wanted to do, it’s huge. The other feeling is that it is huge in a concerning way. I have to balance who knows how many instrumentalists in one set; they’re all listening to me, and I have to be on top of everything. Playing drums isn’t just playing, but also conveying what you’re playing.

Well, I’m super proud that Jason tapped you for that. What’s next for you on the music scene as far as teaching privately?
I have had one lesson I found on a site called Wyzant. Unfortunately, the student’s schedule got busy, but I do have the ability to teach private lessons.

At first, I didn’t have confidence. Now, talking to some of my counselors, they’re recommending that I look into afterschool programs and start sending applications out to find more consistent work.

Thank you, Tyler. It’s a gift to sit and watch you teach each week.
Thank you for having me.

Want to learn more? Connect with us! April is Autism Awareness month: jazzhandsforautism.org.


© Copyright 2022 Ensemble News