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It's a Connection! Strategies that Support Music Learning for Students with Special Needs

Updated: Apr 26, 2020

How I love this word "connection!" I continue to be more curious, excited and inspired by how we learn things. My sources of inspirations came from different stages of my teaching career. Starting with special education students who are mainstreamed in the classroom, from mentoring teachers in using music to develop early years reading skills to my present solo instrument teaching experience with my own nephew who was diagnosed with challenging combinations of ADHD, Paranoia, Bipolar and Mild Autism. What an interesting fusion! This has been another transformational journey for me in terms of addressing the needs of each learner and believing that we can all be successful with meaningful opportunities provided for us by people who would take the extra mile to get us there.

One of the most common initial challenge of students who are learning music is one's ability to keep a steady beat alone or when simple rhythm patterns are already involved. Since we all have different internal clocks, it takes strategies to sync and coordinate things within our own bodies or with others. This is something that some special needs students have a delay with or lack of. Believing in the power nurturing, a lot of skills can be developed over time with the timely intervention and effective strategies.

Let me share a mix of these teaching strategies in developing timing and coordination that have been working for my students with special needs and me.

1. Feel it in our bodies

Just like any other learning, this is the most primary source of connections. When we use and involve more of our senses, especially the whole body, we provide more opportunities for the different brain neurons to connect. While time is a factor, introduction to the experience needs to be strengthened with CONSISTENCY.

So what are you waiting for? your body! Piano or even guitar students who are stiff have to rely so much on internal hearing instead of using some parts of their bodies to respond naturally to what the music is leading them to.

I remember having to make a group of guitars and ukulele students sync their strumming just by letting them stand up and move naturally with the beat of the music. Not only it is visually entertaining as it adds to their stage presence, but it also relaxes them to redirect their energy to enjoyment rather than tension.

2. Use of Metronome with and without visuals

Thanks to tech! While the analog metronome has been in existence for a long time, the technological innovations has allowed tools like this to be more handy, accessible, animated and fully functional. For kids who are hearing-impaired, the digital metronome allows one to see the beats, as well as the accents. The metronome app that I use is : Tempo

It is still better to start with the ear first, then add on the visuals when the ear cannot seem to hear. Use the body, like hands or feet first before attempting for the student to handle and control an external instrument like the guitar, piano etc...

3. Extend the connections through another instrument

Instruments that are pitched have two elements integrated together, pitch and rhythm. For most students, this can be highly confusing especially when their brains are not yet used to hearing multiple nuances.

As an accommodation, allow students to use non-pitched instruments first like the drums, sticks, or any objects that they would like to tap. When technology is available, let them use it too so it gets them closer to the real thing: software instrument like the drum set in Garageband or any other similar drum apps like DRUMS with BEATS app would do. The Drums with Beats app has different types of drums, including basic patterns that students can practice with.

Allowing kids to experience the concepts that we teach in several contexts would facilitate stronger connections, if not immediate success.

4. MORE Visuals

Other than the visuals that we can make, technology has allowed the creation of more engaging, animated and interactive visuals that can excite and motivate kids to respond to the music more positively despite underdeveloped skills. The "fun" experience, attractive visuals can just take anyone to respond at the moment instead of worrying about what they should achieve. Recently, a lot of graphic videos have been created and used to learn about beats, notation with the use of colors, letters, or various images that can help one to:

a. connect to what they hear

b. sync with what they see

In music, learning about beats is an abstract concept that not all would be able to respond to or understand during the initial experiences. This is when the visuals become very effective in establishing learning connections on how time actually exists in space.

Here is a screenshot of the video that I have created and use for my special needs student who initially did not have a sense of a beat.

Steady Beat
Steady Beat 2

The video has basic patterns, while also showing beginning concept of musical forms

(A and B parts). Later, one can increase the challenge in different ways.

For this specific learning video, I used the app #ExplainEverything ( and Garageband.

5. The power of words or syllables

As most music educators are inspired by the Kodaly system in teaching music, I am one of those who still uses this approach, but with a tweak. I find the use of ta and 'ti-ti" very simple and easy even for early young learners. These rhythmic syllables had truly made the learning of rhythms much easier. While it works, one can always tweak just to make it more relevant to the interest and needs of a learner. We can always use words that are fun for students to recite while they learn the rhythms.

While this works effectively most of the time, not all students can track and coordinate these syllables or words in their brains especially when there is too much repetition involved. It's like having counted too many sheep and then you just have to restart because you have lost track.

Some connections do not happen naturally, but with consistent nurturing, opportunities to be successful are possible for any type of learners. There is NO ONE SIZE FITS ALL approach even for students with special needs. #UNIQUE

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