Saturday, August 27, 2016

ALL Means ALL - Accessibility in the Instrumental Music Classroom

Music is for everyone.  The more I teach, the more I become convinced of that fact.  But I've also noticed that at conferences, in professional journals, and most other places, when we are talking about inclusion in the music classroom, we are focused on elementary general music.  What happens after that?

In my district, students are given the opportunity to learn an instrument starting in 5th grade, and continuing through high school.  We work very hard to create this opportunity for 100% of our students, regardless of their abilities or financial circumstances.  Over the past few years, it has become a passion of mine to help all students find a way to participate and be successful in learning an instrument!

How can we do this?  Here are some of the ways:

Helping students choose an instrument that is right for them - their body, their learning style, and their preferences
If a student struggles with fine motor skills, a woodwind instrument might be a challenge!  If they only have use of one hand, perhaps a trumpet might work well.  If they are very sensitive to squeaky sounds, then a cello might work well.  Learning about a student and being able to encourage them in the right direction will give them a better chance at being successful!

Modifying the way the instrument is physically played if necessary
People come in all shapes and sizes, and sometimes modifications are necessary!  In my orchestra classroom, I have had a handful of students learn to play an instrument "backwards" (right hand doing the fingering, left hand bowing), due to the structure of their hands and/or some hearing loss they have experienced.  I have also worked with the OT at my school to create some adaptive devices to make things like holding the bow easier for students with limited range of movement.

Engage peer buddies
One of my favorite things from last year was watching the relationship grow between a 5th grade student and her 8th grade peer mentor.  They loved working together!  This is a great way to provide options for simplifying the playing - if coordinating two hands is too much, or they only have use of one hand, then have a peer finger the notes while they concentrate on the bow or vice versa.  They are still an integral part of making and experiencing the music!

Think about seating & materials
As a violinist, I know exactly what it's like to sit in the back of the 2nd violin section with the piccolo pointed straight in my left ear - not pleasant (sorry, piccolo players)!  I can only imagine how our students with a sensitivity to sound feel in the middle of a chaotic music room!  Think about seating - where is the best place for this student?  Is it a little bit removed from everyone, to dampen the affects of the sound?  Is it right up front, where they are in close proximity with the teacher?  If a student has vision issues, where can they see the best from?
Let's be honest, playing an instrument requires you to keep track of a lot of materials - there are all of the parts to your instrument, any accessories or cleaning supplies that go along with it, your music, and a stand.  This can be a lot for kids with executive functioning challenges, or those who don't have a good awareness of themselves and the space around them (proprioception).  Providing separate folders for home and school, directly teaching about how to ensure students have enough space, and giving a structure for where to store all materials (both when playing and when packing up) can help these kids!

Make reading easier
This one is a big deal to me - whether it is copying music on different colored paper, englarging the music, or color-coding fingerings (check out Part 2 of this post, explaining the method I use to help with fingerings)!  I wholeheartedly agree in the value of learning to read music, and every student in my class works on that goal.  In the end, though, I just ask myself what's more important to me - that a student can read or that they can play with us?  If the reading is so frustrating that they can't access the music and play with us, then it's a barrier in the way!  Usually, with these students, I separate the two pieces - I have them work on reading music and correlating notes with fingerings, but for the repertoire we are playing in class, I modify it in some way to make it easier for them to just play.  I understand that this might be controversial in the music ed world - but it's something I've come to believe in very firmly!  I could tell story after story of kids (with autism, learning disabilities, processing delays, motor delays, etc) who have been successful in orchestra and stuck with their instrument because they felt like they could play with us.  That is worth it to me!

Make expectations clear
Some students need a little more help with knowing what is expected.  A visual checklist, self-monitoring system, and established routine can help lower anxiety for some and keep others on-track.  Sometimes this is challenging for me, because rehearsal can be a very free-flowing time, and I will hear different things that I want to respond to than what I had originally planned in my lesson.  In these instances, I try to be very explicit about what will be changing and why, so kids don't feel caught off-guard.

Create a community
This just wraps everything together - as one of my students wrote this week, "Teamwork is everything in orchestra."  Very few classes require the same amount of collaboration and teamwork as a music classroom, and what a beautiful thing that is for those who can often get left on the outskirts!  Don'e we all long for a sense of belonging to a group?  Especially in middle school, and especially for students who have some added things they are dealing with, having a positive group to identify with can do wonders.  My students proudly proclaim themselves #orchedorks.  Intentionally building community, valuing the contributions of every student in the room, and finding way to let them know they are ALL adding to the music brings out the social/emotional learning in a music class!

Does including take extra work?  Absolutely!  Every time we get a new piece of music, I spend at least an hour making sure everything is set for my kids who need a little extra support.  Setting up connections with peers or making assistive devices for playing takes time.  But is it worth it?  YES!

When we say that we are educating all students, that includes educating them in specials/electives as well.  Music is important for ALL of us - so let's make ALL mean ALL in an instrumental music classroom!   So much of this has come for me through experimentation and just trying to see what works with individual students.  Take the jump and try something to make music more accessible!

How do you purposefully include all students in your class?


  1. I think It's important for students to participate in the music-making process side by side with their peers on a social/emotional level. Being a part of the community helps them gain a sense of belonging and confidence. Kudos to you for going the extra mile and simplifying parts for students with disabilities.

  2. Thank you for bringing this important point to light--let's get music education extended through secondary school. So good for the heart and mind! Very useful tips, too. #sunchat blogger Gillian

  3. Chock full of cleverly inclusive hacks, Aubrey. Thanks for sharing. In reading and writing situations, two ways I aim for inclusion: lots of choice, fairly agnostic stance towards composition tools.

  4. I love the way you structure your music class. Your students are so lucky to have you as their teacher. Obviously your passion shines through in all your work. I'm grateful you're providing rich musical experiences for all your students.

  5. What a wonderfully inclusive and well thought out list of considerations for all our students. I picked up horn my junior year of high school. Being a part of the marching band was a huge deal for me. Every child should have the chance to play!

  6. Wow! I am so impressed with your list! As na ELA teacher, I am well-aware of the ways I can assist those with reading and writing, but to be truthful, I never gave instrumental music that much thought. Thank goodness for you! I will recommend this read to my colleagues in the music department.