Helping Children with Disabilities Make Music

Music is a universal language for all our children, whether they have disabilities, medical conditions, or are typically developing. It provides pleasure to many children, and is also a powerful motivator for some. While all children can listen to music with simple adaptations, it can sometimes be difficult to find ways to help children actually make and perform music.

GWB and Laura Bush at White House State Dinner pastry and entertainment for Queen Elizabeth II. White House photo by Shealah Craighead

But it is certainly not impossible! There are many professional musicians with disabilities out there who require minimal adaptations. Just a few are violinist Itzhak Perlman (disabilities from polio); singers Andrea Bocelli, Ray Charles, and Stevie Wonder (all with vision impairment); and the amazing deaf percussionist Evelyn Glennie. Even if children have severe physical or cognitive impairments, they can likely still make music.

This article will highlight just a few of the many options available to help children with a wide variety of disabilities or medical conditions to make and perform music. Topics covered include adapted instruments, music lessons for children with disabilities, and using technology and augmentative devices to make music.

Adapting Instruments

For children with physical disabilities, there are many ways instruments can be adapted. Children who only have the function of one hand can play many adapted instruments, and those with weak muscles or minimal movement can play instruments using stands, switches, and other devices.

malletsAdapted instruments for those who only have the use of one hand have become much more common in recent years. Aulos, for example, makes a recorder that can be played with 6 ore more digits in a variety of configurations. The One-Handed Woodwinds Program also custom designs various woodwinds, such as flutes and saxophones, for children or adults who can only use one hand. Other adaptations, such as customized prostheses specifically designed for use with certain instruments, may also be available. For example, several groups have made special bow prostheses for playing the violin using 3D printing.

Another option is to use instrument stands that allow children who cannot support or position an instrument to play easily. A Day’s Work, for example, makes a multi-instrument holder, a recorder holder, and various percussion holders. Custom holders have been made for instruments including trumpets and even tubas!

Many children enjoy playing simple percussion instruments. Both A Day’s Work and American Drum have extensive lines of adapted mallets, ranging from thicker handles to T-bar handles to Velcro cuffs. Adapted guitar picks are also available.

Certain musical instruments can also be made to either work when a button is pushed, or switch-adapted for use with any type of switch, including twitch, head, and foot switches. While expensive, Enabling Devices has several of both types of devices, including switch-adapted bongos and drums, and button-operated percussion, bells, and chimes. There are also a wide variety of switch-adapted musical toys that can be played by children.

While many commercial options are available, sometimes a child needs special adaptations. Many families have found college and university-level engineering programs to be a great option for custom adaptations, especially since many students are required to do some sort of community service or community project. Rehab centers and hospitals may also have programs for designing custom adaptations.

Lessons and Classes for Kids with Disabilities

While most children, especially young children, can attend regular music classes for children, some children may find a regular class too loud or too fast. Many programs offer group classes for children with autism or other sensory disabilities with a small teacher to student ratio. For example, in Chicago, the Old Town School of Folk Music offers both general music and drumming classes for children with special needs.

Most Kindermusik, Music Together, and Orff music classes also welcome children with disabilities of all types, and may be able to customize classes as needed. Music Together, in particular, welcomes children in classes, and also offers Supportive classes and Music Together in Therapy classes/sessions to enhance regular therapies.

Sometimes the best approach is private lessons. Many private teachers will happily take children with a wide variety of disabilities. Teachers who use the Suzuki method are particularly well-suited for teaching children with cognitive, behavioral, sensory, or physical disabilities, since the method was founded on the notion that “Every Child Can,” and teachers are routinely trained to work with all types of children. Children with Down syndrome, Cerebral Palsy, Spina Bifida, Hearing and Vision Impairments, and Autism have all thrived within Suzuki programs.

Music Therapy centers and therapists may also offer individual classes or sessions specifically designed for children with special needs.

Making Music with Technology and Augmentative Devices

It is also possible to make all kinds of music using apps, computer software, and augmentative devices, including communication devices and recordable switches/buttons. If your child has a device that allows you to record one or more messages, you can add musical phrases to the device, allowing your child to play or sing along with other children. For example, using a sequencing device like the Step-by-Step, you can record different percussion licks that your child can play when he chooses. A two-button device can be programmed to play a melody when one button is pressed and chords when the other is pressed.

sja-2Children with sophisticated communicators can record a wide range of musical elements on separate buttons, including recorded music, loops, percussion licks, melodies, harmonies, chords, and many other musical elements.

There are two computer software programs available for children who use switches, Switch Ensemble and Switch Jam. Both have pre-programmed songs and musical components that children can access with one or more switches. The software can be used with multiple children simultaneously of all levels and abilities. They are available from Switch in Time.

Finally, there are numerous apps available that allow for easier playing of many instruments. Apple’s Garage Band can be used to easily play loops and a variety of touch instruments. There are numerous apps that allow children to play an infinite number of instruments, including harp, piano, guitar, ukulele, percussion, and more, with just a touch or swipe of a finger. The apps Bloom, Scrape, and Trope are also great choices that easily allow children to compose and generate music by touching the screen in various ways. Other music apps can be found by searching the iTunes Store or Google Play for music apps.

Making Music

Hopefully some of these suggestions will help your child to begin making music. Don’t forget that hand-under-hand music-making is always an option that many children particularly enjoy. No matter what method you choose, may your music-making be joyful and harmonious!

Author: Susan Agrawal • Date: 5/19/2016

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