As a music teacher in special education programs across the country, and through working with my own private students, I get to see music touch the lives of many. I consider myself lucky to work with students of such diverse age groups and communities. The students that I have taught thus far require various levels of support, which challenges me to personalize and adapt their lessons. I have recently relocated to central Vermont, and am excited to work with all students through the Monteverdi Music School. The following vignettes are stories of musical successes that I have seen with special needs students, however their names have been changed to protect student privacy.
It was the first day of fall semester; a day full of new routines, new spaces, and new people. Starting at a new school is intimidating for most anyone, but for individuals with differing support needs, a first day of doing anything is a huge hurdle. Many people with autism thrive in environments built on the stability of routines, familiar faces, and clear directions- making new experiences can be challenging. As it was my first day teaching at a program for students with special needs, I understood (to some extent) what my students were feeling. I re-read the intake profile of my first student of the day, an experienced trumpet player with autism. Some intake profiles are not complete, but this one painted a very clear picture of my student. He had been playing the trumpet for almost eight years, taking two private lessons a week, and was a part of the rock band that I would be teaching later that day. I thought that it would be a pretty straight forward trumpet lesson, there was nothing in his profile that would suggest any physical disabilities, and he seemed to have great facility on the instrument. I met Andrew* in the lobby and faced a barrage of questions- a common trait of autism. I told my new student a little bit about myself and now, two years later, he still remembers the answers to every question he has asked me. As we set up our stands and instruments, I noticed that he was sitting very close to his music and was practically playing into his stand. I asked him if he had ever worn glasses and he responded “Only sunglasses!”. I asked him to sit further away from his stand, so that his sound would project a little more, and his note accuracy decreased dramatically. After our lesson, I had a chance to ask his mother about his eyesight. She said that he had never gotten an eye examination done, because there was never a problem. However, she was frustrated that no matter what his past teachers had tried, he still couldn’t consistently and accurately read music. I suggested that an eye exam might answer some of her questions. A few months later she pulled me aside before a lesson to inform me that Andrew was nearly blind in his left eye. He had progressive vision loss and would need surgery to retain the amount of sight still left. We both looked at each other in shock- Andrew was 18, had many caring adults in his life, but he simply could not address his loss of vision. Without our trumpet lessons, Andrew would have lost sight in his left eye completely by now. He had surgery in his left eye over the summer and got to wear an eyepatch for a few weeks, which he accessorized with a pirate hat.
Rock Band Class:
By halfway through the semester, teaching Rock Band at the special needs institute was like running a well-oiled machine. My co-teacher would set up the room with most of our students, as I went to the lobby to direct a few others to our classroom. We had two blind students in our class. One blind student had been at the institute for so long that he could make his way into the building, up the elevator, and to a storage closet to get what instruments he needed before coming to class. Our other blind student, Chris, would wait for me in the lobby to guide him to our room. He would hear my heels clicking as I ran down the stairs, and he would recognize that it was me. Once we got to our room, he would greet everyone based on the instruments he heard playing- when he heard trumpet he knew Andrew was there, and when he heard Elton John coming from the piano he knew Jacob was there. Once we had all ten of our band members set up, they would practically start themselves. Our drummer, who wasn’t one for talking, would start tunes and everyone would join in. Once in a while we would have to stop and review lyrics or chord changes, and talk about dynamics, but our students took autonomy in those conversations. Most of our students were of middle school age, and required a lot of support outside of the music room. The band had a large range of diagnoses on the Autism spectrum, as well as physical disabilities and social challenges. Quite a few students still needed support in tying shoes, putting on jackets, and making decisions, but once they were handed an instrument, they felt empowered to make artistic choices and work alongside their bandmates. Our rock band classes gave our students a chance to express themselves musically, and grow socially.
Anderson and Maria:
In my second year of working for the special needs institute, I began to work with two elementary aged siblings who had autism with very high support needs, and were recent immigrants from Brazil. Their parents primarily spoke Portuguese, and the children understood some English, but not well enough to translate. On the first day that I met the family, their mother and I spoke through Google Translator. In Anderson’s first percussion lesson, we practiced walking to our classroom and sitting down in our seats five times in a row. We then talked about what being ready to learn looked like- sitting up in our chairs, having our heads off the desk, and having a drum in front of us. By the third lesson, we only had to practice this sequence twice. Although only a little musical progress was made, Anderson could now begin the process of learning, and knew the expectations of music lessons, which was a huge success for him. After Anderson’s lessons, I would work with his little sister, Maria. Maria was five; she loved to sing songs and run around the classroom. Somehow, she knew how to solfege most children’s songs. She could pick out ‘Do’ on the piano, which was always middle C in her head. No one could explain this to me- she had never taken music lessons, had maybe two music classes in kindergarten, and didn’t even care for Little Einsteins. Our lessons looked very different from other piano lessons. We would start on the north wall of the classroom by singing a song that I had written on the board with corresponding images, like Mary Had a Little Lamb. Maria would then translate it into solfege. Next, we would run to the east wall of the classroom to make a visual version of the notes. Usually we would color shapes in the direction that the notes moved (mi re do could be a purple triangle above a pink heart above a blue circle) or use the Kodaly hand signs for the solfege. On the south wall of the classroom, we would practice the song on a paper piano, before finally arriving at the piano on the west wall. After all of the running and singing and coloring, we would practice sitting down at the piano, finding ‘Do’ (which she would only do by ear), and then finally play the song we had learned. Maria usually did very well with this method, despite being five and not understanding most of my directions due to the language barrier. I now work with both of these students over Zoom, and they are thriving on the routines we set up when we were in person. Anderson still practices sitting up and listening to directions, and Maria still does three musical activities before sitting down at the piano. Their mother and I communicate over email, so she can translate my messages at her own pace. Both children might still be finding their place in America and learning a completely new language, but during our lessons we use music to transcend these barriers and give them a sense of belonging.
Providing music lessons to students with special needs creates experiences that they would have otherwise missed out on. We know the value of music lessons for the neurotypical population, but often forget how valuable music lessons can be for the most vulnerable of our students. These students might learn in very different ways, but the results are clear; music can move students beyond language barriers, cultural differences, and even disabilities. I have worked with students who have communication delays, cognitive delays, emotional disabilities, physical disabilities, non-native English speakers, and gifted/talented students. I truly believe that anyone can make music with a supportive and creative teacher.
Monteverdi Music School has been a center for music lessons and music activity in Central Vermont for 26 years, and now establishing its outreach to the online community!