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Keeping The Beat

With Adaptive Instruments By Maureen Butler

Lake Drive School

especially when special learners come to music with their regular education peers. Alice-Ann Darrow and Mary S. Adamek, authors of the excellent resource, Music in Special Education, caution against using instruments that are markedly different from those used by the rest of the class, so as not to single special learners out. They suggest that we first select one of our instruments that may be more appropriate for the student, and if that is difficult, then look for ways to adapt instruments. The goal is the successful participation in what the authors call the most “normalized” way. Our special learners require our attention, time and insightful preparation if they are to flourish in our classes. Remember that some of them deal with issues that are highly demanding in terms of their energy and concentration – they may fatigue easily. Others may have fine motor issues that are not as obvious, but are hindering their ability to learn. We might mistakenly conclude that a student is not trying hard enough when the underlying cause is really a motor issue. We also need to be sensitive to the fact that students may engage in misbehaviors as a way to disguise the fact that they’re having trouble. With our help, special learners can have an active role in our classes as they learn to express themselves through music.


xylophones, tambourines, guiros, hand drums and more as they play rhythms, keep a beat, or accompany songs. For most of our students, learning the technique and putting it in the context of musical ex- pression might require concentration and practice, but is well within their capability. Some may even seem to be “naturals” at this, and easily accomplish the goals we set. But for others, the actual physi- cal ability needed to manipulate instruments and mallets may be compromised, and for them, even though they want to be success- ful, the task may pose significant challenges. How can we adapt our instruments to make this a worthwhile endeavor for our physically challenged students? Ideally we should know the specific needs of our special learners


before they come to class, but sometimes we’re not aware of their issues until a problem presents itself. Either way, a sound approach is to discuss specific challenges with the occupational and physi- cal therapists who are treating your students. I’ve been fortunate to work with some excellent therapists who have been willing to share their expertise with me. Many times I’ve gone to them with a situ- ation regarding a student’s difficulties, and left with both a deeper understanding of underlying conditions as well as practical solutions to problems. Your school’s therapists may be willing to observe stu- dents as they play, to identify impediments and suggest adaptations. Here are some common difficulties you may see in your stu-

dents: • Weak or dysfunctional grasp • Poor muscle tone • Problems with depth perception • Fine motor issues • Uncontrolled movement • Stiff and difficult movements • Limited range of motion Additionally, some students will have difficulty sequencing the steps to accomplish a task, some may have trouble with motor plan- ning, and others may find it impossible to hold an instrument in one hand while striking it with another. Here are some adaptations you might consider:

Mallets • Add padding to a narrow mallet to help those with a weak grasp.

• Add weights to mallets to increase the child’s sense of movement.


lassroom rhythm instruments can be a valuable and highly motivating part of elementary school music les- sons. Our students learn the proper technique to play

• Insert mallets through a foam or rubber ball. • Attach mallets to gloves or child’s hands with Velcro.

Instruments • Using a clamp that can be attached to a desk or wheelchair tray, makes a holder for triangles, tambourines, bells, or any other instrument that may be too heavy to hold.

• Attach small instruments to hands or gloves with Velcro. • Use non-slip gripping drawer liners to keep instruments firmly in place on desk or tray.

Body placement • Move the instrument closer to the student. • Position the child correctly, with feet on the floor, and knees and hips at 90 degree angles to provide a stable base.

Ideally we should know the specific needs of our special learners before they come to class, but sometimes we’re not aware of their issues until a problem presents itself. Either way, a sound approach is to discuss specific challenges with the occupational and physical therapists who are treating your students.

In addition to your own adaptations, you may find what you

need in music catalogs, as well. The West Music catalog lists a num- ber of products that are made by the American Drum Company, including transverse mallets (t-mounts) with big vinyl grips; large grip mallets; instrument mounts and stands; and mallet cuffs (worn on the child’s hands, they eliminate the need to grip). Other music catalogs and websites offer similar selections. You’ll have to use your judgment based on your understanding of your students when making decisions about adaptive instruments,

MAY 2012

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Adamek, Mary S., and Darrow, Alice-Ann, Music in Special Education, Second Edition, Copyright 2010, The American Music Therapy Corporation

McDowell, Carol (2010) “An Adaptation Tool Kit for Teaching Music,” TEACHING Exceptional Children Plus: Vol. 6: Iss. 3, Article 3. Available at:

Adaptive equipment:

MAY 2012



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