Breaking it Down - Music Basics for Students with Disabilities

One of my passions is teaching students with disabilities. I find it vastly challenging and anti-boring to teach students who are on a non-traditional trajectory. I've taught piano since I was 12 years old, and teaching piano to typical (as opposed to special needs) students had gotten mundane after, ahem, lots of years.

What I've learned from teaching students with disabilities, especially intellectual disabilities, is that I need to be very creative in order to break down musical concepts down to the basics that we can build on.

Before a student can learn to read music, they need to understand that the keys are represented by little dots on the page.

Before they can figure out which key goes with which dot on the page, they need to know the letters of the white keys.

Before they can memorize the letters of the white keys, they need to understand the relationship between the white keys and the black keys, i.e., C is to the left of the 2 black keys.

Before that, they need to know where to find left and right, high and low, and up and down.

Also, they need to be able to count to 2 and 3 and be able to identify the 2 black keys and the 3 black keys.

Before that, they need to be able to purposefully play just the black keys or just the white keys.

Before that, they need to be willing to follow directions and be able to start and stop playing when the teacher asks.


For some of my students, that last step is where we sit for many weeks. Whether caused by ODD (oppositional defiance disorder) or cognitive delay, patience is the name of the game with students like these. With a student who has ODD, I sometimes "trick" them by saying "play anything that's NOT a black key." In one student's case, they definitely know the difference between black and white, but they prefer to do the opposite of what I ask. So I joined them in their own game.

So when a student is learning the basic-basic-basic fundamentals, such as learning to stop or play when asked, what do I do for the remaining 28 minutes of the lesson, you ask? We do lots of improv, drumming, clapping, counting things, listening to YouTube, singing, making silly sounds, paint chip game, and whatever else I can think of.

What creative things have you done to help students at every level learn the basics of music? I'd love to hear your ideas, comments, or questions!

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