Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Music Lessons for Children with Disabilities

Early in my career, I took a job teaching piano lessons to autistic children. It was a huge challenge, and I often had to adjust my expectations and my methods for any success. Yet, I was also surprised at how much even severely disabled children could achieve in music. Even non-verbal students could learn to play simple songs on the piano. Scientists have long documented the positive effects that music has on the brain--children who learn music have better spatial, verbal, mathematical skills. Other research has shown that playing music can ease symptoms of patients with brain disorders such as Parkinson's or Tourette's syndromes. Based on these studies and others, it seems there's evidence that music lessons might help students with disabilities such as autism or other developmental disorders.

I've also had several violin students on the autism spectrum (although they were usually only mild to moderately effected). I found that music lessons, especially in group classes, often helped these students with coordination and social skills, in addition to the intellectual benefits. It's important for teachers to integrate the autistic students into the class, instead of isolating them.

In particular, I enjoyed having students play together in chamber groups, such as duets, trios, or quartets. Smaller groups allow students to interact, but are often less intimidating for autistic students than a large class. There are many useful ensemble books that have multiple levels, which is very helpful for any struggling students. I liked using the Strings Extraordinaire series because the first book in this series has several pieces where the second violin part is all open strings. That's valuable for students who have difficulty with fingerings, as many disabled children do. One of my autistic violinists loved the fact that he could play with the other students, even though he hadn't mastered the left hand yet.

I've also found that music lessons benefit children with ADHD. Music helps to develop the executive functions of a child's brain, which helps them learn to control their attention span and focus their minds on a task. Many professional level musicians I know struggled with ADHD as children, yet they learned to focus intensely on their musical practice. As a teacher, one of the first things I do with very young child is work on focus exercises, and I'm amazed at how this training can help them learn to pay attention and calm their minds (focus exercises are often similar to meditation).

Of course, certain types of music or instruments might be better suited for students with different disabilities. For example, vocal music classes might help students develop their voices and speaking abilities. Wind instruments can help students develop good breath control (useful for children who have asthma). Percussion instruments might be a good choice for students who have deafness (like Evelyn Glennie). Strings instruments can be very challenging, but provide a good opportunity to build ensemble skills and manual dexterity. Children might want to try a couple of different instruments or classes to see what works best for them. Remember that a compassionate and well trained music teacher can help a disabled student with appropriate accommodations or at least recommend a good instrument or class.

Many famous musicians have disabilities, including Itzak Perlman on violin (he suffered from paralysis from polio), Andrea Bocelli (he's blind), and Evelyn Glennie (deafness). These musicians show that people with disabilities often have enormous musical talent, and can be highly successful performers. Yet, it's important to understand that even if a child does not have the drive, desire, or ability to become a famous musician, learning music can still teach them valuable skills. Every child, including one with a disability, has his or her own unique gifts, and music can help them develop those gifts.

Update: For anyone interested in how adults with disabilities can benefit from musical training, check out this article on "the healing power of death metal" for severely injured Iraq veterans.

Update: I found a website by Daniela Clapp, a woman who's teaching her daughter, who has down syndrome, to play piano. Another lovely example of how music is for every child!

Update: Here's my list of great resources for teaching music to children with disabilities.

Related articles on Violin/Viola Teaching:

Suzuki Method--a Violin Teacher's Perspective

Suzuki Philosophy: Every Child Has Talent

Suzuki Techniques--Listening is the key

Violin Life Lessons

Inspiring Practice

Practicing Violin Effectively

Great Apps for Musicians

Excellent Supplemental Books for Suzuki Violin and Viola Students

Suzuki Method for Adult Students

For Parents: How to Support your Child's Music Practice and Development

Overcoming Performance Anxiety: How to Help Music Students Prepare for Recitals, Auditions, and other Performances

Seven Ways to Develop Listening and Aural Skills in Music Students

Persistence--The Most Important Aspect of Talent

Pascale Method for Violin--A Review

More Apps for Musicians and Music Students

Classical Music Isn't Dying--It's in a Recession


  1. THANK YOU! This is very useful for me! Music is a powerful thing, and it has been proven as a means of communication for many disabilities. If I have the task of taking on a disabled student, I will refer back to this post. Thank you for sharing it with me. :) One time I had to teach a guy (older than me, actually) who was tone deaf how to match pitch (whew!). Challenging, but very rewarding. :)

  2. I'm so glad that you found this post helpful! I've been amazed by how much my disabled students can accomplish and how much music can benefit them. As a teacher, it's absolutely rewarding to see them grow as musicians.

  3. Good for you. I think music is a fantastic medium to reach everyone.

  4. Thanks for the encouragement! It can make a big difference for a lot of kids.

  5. As a musician, I do salute your efforts, with respect to the challenging task you have undertaken. Not many will face that enormous, but rewarding trek. In years to come, you will see the rewards of your fruits, and the impact you've had, not only on these precious children, but their parents as well. Blessings.

  6. Thank you! Good luck with your music as well.

  7. What a wonderful post, Alexis. I have worked with children on the spectrum and with sensory challenges, as well as with adults recovering from strokes. Music is very therapeutic. Some of my clients use it to communicate with their therapists or to regulate their emotions. You might be interested in reading about the work of Dr. Stephen Porges on Polyvagal Theory. He describes how wind instruments and singing affect the middle ear, laryngal muscles and myelination of the vagal nerve, which in turn helps people with autism, stress management issues, anxiety, PTSD. The deep exhalation involved is also reminiscent of certain forms of yoga and it therefore helps regulate emotions. It's really fascinating. Thanks for the insightful read.

    All the best,
    Alexa (http://lovethinkthrive.com)

  8. This is a fantastic post! Music is not limited to just one sort of person. Everybody can enjoy and learn how to play music and it can help people connect in ways they wouldn't have been able to before. I'm glad there are resources for teaching music to children with disabilities. I think all children really can benefit from learning some sort of musical instrument. http://www.torontofacultyofmusic.com

    1. I'm glad that you agree! I did a follow up post on different online resources for teaching music to children with different disabilities. You can find it here: http://thewiseserpent.blogspot.com/2015/01/great-resources-on-music-lessons-for.html

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    1. I think it would be extremely difficult without a teacher. Even basic things like tuning the instrument require help at first.

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