Meri’s Musical Musings

Why we shouldn’t underestimate the musical abilities of disabled students (especially students who have lower degrees of learning challenges)

Posted on: September 3, 2015

Some years ago, I had the joy of teaching a high functioning autistic student for 5 1/2 years on clarinet, who, from the age of 11 to 16, went from a loud squawking sound to playing mid intermediate clarinet repertoire by the RCM system much better than some seemingly normal students, and passing 3 exams (Levels 1, 2, and 4) with First Class Honours (80% or better). He was better than most of his classmates who had only learned clarinet through school, and was playing second clarinet parts well with a little coaching on the more difficult sections and could generally hold the part on his own.

Yet, so often I see teachers seriously underestimating the ability and potential of such students, or letting them play the instrument they want to play even when it’s highly unrealistic, even with major adaptations. Sometimes they want to try to adapt a certain instrument just because a student is missing some fingers. Or a student has visual impairments.

It’s not a matter of adapting instruments to a student’s physical skills, it’s a matter of finding a suitable instrument that requires very minimal changes (and usually those you’d use with most students anyway, like thumbrest covers on oboes, saxes, and clarinets) no adaptions. Missing fingers, if it is not on the hand that controls valves on brass instruments, make the brass possible; missing fingers on the valve hand or both hands means that trombone might be a good choice. Students with certain lip problems from birth might want to stay away from flute or high brass, but some can do middle and low brass successfully, and single reeds often work even in fairly severe cases.

In the case of cognitive challenges, guitar and especially piano are poor choices; woodwinds are usually a good choice, especially saxophone, clarinet and sometimes flute; brass may be possible if they have a good ear and can make a decent sound. Lower brass generally don’t have notes faster than eighths, and if they do then only for very short passages, so the notes are usually easier to read and play because there is more space between the notes. In contrast, piano almost from the very beginning you are coordinating two hands, often in two clefs, and many beginning students, particularly those with dyslexia or poor coordination, simply cannot or only at a very basic level do two different rhythms, one in each hand, let alone multiple rhythms in the same hand.

Sometimes teachers are told to teach such kids by rote and not expect them to learn to read music, let alone sight read music. Or not to care about their technique and just have them enjoy playing because they’d have great difficulties mastering it. Or to not have them do exams. Or not have them do music theory.

Fortunately, I had no idea about these common beliefs when I was teaching this kid; and I myself was considered learning disabled as a child but was using special ed minimally in Grade 7 and was no longer using it in Grade 8, with good to excellent grades generally after that without working too hard academically. So I had largely overcome my disabilities and I thought this kid could too. Some teachers in the school I was volunteering at when I met him said to me to not expect him to make it past Level 1 RCM or the lowest register of the clarinet. However, by the end of his lessons, he knew his scales up to four sharps and flats (minor and major, minor in harmonic and melodic), could play up to the written E three lines above the treble staff, played with a somewhat better than average sound compared to most high school students I work with, could play with the correct embouchure at least 80% of the time, held the instrument at the right angle, and played with few to no mistakes in his solos with piano. He was ready to write the intermediate rudiments exam before lessons had to end through extensive work using both written and non-written theory tools, like flashcards and computer software. It took a lot of time and effort, but I learned so much about teaching in the process, plus he had great parental support. He ended up being really good at the ear training too, and could sing intervals reliably from a given note in his voice range quite a bit better than I can! I helped him learn to sight sing music too, as he was in choir as well.

Perhaps partly because of his musical experience, he got a job on stage performing amazing glow in the dark puppetry show for the last few years, sometimes even helping out with the music. He not only played in his school ensemble, but also in his church’s music nights and in the children’s instrumental ensembles for several years until graduating from high school. Yet on the piano, he barely made it out of very elementary method books, while with me I was using a method I use with almost all clarinet beginners, extremely few exceptions in combination with his band method books. (which eventually just became sight reading material!)

If this was what I was able to accomplish with a disabled student, you can only imagine what I have done with the gifted ones! Yes, have done. If you want to know more, just ask.


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  • None
  • V V: Wish I had read this before I fell for their scheme ! Oh well - have posted my experience on Yelp and N49 and hoping others can avoid the pain of fal
  • clariniano: Thanks for the additional information. It was actually Yelp that deleted my reviews, because of so-called bias. I too have seen the horrible technique
  • No Thanks: Former Teacher at the Ontario Conservatory of Music I took lessons at the Ontario Conservatory and when I left for private lessons from another tea
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