The Music Conservatory of Westchester is a community music school in New York with a mission to provide high quality music education to students of all ages, abilities, and backgrounds. This includes serving 1,800 individuals with disabilities annually through their outreach program in local schools and institutions, and their onsite program in adapted instrumental or vocal instruction. Executive Director Jean Newton and Director of Outreach Services Lisa Sandagata shared the history of their program, as well as some of their promising practices for working with students with disabilities.
When the Music Conservatory of Westchester began its music education program for students with disabilities in 1986, Newton says it was after staff realized a portion of their community was being excluded from the kind of music instruction the school offered. The program started small but grew quickly, and today the organization serves 1,800 individuals with disabilities, with about 70-75% of those being children, annually. The conservatory works in partnership with over 30 organizations for its outreach program, including public schools, hospitals, nursing homes, residential treatment facilities, and social service agencies.
Under their current VSA International Young Soloists: Music for Every Student contract, the conservatory’s outreach program will serve 400 elementary, middle, and high school students with disabilities in six school districts for a total of 1,148 music classes. The contract also includes an onsite program at the conservatory that serves 35 students with disabilities in adapted instrumental or vocal instruction. Participating students have a wide range of disabilities, from autism spectrum disorders to emotional behavioral disorders to cerebral palsy.
Director of Outreach Services Lisa Sandagata says the program for students with disabilities has received a great reception in school districts, which she attributes to good relationships between the school educators and teaching artists. Sandagata says, “There is a shared interest in creating an experience that helps students adapt and functionalize around music.” In fact, one of the program’s primary goals is to help students with disabilities develop skills in the music classroom that support their academic and social goals.
The Music Conservatory of Westchester tailors music activities to the specific needs of each class and individual student. Students learn basic music competencies (pitch, rhythm, melody, harmony), introduction to instrumental technique (keyboard, guitar, drums, voice), songwriting, improvisation, world percussion, and rhythm instruments.
Sandagata says Conservatory staff also work with in-school music educators to provide advice and support on teaching both self-contained music classes for students with disabilities and classes that are integrated to include students with and without disabilities. She advises music teachers that many self-contained classes need a little more structure than they might be used to offering in a music class; for instance, students might work better sitting in chairs rather than on the floor, helping to provide physical boundaries.
Sandagata also cited an example from an integrated class where she encouraged an elementary school music teacher to provide a student with autism spectrum disorder a music stand to hold his sheet music rather than asking him to hold it in his hands. “With the music out of his hands, the student’s head looked up at the conductor and many disruptive behaviors disappeared, keeping his attention on the task at hand,” says Sandagata.
When it comes to assessing their work, Newton and Sandagata say their focus is supporting the goals created for students by their schools. Individuals are assessed when they begin the music program to benchmark learning goals, and progress is measured, often in collaboration with a classroom teacher, throughout the semester. Newton points out that even specific music education goals, like learning to read music or play the piano, are often intertwined with social and emotional skill development like increased attention span and focus or improved communication and socialization skills.
A wide spectrum of skill development is a benefit of music education for all students, says Newton, and not just students with disabilities. “Any child that comes [to the Music Conservatory of Westchester] is learning valuable skill sets, from critical thinking to teamwork and beyond,” she says, continuing, “And that’s what is so special about our work, that students with disabilities are coming for a music experience that is comparable to their peers, creating an integrated community where everyone can share their musical interests and discoveries.”