Five Tips for Teaching Music to Students with Disabilities

By Cecilia Smith

Plato has been credited with quote, “Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and life to everything. “As a jazz artist, I have been fascinated by the universal application of jazz improvisation concepts to a variety of learning styles and preferences, including those of students with disabilities. Music, indeed, speaks to everyone. The following tips will work well with students with disabilities, and were developed particularly for students with autism spectrum disorders.

  1. Observe individuals making body movements to music. If their movements are in time to the rhythm of music, this could translate into instinctive time-keeping abilities that can be fine-tuned.
  1. Egg shakers are viable alternatives to maracas. Tiny beads inside of the egg structure are quite pleasing to the ear even if shaken randomly. Egg shakers can create an environment of sound essence and pleasing rhythm simultaneously.
  1. Darbukas drums are held under one arm while one hand plays. A steady rhythm of simple 1-2-3-4 can be easily maintained on the Darbukas drum.
  1. Use popular music for teaching students to count beats per minute (BPM) and practice consistent rhythm/time. Some music suggestions are: Katy Perry’s “Firework” — 126 BPM; Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” — 160 BPM; Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk” — 120 BPM; Clean Bandit’s “Rather Be” — 120 BPM; and Wiz Khalifa’s “See You Again” — 84 BPM.
  1. Coordinate dramatic activities with music that can serve as a tool for enhancing interpretation and appreciation of all kinds of music genres. For example, use a large parachute and coordinate music to the following: up and down movements; shaking with hard and soft motions; or add 5 to 15 large balloons in intervals, while lifting and shaking the parachute as the music intensifies. This is an extremely engaging experience! Music suggestions for this activity include: Pat Metheny’s “Cathedral in a Suite Case;” Angélique Kidjo’s “Lonlon;” Jill Scott’s “Golden”; Mary Mary’s “Get Up”; Respighi’s “The Pines of Rome”; Mussorgsky’s “The Great Gate of Kiev;” Copeland’s “Hoe Down;” and Miles Davis’ “Jean Pierre,” “High Speed Chase.”


Picture of Cecilia Smith

Cecilia Smith

Cecilia Smith is a teaching artist for Marquis Studios in New York. She will be co-presenting a VSA webinar with Maya Singh on Tuesday, May 24, 2016, entitled Music & Math in Motion: A New Learning Approach to Counting in 4/4 Time and Tempo Concepts for Students on the Autism Spectrum.


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