Special education - Finding their voices

28th November 2008 at 00:00
Don't be scared of music lessons, think of them as a means of communication. Louisa Leaman shares her experiences

If there is one subject my class of special needs pupils and I look forward to during the school week, it is music. I'm not particularly musical (I managed a few piano grades as a child) and some of the music we create during these lessons would, I imagine, be pretty painful to anyone with a vaguely tuned ear. But what we lack in talent, we more than make up for in enthusiasm; and above all, these sessions have made a dramatic difference to my pupils' confidence and emotional wellbeing. Seeing this progress, week on week, spurs me on more than anything.

The key to a successful special needs music session is hard to define. In other words, there is no right or wrong way of doing it, but perhaps the needs and abilities of the pupils will dictate the appropriate level of sophistication.

The beauty of music is that it is adaptable. Sessions can range from simple one-to-one sound-making, to full-on group sing-songs round a piano, to high-tech music production using technology. All of it, at any level, can be enjoyable, as well as educational.

Even the simplest of sessions can be a powerful learning tool. For example, if both the pupil and teacher have access to an instrument, they can engage in a call and response game - one that is perhaps pupil led (such as the teacher respondscopies a pupil's actions). In this way, a non-verbal "conversation" can develop. This can involve straightforward sound-making or more complex development of rhythm. As the "conversation" develops, parts of it may become quiet, or loud, or fast, or slow. For pupils who have limited means of self-expression, an experience such as this can be highly liberating.

Variations of sophistication mean that different instruments may be appropriate for different pupils. Accessibility is important, and is perhaps one of the reasons why the subject is so motivating: with the right instrument, sound-making comes instantly and easily. For pupils who have limited co-ordination and physical mobility, bells attached to wrist straps or a collection of drumsbells dangling from a hanging rail can allow them to do this independently. For more able pupils, instruments such as the guitar and piano have proved popular.

One instrument that virtually all pupils have access to is, of course, the voice. I always introduce my group music lessons with a rendition of "If You're Happy and You Know It", replacing the word happy with the pupils' names. Then they each get a turn to speaksinglaughvocalise into a microphone. Somehow, having the voice amplified around the room is encouragement for even the most reluctant of communicators.

At the start of the year, responses tend to be quiet or non-existent. By the end of the year, the opposite is true.

Unfortunately though, music seems to hold a fear factor for many teachers. People feel that, unless they have a qualification or skill level, teaching it effectively isn't within their capabilities. I would encourage anyone who works with special needs pupils to think beyond this barrier. Don't think of it as music, think of it as communication that happens to involve singing or musical instruments. It doesn't have to be about talent. Enthusiasm is the key. And your pupils, guaranteed, will have plenty of that.

Louisa Leaman teaches at Waverley School, a local authority school for children of all ages with profound disabilities, in Enfield, north London.

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