FAQ about Teaching Music to Children with Special Needs

by Marlene Cooper-Williams

Over the course of several decades of teaching, other music educators have posed many questions to me about teaching music to children with special needs.

Is it possible to teach a child with special needs to play an instrument?

Prior to music therapy becoming trusted and recognized, I was often asked if it is difficult it is to teach children with special needs to play musical instruments. My immediate answer was always the same: a definitive “These children can absolutely learn to play!”

Thankfully, as teaching techniques for students of all ages, abilities and levels have changed over the years, creative teachers have thought out of the box, switching gears to reach goals, and more and more music educators are welcoming children with special needs.  Such thinking has proved important in working with our special needs populations.

Is a formal advanced degree in music therapy a must in order to work with children with challenges?

Naturally, being professionally trained is always helpful, respected and encouraged, however it is not a must.  With a true desire, a deepened intuitive sense on how to reach children with special needs and certainly a will to become aware of special teaching techniques, many teachers can experience the joy of working with our special kids.

As an example, many children with special needs have introverted personalities. If a teacher recognizes this, while also remembering that musical tools can help any individual to communicate on a deep level, offering a form of self-expression that’s non-threatening and comfortable, success can be had.

How can theory be applied to practice in teaching music to special needs children?
Recognizing a child’s individual needs and how these play into the process of music is important. For instance, many autistic students have a heightened sense of pitch which is the foundation of music. I usually begin there, showing these students how to place their voices to different pitches. From that vocal pitch placement, we move into an instrumental process, learning to understand rhythm, note reading and technique.

This is definitely an evolving process, layering our music fundamentals in a logical and comprehensive system of presentation. However, well-trained teachers take into account all the differences between students and employ appropriate approaches as needed.

What special considerations should be taken into account?
Students must be willing to take instruction, but processing time may be a bit slower. We must allow time for thinking and interpreting. A good teacher observes students’ responses, trying to not interrupt their information processing. We must be watchful, watching physical responses which would indicate and understanding of our instructions.

Another word of caution in teaching for highly animated and enthusiastic teachers, is that we must sometimes curtail some of our outward energy. I have found my energetic state to be a little confusing for students who might become easily distracted. So, again, a good teacher tailors the communication approach in each and every lesson in order to achieve musical success.

What one thing will make any music lesson for a child with special needs more effective?
It may sound like common sense, but remember that each and every student is different.  Unlike some music teachers I have seen who approach all students like a cookie cutter, be willing, open, and aware as you offer your talents and expertise to ALL students in the ways each child needs you to do so.  Doing so is what makes our jobs so fascinating, stimulating and rewarding.  It is also what helps the children we work with meet with success.

Marlene Cooper-Williams, founder/CEO of I Play Music Live and Heritage Home Conservatory, is a constant innovator of new music education programs and a professional dedicated to bringing out the best in anyone through music.  Through the I Play Music Live program, she has enabled qualified staff to go directly to student’s homes through the internet highway and through Heritage Home Conservatory she brings a conservatory education, physically, to the homes and schools of students, eliminating the travel and expense usually related to prestigious music conservatory education. 


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Marlene Cooper-Williams About Marlene Cooper-Williams

Marlene Cooper Williams is an innovator of new music education programs. From online music education to locally run and operated programming in the Conejo Valley of Southern California, Marlene and her team work with hundreds of private students in homes and schools. Additionally, Marlene reaches out to children with special needs as music offers an intrinsic therapeutic value! Play Music Live and Heritage Home Conservatory