While the title “Special Needs” does not begin to cover all the many different sorts of labels that currently exist for people, it is a very useful umbrella. Having a music therapy degree as well as thirty years of teaching experience, I have developed many ways to help these people engage in music-making that is deeply rewarding for them.
A major requirement is to suspend all the usual criteria for musical excellence, ie sings on the pitch, remembers the words and rhythm accurately, practices regularly, and is continually getting better.
I believe that we all love music, but many of us have lost that love along the way, often in very sad ways. People who have “Special Needs” have a very strong and obvious love of music, and the challenge is to find ways in which they can learn to make music themselves.
While listening to music may be fun, it is the act of making music that is the most therapeutic and therefore meaningful. It becomes something that they can do, instead of the opposite. So Christmas day 2020 was profoundly highlighted for me by two of my long time students with Special Needs wanting their music lessons because Friday is one of the two days a week that they do music.
The basis of music learning is singing, moving, and playing the drums, so every music lesson I teach includes all three activities in different proportions. As the student progresses in all of these areas, other types of musical possibilities may open up ie playing the piano.
For students with Special Needs who are able to read, I have developed special song sheets that not only have the words of the song, but also the letter names of the pitches involved in the song over the correct words. This allows the student to learn how to co-ordinate the pitch with the words.
“… music empowers them in a way that nothing else can, because music has no boundaries, has no race, no creed, nothing.” Andrew Lloyd Webber, The Detroit News, Oct 19th, 2017