“Music Enriches Us All”: A Special Educator Looks at Music’s Rewards

“Music Enriches Us All”

A Special Educator Looks at Music’s Rewards

Member SpotlightAlice-Ann Darrow

This article originally appeared in the April 2017 Teaching Music.

ALICE-ANN DARROW believes in the power of music to transform lives. Her entry into teaching coincided with the passage of Public Law 94-142 in 1975, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, a landmark in public education in the United States. She recalls that when she began teaching in the public schools, she was “excited and proud to be a part of these early efforts on behalf of children with disabilities. Before PL 94-142, most children with disabilities were denied access to their neighborhood schools and were educated in segregated schools and institutions, if at all.”



As the Irvin Cooper professor of music education at Florida State University in Tallahassee, Darrow’s main professional interests are teaching music to special populations, inclusive practices for students with disabilities (particularly those with behavior disorders and those who are deaf/hard-of-hearing), and the role of nonverbal communication in the music classroom.

A NAfME member for more than 25 years, Darrow has written numerous articles and book chapters. She edited Introduction to Approaches in Music Therapy and coauthored Music in Special Education and Music Therapy with Geriatric Populations: A Handbook for Practicing Music Therapists and Healthcare Professionals. Darrow has served on journal editorial boards in music education and music therapy. She’s the past chair of the Commission on Music in Special Education for the International Society for Music Education, and she serves on the NAfME task force for the inclusion of students with disabilities, and as the Florida Music Education Association chair for diverse learners. 



Darrow offers teachers several strategies for including students with disabilities in their classrooms or ensembles: “A teacher must first be open to teaching students with disabilities, and fortunately, most music educators are, but they may need help with appropriate strategies and materials to use with these students. One important strategy involves using the principles of Universal Design for Learning. Briefly, this means (1) providing multiple means of presenting musical information and content to students, (2) providing multiple means for students to show what they know and can do musically, and (3) providing multiple means of stimulating student interest and motivation in music learning.”

She continues, “All students learn differently, and we must be flexible and able to adjust our teaching to how they learn best. To apply these principles, a teacher needs to know his or her students and their strengths and challenges. A positive, can-do attitude toward all students always helps as well.” Other tips include:

  • Organization is critical! Be prepared to handle a variety of situations, and always have a Plan B (and even C)!
  • Model a positive attitude and attentive listening for all your students.
  • Expect a lot—your students will often surprise you with their abilities!



Darrow says that she has always loved children and animals. “Friends often remark that my dogs are so obedient and well-trained. My response is always, ‘Of course—I love teaching!’ Both children and pets are happier knowing what is expected of them. I have never seen either animals or children turn down praise or a ‘treat’ (whatever it might be) for appropriate behavior. Some of my dogs have been trained as therapy pets, which coincides with my background in music therapy work. When I was working at a school for the deaf, I taught one of my dogs numerous commands using ASL signs, and my students loved to sign to him. Signing with my dog was their favorite ‘treat’ for good behavior.”

Darrow continues, “There is ample research that indicates teachers talk too much. My current research concerns the effective use of nonverbal communication in the classroom. My background in deaf education has helped in developing nonverbal strategies that work with many different kinds of learners.”

As to what makes her day, Darrow is thrilled when “former students are excited and call or e-mail about their experiences with students who have disabilities, or about how they successfully used a strategy we talked about in class. I want all my students to be successful teachers, and if I have been able to help them in any way, I am most proud of that.”

“Music … has the potential to make our communities stronger, richer, and more peaceful.”

A frequent presenter at local, regional, national, and international music education and music therapy conferences, Darrow remarks that “NAfME conferences, publications, staff, and colleagues have made my professional life possible and immensely rewarding. I always leave our conferences feeling inspired and buoyed by our leadership, staff, and members. We share a common goal of enriching lives through music participation.” When asked about the current situation in the United States, Darrow responds, “I’m alarmed when I hear that the National Endowment for the Arts may be eliminated. I know what the arts have meant in my life and in those of my students. As music educators, our message must be strong and clear: that we believe in the right to musical expression, and that we believe in that right for everyone, regardless of race, ethnicity, immigration status, age, gender, disability, class, or sexual orientation. Music is not only an academic, enjoyable, and rewarding activity, but also one that has the potential to make our communities stronger, richer, and more peaceful.”

Brendan McAloon, Marketing and Events Coordinator, April 22, 2017. © National Association for Music Education (NAfME.org)