Reaching All Students with Music

Breaking Down Barriers: Simple Strategies for Making Music Accessible, Equitable, and Inclusive

Reaching All Students with Music

By NAfME Members Paige Vass and Claire Leeper

Do you ever wish you could go back to a simpler time? When you were just a budding high school musician?

Looking back, those seem like the good old days, when your biggest worry was, Did you bring the correct color socks or will you get the solo? How many of us were able to thrive in our ensembles because we were fortunate enough to have had the support and guidance of our parents? They drove us to concerts, reminded us of call times, took us to other events that provided valuable lessons in what to expect when performing, and set up private lessons so we could be confident in what we played and therefore able to better focus on the instructions from our directors?

Do your memories really do justice to the reality and the stress you felt as a new musician? Have you experienced entering a new program midway through high school? Have you faced anxiety related to impaired social functioning? Have you ever been lost due to an inability to identify and interpret visible social cues? Have you ever taken the stage for a final rehearsal and been paralyzed by the spotlight directed at your chamber ensemble? Have you or your parents sat quietly as the director spoke and addressed the group in another language, or handed your parents a program with your name in it surrounded by words they can’t read?

Accessibility | DGLimages

For many of us, barriers were minimal, so how to recognize them and knock them down for our students?

Putting Yourself in Your Students’ Shoes

It’s hard to imagine some of these scenarios. The farther removed we become, the more difficult it can be to put ourselves in the shoes of a new musician, much less one with a disability, language barrier, or socio-economic disadvantage.

Now is the chance to go back in time! During this session at NAfME’s In-Service Conference, participants will work in a simulation that will give them a glimpse of what it is like to be a new musician in an ensemble. A lucky few will not only get to be part of the “throwback” but also experience firsthand some of the barriers faced with increasing frequency by students today. Participants may work alone or with a small group to complete the first hands-on challenge. When time runs out, participants will share what they encountered and evaluate their success.

inclusivity | wingedwolf

Immediately following the review of the first challenge, participants will complete a second challenge. In this opportunity they will experience some of the simple scaffolded supports that can be utilized to break down barriers for students. At the conclusion, participants will revisit the model they created during the first challenge and compare it with the one they have just created. In addition, participants will identify the tools and strategies that made a difference in their success.

Now What?

You’ve been taken back, experienced a new barrier, and identified the feelings and struggles, so now what??

Participants will talk through scenarios and learn about simple tools and strategies that they can take back with them to their own ensembles. Resources shown in this session, along with other tools and strategies will be accessible to participants electronically following the session. Additional ways to create a culture of equity and inclusion will be explored, including how to secure support and protections for students with disabilities, ways to advocate for your program, and how to make the job of director of an equitable and inclusive program manageable.

Photo by Victoria Chamberlin |


Creating a Culture of Inclusion

Creating a Culture of Inclusion DOES make your job easier!

There isn’t one music educator I know who would choose to keep music from a student. We all know the value of students having access to music in their lives and in their education, and we want to share it. But it’s not easy. Creating a culture of inclusion within your program has to be intentional—but is the key to making music for all not such a daunting task?

In our session we will discuss strategies for:

  • creating successful, collaborative partnerships with special education staff
  • training your student leadership to support their peers with disabilities, and
  • share ideas for how to empower those in and working with your program to support and include others without compromising the integrity of your program or the product they present to audiences and judges.


About the authors:

NAfME member Paige Vass is a Special Education teacher at Harrisonburg High School. She has been teaching special education for 10 years, servicing students in all disability categories in grades K-12, primarily those with high-functioning Autism accessing the General Education curriculum. Ms. Vass is in her third year as the Inclusion Specialist for the Fine Arts programs at Harrisonburg High School.

Ms. Vass earned her Bachelor’s and her Master’s of Arts in Teaching from James Madison University. She is clinical faculty for the Mid-Valley consortium serving colleges and universities in the central Shenandoah Valley. Ms. Vass has presented at the Virginia Music Educators Association’s annual conference, as well as for the Kennedy Center’s Very Special Arts conference on effective equity and inclusion.

Ms. Vass currently serves on the executive board of the Shenandoah Valley Children’s Choir and resides in Harrisonburg, VA, with her husband and two children.

NAfME member Mrs. Claire Leeper is currently in her tenth year of teaching music. She attended James Madison University and received her BM (Bachelor’s in Music) in December of 2007. While at JMU, she was active in Kappa Kappa Psi, serving as the Vice President of Service. She coordinated an instrument drive that took more than 200 instruments to needy middle and high schools in Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. She was very active in the collegiate chapter of NAfME (National Association for Music Education), served as secretary for the JMU Flute Club, served as a drum major for the Marching Royal Dukes, and was the principal flutist for the Wind Symphony at JMU for five straight semesters.

Previously, Mrs. Leeper taught at Fort Defiance High School, growing the program from 22 students to 86 in the six years she taught. She is currently teaching at Harrisonburg High School as the Band Director, and she also teaches piano and music theory classes. She continues to play flute professionally at local churches, teaches private flute lessons, and is the founder of and participant in the Valley Wind Ensemble. Mrs. Leeper resides in Bridgewater, VA, with her husband Shannon and their two sons.

Paige Vass and Claire Leeper presented their  topic “Breaking Down Barriers: Simple Strategies for Making Music Accessible, Equitable and Inclusive” at the 2017 NAfME National Conference last November in Dallas, TX. Register today for the 2018 NAfME National Conference!

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