Success with Special Learners: The Bigger Picture and Purpose

Every year, Dana Van Slyke’s Concert Choir at Herndon High School in Virginia has between 15 and 20 students with special needs enrolled. (See last two weeks’ postings for background.)

All six of Dana Van Slyke’s vocal groups attend competitions/festivals in the spring, as she wants all her students to get the experience and feedback.

One young man, David, really made a difference in her choir. David is developmentally delayed and considered ID (intellectually disabled). In class, he was easy to get along with; all the kids loved his high energy and engaging ways, but David was hard to understand when he spoke. His voice was very nasal and very loud.

Van Slyke addressed this issue with the entire group. As a team, they had to help David learn to blend vocally with the group. She wanted to be up front with everyone and ask for their cooperation.

David actually was very good at observing and responding to the dynamics of the music. He understood soft and loud, and so Van Slyke learned to conduct David with one hand, and the rest of the group with the other hand. Van Slyke found she could direct David specifically while directing the rest of the group at the same time. David responded to the individual direction beautifully. David also responded to and understood solfege hand signs, and was very good at matching pitches. So much so, Van Slyke asked David to set the matching pitch for the other boys in the group!

At the spring festival/competition, the group performed a spiritual. She asked everyone to cut off, and the main group did, but not David. So Van Slyke quickly gave David the “cut!” sign, and he did immediately.

The judges at the festival congratulated Van Slyke on establishing a “real community” with her choir, and that in itself was a positive outcome of the groups’ performance and work. Van Slyke shared this with the group, and all realized their role and felt pride in their accomplishment.

Over the four years she had David as a student in the Concert Choir, Van Slyke says she “learned so much from him,” and he “enlightened” her.

MENC member Dana Van Slyke teaches at Herndon High School in Herndon, VA. Names of students are fictional to protect their privacy.

–Sue Rarus, October 21, 2009. © National Association for Music Education