Teaching Lessons to a Diverse Range of Learners

Teaching Lessons to a Diverse Range of Learners

By NAfME Member Brian J. Wagner-Yeung

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Updated August 26, 2022

Music instructors who work in private studio settings have a special benefit when teaching lessons. Instructors have the opportunity to work individually or in small groups with students—and can work on specific musical skills directly related to high-quality repertoire. Nevertheless, instructors should consider the diverse range of students they may teach in their studios. Music studios should be open and accessible to all.

When we consider the word all, this includes:

  • Neurotypical students
  • Students who receive special education services and programs
  • Students who are gifted and talented
  • Students who are twice-exceptional (2E)
  • Students who come from diverse backgrounds, or English is not their first language
  • Students who need extra support in different areas (ex: language, social skills, mental health, self-esteem, etc.)
  • Students with sensory needs (hearing or vision, hypersensitivity, hyposensitivity)
  • Students with behavioral challenges
  • Students with physical or medical needs

While specific strategies might be necessary for some, instructors should consider incorporating inclusive techniques for all. When music lessons allow multiple different ways to engage and perform, all students will benefit.

Some students might have an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or 504. These programs are designed for adaptations, accommodations, or modifications in school, at home, and in the community. While there are laws protecting students and families from what information can be shared outside of school, instructors in studios can develop a rapport with individuals to ensure each setting is equipped with the right tools to ensure success. This can include communicating with families, schools, and music teachers if possible.

While instructors may not always get a detailed description of each student, they might want to consider communicating with the student themselves during their first lesson. Instructors can incorporate a survey asking the student how they learn best, what engages them, what they are interested in, and some things they are challenged by. Having student voice and input can help shape what adaptations are necessary, and can sometimes fill in the gap with what information may be lacking.

The Musical Environment

The environment is extremely important for all students. Instructors need to consider:

  • The organization of the room (ex: cleanliness, layout, distraction-free, barrier-free)
  • The flow and routine of the lesson
  • Pacing, and incorporating breaks if needed
  • Developing clear step-by-step procedures (which need to be modeled by everyone)
  • Opportunities for student exploration
  • Strategies to develop independence
  • Breaking concepts or skills down into smaller steps
  • Make sure all repertoire is age- and developmentally appropriate
  • Incorporating authentic music-making that is representative of the students

When organizing the lesson space, instructors should make sure there is as little clutter as possible, and that the room is organized and neat. This will help students who might have sensory needs or can be easily overwhelmed when there is too much distraction. If needed, instructors can also create a cool-down area or location, for any student who might need to take a break. Many students might be sensitive to stimuli that are in the studio environment, such as lights, sounds, textures, temperatures, vibrations, changes in routines, etc. When instructors take this into account and prepare an environment where students feel safe, focused, and ready to make music—you are setting students up for success.

By having a schedule, students will be able to see what will happen first, next, and so on. Instructors can reuse this schedule for each lesson, to help build a strong routine. All students respond better when there is structure, they know what is going to happen, and when they can predict it. For example, a lesson schedule could include: get unpacked, warm-up, method book work, take a break, performance repertoire, sight-read, game, and pack materials up. When an activity is finished, the instructor can check off to visually show that the activity is finished and add closure. Timers can be incorporated as well for students to see how much time is left in each activity. Instructors can also add a block into the schedule for a student to share something that may not be directly related to the lesson. Instructors have the flexibility to make their routines as individualized as possible, as everyone’s needs are different.

classroom instructions in pictures
Brian J. Wagner-Yeung © 2022 Teacher Designed Materials.

Instructors can utilize visual supports to help build student independence. Visuals can help support all students and can add a way to see what an expectation, procedure, or process looks like. For example, instructors can pair a visual with the studio expectations or rules. By having pictures connected to each rule—students can see what the rule looks like. Instructors can also break procedures down into smaller steps paired with visuals, to help facilitate independence. For example, if a student is expected to independently set up their trombone, instructors can break it down step-by-step to allow students to complete this task. Gradually, these prompts can be faded once students are able to independently set up.

classroom instructions for diverse range of learners
Brian J. Wagner-Yeung © 2022 Teacher Designed Materials.

Lastly, allow opportunities for students to explore the space, instruments, and procedures. Many students might be overwhelmed by all the things inside of a private studio. Prepare time in your schedule to allow students to either play, create, or explore—which can allow students to become more comfortable with the studio space and materials. This can eventually lead to more music-making.

Instrumental Music Adaptations

Many students might be receiving Occupational Therapy (OT) or Physical Therapy (PT) services throughout the school day. Nevertheless, instrumental music is a great way for all students to develop fine/gross motor skills, hand-eye/hand-finger coordination, cross-hemispheric motion, and crossing the midline of their bodies.

Instructors should allow students to practice any musical skills in multiple ways as possible—as the eventual goal is for student independence. Instructors can incorporate several strategies to facilitate independence:

  • Finger warm-ups
  • Body warm-ups (ex: breathing, stretching, reaching across the midline)
  • Using objects to develop muscle memory (ex: pencils to shape bow hand, rulers with dots to practice fingering, cotton balls/tissues to develop embouchure or breath control)
  • Color-coding drum mallets or spots on the drum to help alternate left/right hands
  • Visual supports of what technique or skills look like (ex: picture how to place a right hand on the piano)
  • Visuals of what posture looks like (ex: printed footprints for the floor)

Instructors can also adapt the actual instruments or techniques. A student does not need to utilize an instrument in a traditional method to be successful. If a student needs to hold or play an instrument differently and is still able to make music, then this should be acceptable. Resources are readily available on how to adapt instruments for success. Instructors can use NAfME’s Children with Exceptionalities SRIG as a resource if needed.

Basic adapted instrumental strategies can include:

  • Different colored stickers/tape for pitches
  • Thumb pads on instruments, bows, or mallets
  • Instrument parts rearranged (ex: rearranging the strings on a violin to focus on two strings at first)
  • Incorporating gloves with velcro, to help hold a mallet or bow
  • Alternating posture or how to utilize an instrument

thumb pad on bowtape and pads on stringed instrumenttape marking a string instrument

Vocal Music Adaptations

In a similar manner, many students might be receiving Speech and Language services at school. Vocal music and singing are a great way to facilitate language, communication, speech, turn-taking, and social skills. Instructors can adapt vocal music for all students when necessary.

Basic adapted vocal strategies can include:

  • Having students perform and explore music in multiple ways
  • Utilizing vowels and consonants during vocal exploration
  • Incorporating visual supports to showcase musical skills and technique
  • Use visuals and gestures to represent text in a piece of music
  • Use objects to represent concepts (ex: Hoberman sphere to show dynamics or breath control)

During lessons, instructors can adapt as many pitches or sounds as possible. For example, starting with vowels first can be easier than focusing on consonants. For example, instead of singing Do-Re-Mi-Fa-So, students can sing O-E-I-A-O. Gradually, instructors can begin to incorporate consonants.

Instructors can also utilize movement as much as possible to correlate to what may be happening in a piece of music. For example, if the melodic contour is ascending, students can use their arms or their whole bodies to trace the melody. When all students can use multiple ways to access the musical content, learning and skill development only become stronger.

Instructors can also use visuals when teaching about different parts of the voice or body. This can help students see what the instructor is asking, or what is happening in the music being performed. For example, when sustaining a pitch, the instructor can draw a color-coded line. When moving pitches up and down, a color-coded arch can be drawn. When focusing on diction, use visuals of how a mouth or lips might be shaped for a student to imitate.

When teaching the text to a song, sometimes incorporating visuals might be necessary as well. Many students might struggle with decoding the text in a piece of music. Instructors can use Google Images or pictures to represent the different words. Instructors can also use gestures paired with visuals to help students recall text (American Sign Language can also be used). Sometimes, it may help students to speak the words first in rhythm, and then gradually build up to singing.

choo choo boogie sheet music
Brian J. Wagner-Yeung © 2022 Teacher Designed Materials.

Teaching Music Literacy

Teaching students to read music notation is one of the primary skills during private studio lessons. While it might sound controversial, instructors should take into account that a student does not need to be able to read music to become successful. There are plenty of musicians who can make and perform music without reading notation.

Nevertheless, there are many strategies instructors can incorporate when introducing musical notation. Some students might struggle with music literacy or become overwhelmed, as a piece of sheet music can contain: notes, rests, dynamics, bar lines, staff, time signatures, repeat signs, different languages, shapes, icons, etc. Instructors can easily adapt the way music notation looks for all students.

“There are plenty of musicians who can make and perform music without reading notation. Nevertheless, there are many strategies instructors can incorporate when introducing musical notation.”

Some strategies include:

  • Increasing the size or font of music
  • Color-coding rhythms or pitches (ex: green quarter note, red quarter rest, Do = red, Re = orange, Mi = yellow)
  • Incorporating letters of each pitch (or solfege letters) beneath or above
  • Color-coding where bar lines or dynamics are placed
  • Utilizing images from our real world to introduce music notation (ex: Go = quarter note, Stop = quarter rest)
  • Using images to represent different sounds (ex: clap, stomp, hit the drum, play an open D)
  • Using movement or body percussion to connect to literacy
  • Removing any unnecessary elements to a sheet of music (ex: a SATB choral piece of music only showing one part rather than all four)

Instructors can start simple when it comes to introducing notation, and begin to scaffold as students begin to show mastery. Having students use multiple different senses connected to literacy can develop stronger skills. For example, having a student clap and count, and/or use rhythm syllables, can transfer over to stronger accuracy when performing. Having students use their bodies to show where the high/middle/low sounds are can transfer over to stronger intonation or sight-reading.

Remember, the goal is always for students to be as independent as possible. Some students may always need to use color-coded or adaptive music notation. If they are reading music independently using this method, then you are allowing them access. Success looks different for everyone.

music notes
Brian J. Wagner-Yeung © 2022 Teacher Designed Materials.
go stop signs
Brian J. Wagner-Yeung © 2022 Teacher Designed Materials.
music notes in different colors
Brian J. Wagner-Yeung © 2022 Teacher Designed Materials.

Teaching lessons can be an amazing experience, both for the student and for the instructor. Instructors should communicate with families, and if possible, a student’s school, to find the necessary adaptations a student may require. Nevertheless, when instructors are already incorporating multiple different ways for students to engage and perform, then the opportunities for success are already embedded into the studio environment. Be patient, have fun, see each student as a human being. Allow student choice and input, and remember that a student can make music in their own unique way.

About the author

music teacherBrian J. Wagner-Yeung is the Music for Special Learners Chair for New York State School Music Association (NYSSMA). He received his BA and MSED in Music Education from CUNY Queens College, and an advanced certificate in Autism Spectrum Disorders from CUNY Brooklyn College. He currently teaches for the NYC Department of Education and is an adjunct faculty member at CUNY Brooklyn College. He has taught students on the elementary, middle school, high school, and collegiate level—where he has taught in various types of classroom settings. Mr. Wagner-Yeung has taught general music, string orchestra, and musical theatre. He has presented workshops and published articles at the state, national, and international levels. The focus of his professional work includes neurodiversity and accessibility in musical environments, developing lifelong learning through music-making for all students, and adapting the string orchestra experience for all. You can visit his website here to view his presentations and publications.

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May 30, 2018. © National Association for Music Education (NAfME.org)