Virtual Music-Making for Students with Exceptionalities

You’re Kidding! You Want Me to Do What?

Virtual Music-Making for Students with Exceptionalities

By NAfME Member Deborah Nelson

Let me guess. When you are challenged to work with students who are severely cognitively disabled and who might also have physical challenges, you’re stumped. You know music is processed differently in the brain, but without more knowledge about reaching the needs of students with exceptionalities in ways that compensate for their cognitive, physical, sensory, and processing differences that are specific to music, you’re at a loss.

Voilà! Join virtual music-making. It helps with: low IQ, sensory sensitivities, vision challenges, and physical limitations and more.

Here are some possibilities to try.


virtual | Watchiwit


Adaptive Use Music Instruments (AUMI)

  • AUMI the iTunes app uses the front facing camera to facilitate student music making through body motion.
  • AUMI the computer-based version works via web camera; has different graphic interfaces, easy to complex, different timbres and loops, the possibility to insert one’s original sounds.

Learn more about Adaptive Use Music Instruments.


music technology

The Beamz System

Through a generous grant from The Education Foundation of Palm Beach County, a colleague, Nancy Patterson, and I used the Beamz system to teach academics through music with her class, while I used it to teach music in my class. Students understood the procedures and applied them to the different content. I wrote original songs to go with the curriculum, and this technology that helped our students exceeded our expectations.

  • The Beamz frame comes with some free songs and children’s videos with a wide variety of paid music and videos. One can also compose original music, though it has a steep learning curve. The device can play either wired from a computer or through Bluetooth from an iPad. Students can demonstrate understanding of musical elements and create music independently by waving a hand through the frame to trigger one or more of four possible beams.
  • Beamz works with wireless switches that can be positioned as needed and can hook into any sound system. The touch activated switches can trigger sounds programmed into the four different beams. Velcro them in position with picture prompts or object cues Velcroed on top. When the computer image or iPad image is shown on a screen there is visual as well as auditory feedback. Subwoofers help the deaf to feel the sound vibrations.
  • Beamz works on interactive whiteboard for able-bodied students and is perfect for students who need to get up and move or who need a larger image of target area to trigger.
  • Beamz app works on iPad with little effort, students can trigger a sound or response by touching a representation of a beam.
  • Beamz with eye gaze on a Surface with a Tobii infra-red system. Students look at the purple squiggly line to trigger the sound and visual feedback.
music notes | oorka


This app, available in Google Play and iTunes, is the perfect communication tool for nonverbal students in music class. The cells can mimic instruments, voices, and help with assessing learning by providing audiovisual cues for students to choose by touching or looking at their choice.

 The back facing camera on my iPads works as eye gaze.

There are two processes in beta for you to try.

  • The person dwells for a period of time indicating a choice.
  • The person does a wink while looking at their choice.

More about MyTalkTools:

  • Currently it works well with two to three choices when there is good lighting.
  • Area behind the person using it needs to not be visually busy or have motion.
  • It’s very easy to author boards from its web platform or directly from an iPad.

Try the iTunes Course for a quick start. Ken Stott is always available to help with problems and questions



  • The Skoog device works via Bluetooth in conjunction with the Skoog app.
  • Program five pitches from the chromatic scale within in a four-octave range
  • Choose from eight different timbres.
  • Set sensitivity and response choices for expressive playing.
  • Play along to backing tracks from iTunes songs or Spotify songs with automatic key detection for error-free playing.
  • Use Skoog Songbook matching colors and duration cues for several familiar songs; view through iPad or Apple TV hook up.
  • Use other MIDI apps with Skoog like Garageband to have access to other timbres. (I love the Garageband sampler and have used whale sound for a special project.)
  • Learn to code with Skoog’s Swift Apple Playground. Have general education students use this for simple access to musical concepts for special needs students.
  • Tactile defensive students love Skoog.
  • It feels soft and warm to the touch.

Even students without fine motor skills can be successful and won’t break it!

The website has great how-to videos and education application information. Ben at Skoog Music is always available to help with questions and problems.


music technology | Sasatigar


Roli Lightpad Block

In addition to the auditory feedback, it also gives a visual feedback with Noise app software.

Neat stuff:      

  • Phonotonic allows you to create and control the music in real time just with your moves.
  • MogeesTM allows students to make music, play games, and learn.

I look forward to hearing from others who work with students like mine to share ideas. Share your ideas on Amplify today!


About the author:

music teacher

NAfME member Deborah A. Nelson has a master’s in special education and a BME from Florida State University along with endorsements for gifted students and students with severe or profound disabilities. She also has certificates in: Autism Movement Therapy, Drum Therapy, and Orff levels one and two. She is the music teacher at Royal Palm School (center school for K-Transition students with severe cognitive and physical disabilities).

Out of numerous national grants and awards, Deborah is most proud of winning Palm Beach County School District First Place for Innovative Educator in 2014 for use of technology in teaching.

Deborah enjoys beta testing various music and communication apps to help designers provide better access for her students. She even motivated her friends, an electrical engineer and a computer programmer, to work together to design a switch interface specifically for her students’ needs that was multimedia-based.


Did this blog spur new ideas for your music program? Share them on Amplify! Interested in reprinting this article? Please review the reprint guidelines.

The National Association for Music Education (NAfME) provides a number of forums for the sharing of information and opinion, including blogs and postings on our website, articles and columns in our magazines and journals, and postings to our Amplify member portal. Unless specifically noted, the views expressed in these media do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Association, its officers, or its employees.

Catherina Hurlburt, Marketing Communications Manager. October 18, 2017. © National Association for Music Education (