Simple Adaptations for Music Education

 by Miranda Rex, MA, MT-BC

Many music therapists also teach music lessons – including the team at Heart and Harmony Music Therapy! Music therapists are especially well positioned to teach music students with disabilities, learning differences, and mental health needs because of our in-depth academic and clinical experiences. After all, we facilitate musical experiences with others while consistently addressing multi-domain maintenance or progress, supporting and validating client participation, managing the environment, and practicing reflexiveness in which we can respond immediately to any client needs that arise. Music therapists are masterful multitaskers

Check out our favorite tips for music therapists and music teachers alike who need to think outside the box and implement adaptations in their music lessons.

Start with color!

I know a lot of music therapists use color coding or groan at the use of it, but it is so helpful and reinforcing when teaching the basics. Colors are something most folks already know, so by simply adding onto their prior knowledge, learning is reinforced. This is one of the tenets of constructivism. 

Use familiar melodies.

Practical application of aural skills for the win! Focus on snippets of prominent melodies within your student’s preferred music (for instance, the melody of chorus of their favorite song), then pair those notes with colors. For example, with one of my students, I use “Hotline Bling” by Drake, which is ORANGE ORANGE ORANGE GREEN YELLOW ORANGE RED YELLOW ORANGE on a standard resonator bell set. First, you should demonstrate playing the melody while saying the colors, and have the student mimic. Which leads us to …

Have students play melody with colors.

Once you have familiarized your student with the colors used on your instrument, you can move on to saying the colors aloud while your student plays. Depending on their needs, it may be best to group the melody into 2-3 notes at a time rather than the whole thing at once. 

Repeat as needed to reinforce learning until students are comfortable with the patterns and melodies.

Introduce solfege. 

I have found that using the “Do-Re-Mi” song from The Sound of Music is actually really helpful here; however, I recommend letting the student come up with their own associations to improve student engagement. For example, one of my folks created this:

Do: A deer

Re: A drop of golden sun

Mi: A name I call myself

Fa: A long long way to drive

So: A needle pulling thread

La: A note I used to sing

Ti: I drink unsweet and iced

Once you have established associations that are relevant to your student, you can review the song until they are familiar with it and seem to grasp the pitches and solfege. Then you can…

Pair solfege with color.

Show your student how the colors pair up with the solfege and review these pairings until they have a good understanding of it. 

Play familiar melodies with solfege.

Gradually fade out using colors until your student is only using solfege. It may be useful here to point out the color/solfege associations for each melody. Using the example from above, “Hotline Bling” would be Re Re Re Fa Mi Re Do Mi Re.

Have students play melody with solfege!

If and when they’re ready, you can move to saying the solfege aloud while your student plays. It may be best to group the melody into 2-3 notes at a time rather than the whole thing at once. 

Repeat as needed to reinforce learning until students are comfortable with the patterns and melodies.

Introduce basic musical elements.

When introducing students to the musical staff, measures, bar lines, clefs, and FACE + EGBDF acronyms, describe these elements in ways that make sense to the student. Is your student a concrete thinker who struggles with more abstract concepts? Does your neurodivergent student experience auditory sensitivity to the extent that dynamics might be a struggle? Keep things like this in mind. 

Here is how I refer to the staff, measures, and bar lines for my concrete thinkers:

Staff: 5 lines, 4 spaces. It is the home where our notes live. 

Measures: These are our rooms in our home. They are separated by…

Bar lines: The doors of our home! They help separate our measures. 

When teaching the FACE and EGBDF acronyms, I often chant, “FACE is our spaces, and space rhymes with FACE.” For EGBDF, I usually let students make up their own phrase because, just like with solfege, it’s easier for the students to engage in learning when the content is relevant to their life.

For example: Every Good Banana Deserves Fudge

Quiz time!

Test for understanding and retention. I utilize a Quizlet for a few minutes in each lesson following the learning of new concepts. I don’t spend too long on it, but it has been a very useful and convenient tool in solidifying understanding. My students actually look forward to these quizzes because they enjoy getting 100s! 

Encourage! Praise!

This may seem like a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised at how much students value our praise and encouragement when learning these new things. 

I also brag on them to their parents and have them repeat some of the things we learned that day. Parents are almost always super impressed, and the student take pride.

Be Content.

If you have a student who plays wonderfully with color-coding but seems unable to move onto with solfege, stick with colors as long as needed. Be content with their current successes, and rest assured that your patience and understanding are so important. If you end up with a student who is always “reliant” on color-coded music – that’s great! You figured out how to make music reading accessible to them! You’ve enriched the life of your student by teaching them a hobby, which potentially improves their self-confidence, strengthens their cognitive and motor skills, and adds to their list of coping mechanisms when life gets tough.

How do you teach music?

Comment below with your favorite strategies!

Miranda Rex, MA, MT-BC