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Music courses for schoolchildren with learning disabilities

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Our idea was to develop music courses without the use of sheet music for children and youngsters living with disabilities. In order to test our methods and models, we contacted the Pater Damian School in Eupen.

The Pater Damian Förderschule (school for children with special needs), is a catholic elementary school, where children between the age of 6 and 14 are learning in small groups. Depending on the grade of their handicap, some of the pupils are able to finish the 6th year and thus, continue their studies in a high school (secondary school). When reaching the age of 13-14, the other pupils are going to a special school. These children don’t have a bodily handicap, their disability has a rather cognitive nature, like concentration problems or learning disabilities.
All of the 40 pupils had the opportunity to participate in our project, but we were focusing on the older ones. During 6 months 5 music teachers – including volunteers – were giving weekly guitar, keyboard and electronic music, and Cajon workshops. As a start, we introduced our workshops and the kids had the opportunity to choose a course where they can participate.

Guitar courses:
Our two guitar teachers were using different methods. One of the courses was more „traditional“, the teacher was showing the kids some basic chords and strumming techniques. On the other hand, the second course was focusing on playing along with different pop songs. During these courses, we quickly realized, that we have to work with small groups (2-3 pupils) according to the kids’ strengths and motivation. The guitar course was still a bit difficult to organize because the pupils weren’t practicing at home – in spite of having a guitar to practice on. In that way, making a progress was complicated and playing chords remained a challenge for most children.

For optimal results one rehearsal per week it is not enough, 4-5 music classes are required in order to make progress. These should be included in normal class schedules so that giving more opportunities to practice and experience success.There are also further methods probably, but we had no time for more experiments. During the courses in our youth center, “Jugendtreff Inside” we realized, that the most effective way to work with disabled pupils is to give 30 minute long private lessons. Keeping in touch with the pupil’s parents is also vital.

Keyboard/electronic music course:
The electronic music course (on Mac computers) was also organized for small groups – 2-3 children at one time. Mac computers have the advantage of being very stable and by default containing the music program “Garageband”. With this application everybody had the opportunity to try out basic music production and learn music at his own pace. For most pupils, the work with computer was already a new challenge. Despite that, the keyboard group has been always very motivated and the pupils were keen to play music from the beginning. Guiding them to play a rhythm or a melody was not always easy though.
The teacher was mostly using small, portable MIDI-keyboards, but also other methods, to make the activities more interesting and motivating. Due to the lack of time we could only offer 10 lessons to our participants. If the school or individual pupils would be interested in the future, this course could be continued, but sadly, we didn’t get any requests so far.

Build your own Cajon!
Our most interesting project in the Pater Damian School was the Cajon building workshop. Here the kids were able to build and play on their own instruments.

The definition of music as a higher cultural phenomenon, which is restricted on jazz, or classical music is in the case of social work useless. These genres are only playable by professional musicians or trained amateurs. Music is neither a higher art of knowledge nor a container of metaphysical truth. Music is a very subjective phenomenon, a question of personal interpretation. Every acoustic event has a musical potential, the interpretation only depends on the audience.
According to this philosophy, we were planning a course based on group improvisation, in our case, with a self-made instrument (Cajon). Building your own instrument is nowadays something very unique, it is only present in nations that – at least partially – conserved their traditional art of music. The use of tools and materials was also highly encouraged by this project. Nowadays a self-made instrument is quite an experiment, but the fact that it’s made by oneself can be highly motivating. On the other hand building an instrument is quite challenging, thus requires a good amount of endurance, patience, and concentration. But, due to these factors finishing the product and playing music with it is very satisfying.
After the preparation of the assembly parts, the main exercise was building them together. After our introduction we had 10 children, who were immediately interested in both building and drumming, thus we decided to build 10 Cajons. The building process took 2-3 afternoons and then we had 10 more lessons for practicing. We only had this short amount of time, because the school wanted to give the opportunity to every child to try out the instruments.
During our common music sessions we only had a few simple rules. Our main goal was not a final musical product, but the process itself. After a few lessons it was noticeable if someone was more talented and thus, successful. The improvisation was a good opportunity for the children to try themselves out with percussions and experience success.
On the other hand, the children who were only participating during 2-3 lessons were less successful. They were not joining the course voluntarily and thus, were less motivated. They surely had a chance to get to know how to play a Cajon, but obligatory participation wasn’t compatible with the principles of our courses.
At the end of the year, we organized a small concert. Then we realized that the children were proudly presenting what they learned during the year. This was a positive feedback for our courses. Sadly the pupils of the electronic music course weren’t able to play anything, due to the lack of mobile computers.

The course was a good experience for every participant, the “teachers” had to deal with a new “target group” and the pupils were happy to receive music lessons from people outside the school. In that way, our “music teachers” were starting with a small bonus and received with curiosity and openness. We were using both classical and modern teaching methods during our lessons. In our opinion, the pupils had the chance to get to know how to play music, but the continuation would only make sense on a smaller scale. Either the pupils must be motivated and supported by parents to carry on, or the school has to integrate our courses into the class schedules. We can only conclude, that the pupils were, or are interested, and if music courses are adapted to special needs and, above all, are taking place multiple times a week, can be customized to fit children living with disabilities.
In our youth club, “Jugendtreff Inside” we are more successful with our private courses. These courses are highly individualized and our “music teachers” are trying to understand the borders and strengths of every pupil and to shape the lesson according to those observations. Maybe that’s the most important insight: making music or playing an instrument on a certain level is possible for disabled children if the lessons are taking place in small groups or privately and if the teacher is trying to understand the nature of the disability.