Creating a “Special Education Music Lab” for only $500

SBO Staff • ChoralGuest EditorialMay 2010 • May 20, 2010

Rebecca Sturgis-Biethman Throughout my teaching career, I typically have had two or three special education children mainstreamed into my Chorus I classes. I have had the privilege of working with children who have Down’s syndrome, mental retardation, and other profoundly physically and mentally handicapped boys and girls who have participated alongside the rest of the students in my regular music classes. Working with these children is often the highlight of my day because of the wonderful joy, enthusiasm, effort, and hugs that they bring with them. While their vocal range is often limited, at best, they certainly give it their all.

To be absolutely honest, while I love having special needs students mainstreamed into my classes, I have not always felt I was teaching at their developmental level. Too often, as teachers, we tend to teach to the middle of our students’ ability level, which can leave the needs of the gifted students and the students who are struggling unaddressed. Finding projects that will engage them is often a time management challenge. Attempting to address the needs of our higher and lower students while trying to stay on top of the details for our next concert (which is always just around the corner) is no easy task. There are only so many hours in each class period and we can only do so much to help any given child. However, this past year, we did have a surprising breakthrough that made a significant difference for our Special Needs kids. And as an added bonus, it did not take a great deal of extra time on my part.

Pitches and Intervals

While I was teaching “pitch and intervals” to my high school chorus class, I decided to use a set of octave desk bells as a visual lesson. All the teenagers wanted to play the bells, but I noticed that Avi, one of the boys in a wheel chair with deformed hands and some learning challenges, was especially interested. He pulled his wheel chair up to the front of the class and while I called out the number-scale degree of the bell, he proudly played a simple melody. When he finished, the entire chorus broke into spontaneous applause, and Avi felt like a hero. All I heard from Avi for the next few days was, “When can I learn to play another song for the chorus?”

Now I had a challenge. How was I going to teach this handicapped teenager to read music? We tried several strategies, but our most successful was to enlarge to poster size three simple “8-note bell songs.” We taped these large pieces of music to the wall and Avi’s assistant pointed to the numbers that were written above the notes and “eureka!” Avi was playing a song on the desk bells! Soon after that, all of the Special Ed students wanted to learn how to play songs on the bells. For the first time in my classes, they were making real music.

We experimented with color coding the notation and using the letter names for the bells. The students, however, were adamant that they preferred the numbers for the pitches instead of the colors or the letters. In the beginning phases, it was helpful for the assistants to call out the numbers while they pointed to the notes with the numbers above them. The more senses we used to teach, the faster our students learned. This approach included the auditory, the visual, and the kinesthetic. Touching the top of their fingers as they played the bells also gave the students guided instruction to experience success in creating a melody before they could actually do this on their own. We also tried using hand bells instead of the desk bells, which proved to be a true disaster. The advantages of the desk bells were they took less hand and arm strength to make a sound, they required less coordination, and they did not ring beyond the intended note. From both a physical and a musical perspective, the desk bells were much more successful.
(Unfortunately, we have not had very good luck with special needs students and playing rhythms. A few of our severely challenged students did make progress, but it was difficult for them to feel a basic, internal beat. If any music teachers have discovered methods to improve our special needs students’ rhythm, we would appreciate hearing about them.)

Creating a From Bells to Keyboards

With our newfound melodic success, we wondered if the students could transfer their ability to play desk bells to a piano keyboard. So, we put stickers with the numbers one through eight on the middle C octave. The transition from the large motor skills with the big desk bells to the smaller notes on the keyboard was surprisingly successful for most of the students. In addition, the Special Ed assistants were doing all of the teaching and thoroughly enjoying the progress they were seeing with their kids. However, the biggest thrill was that for the first time the students were playing songs that everyone recognized.

After our success with melodies and desk bells it occurred to me, why not create a small “music lab” within the Special Ed wing and let the assistants expand their music efforts in the classroom? I wrote and received a grant for $500 from a local arts council to get the project started.

Here is the budget that was proposed for the grant:

#149; 3 piano keyboards w/headphones $300
#149; 3 keyboard adaptors $ 60
#149; 2 sets of desk bells $ 96
#149; 5 8-note song books $ 25
#149; 5 More 8-note songs $ 25

Total $506

Special Ed Music Lab

The teachers in the Special Ed classes enjoy having the keyboards in their rooms. Some of the comments have been that the pianos can be used as a reward for good choices, or to calm a student who is having a troubling day. They also can put together events like a simple recital and a little reception for parents and students to hear their piano and desk bell songs. One offshoot of this that took us by surprise was that a few of the advanced chorus musicians found time to visit the Special Ed classrooms to help teach the melodies. One senior chorus student has even decided to major in Music Therapy because of her work with handicapped teenagers. Another bonus was the Special Ed assistants learned how to play the piano. One assistant even bought a keyboard for Christmas because of her new music skills.

Creating a The beauty of this Special Education music project is that everyone involved comes out a winner. The advanced high school musicians are learning how to work with handicapped students. The Special Ed teaching assistants are learning some basic musical skills. The Special Ed parents are thrilled that their children are learning to play recognizable songs, and the best part is that the Special Ed students are learning a musical life skill that they will take with them forever. Plus, the desk bells, piano keyboards and Special Ed assistants in the Special Education wing will continue to encourage and teach the handicapped students music skills for years to come.

After all of this excitement with the Special Education students and their newly acquired music skills, a thought occurred to me. Sometimes, our best teaching moments are not about our biggest concerts. Sometimes our best teaching experiences can come from such simple moments as finding a new use for a desk bell.

This project is partially funded by the Arts Council of Beaufort County with funds from the City of Beaufort and the South Carolina Arts Commission through the National Endowment for the Arts. Additional funding is through the John and Susan Bennett Memorial Arts Fund of the Coastal Community Foundation of South Carolina.

Rebecca Sturgis-Biethman is the chair for the Performing Arts and the choral director for Bluffton High School in Bluffton, South Carolina. She has taught kindergarten through twelfth grade music for Beaufort County Schools since 1991 and was honored with the District Teacher of the Year Award in 2004. She also serves as the director of Music Ministries for the Lord of Life Lutheran Church. In her spare time she loves to ride bicycles. She can be reached at

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