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Welcoming Students with Special Needs into Your Band Program

Mike Lawson • Inclusion • October 3, 2019

When I first stepped foot in a classroom, I had almost no training in Special Education – that was 20 years ago – and still don’t have a lot of formal training.

But I do have a love and passion for making sure that ALL students have a chance to be involved with music. I tell people that I teach at the perfect school; It’s not that we have everything, because funding is scarce, and our want list is longer than we’ll ever manage.

Many of our students have financial needs and home lives that make their days a struggle. The school is still perfect. Indian Creek is in a rural setting, just on the outskirts of Indianapolis, and with just over 600 students in the high school, it’s the perfect small-school setting, with enough students and courses to really make some magic happen. Our staff, administration, and athletics work creatively to create an environment where everyone shines, and everyone has the opportunity to be involved in as many activities they want.

The first step to including all of your student body in band – regardless of ability or disability – is to create a classroom environment where all students feel safe, trusted, and valued.

If my very best student in my top band doesn’t feel like they can take risks or fail in my room, then a student with autism or Down Syndrome won’t feel that way, either. And when your classroom is safe space to be yourself and grow, great things happen. The second step is to have a great relationship and partnership with your special education teachers and your administration.

Several years ago, our first student with special needs joined our program. His sisters were in band, he came to every concert and contest, and at the beginning of 8th grade he commented, “I wish I could be in band like my sisters.” I looked at him and said, “What instrument do you want to play?” After that question “TUBA!,” I had some of my own to ask. I approached his special education teachers, and asked them what their thoughts were, and how I could best navigate his autism in my classroom. They jumped in without hesitation, gave me some thoughts specific to his needs, and within a day, Matthew could play several notes on the instrument.

You must be ready to try new things and be adaptive. Maybe a student needs a shorter class period. They might need to write their note names in, or use colors to remember fingerings. A student with some dexterity issues – who wants to play clarinet and ONLY clarinet? Give them a neck-strap and modify the parts to use the notes that they can best handle.

Would another instrument be physically easier for that student? Sure. But just like every other student in band, this young person will have more success on the instrument that they love, not one that we pick for them. If a student plays bass drum, and their rhythm follows the tuba part, move the bass drum right next to the tuba – and make sure your tubist can model good bass drum technique. They’ll be best friends in no time. In a one-teacher classroom, with limited time, I’ve found my assistants in my students. When I need to rewrite a part for someone to only include certain notes, my students who love theory jump at the challenge to use Finale to create a part that works with the piece and for the student.

Understanding what each student needs, whether through their IEP or through your relationship with teachers and parents is vital. Be creative, be flexible, and be patient. Allow your general education students to be a part of the process, either by being a peer mentor, by helping logistics (like teaching a student how to assemble their instrument and oil valves), or by being a source of encouragement to your new students.

There are a LOT of cheering and high fives in my room, which go a long way to building successful moments. And if there are meltdowns? Perfect. You have a chance to teach empathy, compassion, and care. Your students will thrive, and your band family will be so much stronger because of it.

Amy Heavilin is Director of Bands at Indian Creek High School in Traflagar, Indiana

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