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A fully equipped music room in a school is a heart-gladdening sight, particularly when the school caters for children with special educational needs. Music can tickle the intellect, engage the emotions and involve all the senses.

But music making for children with learning needs comes with a fair few pitfalls.  Many children’s songs are full of sudden, noisy clapping, stamping or jumping. Brilliant fun for most; sheer hell for anyone with auditory sensitivity.

Then there are the less obvious issues. One child with learning needs went into meltdown when his mother sang him bedtime lullabies, not because he wasn’t musical but because he was – exceptionally so:

His perfect pitch caused him acute anguish which he couldn’t articulate every time his mother produced a duff note.

But other children with SEN can take great comfort and enjoyment from music. Music therapy can be a gentle way to unlock some children, using improvisation, performance, dance, and singing in one-to-one and group sessions to help them express themselves.

And carefully chosen songs can be a fantastic way of helping children to make sense of the world around them - and even to be understood. 

Songs about daily routines – what they do and when – can reinforce visual timetables; chanting to a drum beat can help slow down often unintelligible speech.

Children with learning needs can enjoy learning an instrument, but ensuring that you recruit a teacher who ‘gets’ them and the way they think is more crucial than ever.

Where to find a music tutor for a child with SEN

  • If your child is at a specialist or special school, instrumental teachers there will already be used to working with children with learning needs. Try them for individual tuition.
  • Alternatively, your local music trust can be a good starting point. Each trust recruits and supplies music teachers to schools in your area, but will often also provide additional services including music therapy and individual and group sessions for children with SEN.
  • Check websites such as Gumtree and tutor listings, where you can sometimes find teachers with experience or specialist knowledge in teaching SEN children.
  • If you are more interested in a therapeutic approach, The British Association for Music Therapy has a ‘Find a therapist’ section where you can search by area

However impressive a teacher’s record, success in teaching any pupil is always an individual thing, so it’s worth asking to sit in on at least one lesson. Good teachers will welcome your input. You may not be musical yourself but you can pass on your expert knowledge on what motivates your child to learn.

How will the tutor approach teaching your child?

  • An improvisation-based approach may work far better for children with concentration or other learning difficulties that make it a struggle to decipher notation.
  • If a pupil struggles with fine motor skills, part of the lesson might involve strengthening or co-ordination exercises (such as touching different fingers together).
  • Think about lesson length (ten minutes may be more than enough to begin with)
  • For someone with processing difficulties, instruction needs to be slower paced, with frequent recaps. Many weeks may be spent learning a piece that other children might take a few days to master. You want a teacher who won’t flinch from the endless repetition – and who’ll take almost as much pleasure in your child’s progress, however small the steps, as you do.

Advice and inspiration

For general advice, the forums section of The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music website (ABRSM for short) is a brilliant place for discussions of all matters musical, including learning needs.

You’ll find descriptions of some amazingly quirky individuals whose interests have taken them into musically niche areas. One boy has developed an interest in harmoniums and Mighty Wurlitzer performances. Others are hooked by music theory and composition with its rules, intricacies and harmonies.

The TV programme Songs of Praise – for whatever reason – has some devoted followers among SEN children.

For an object lesson in what can be achieved if teacher and pupil are on the same wavelength, a remarkable TEDx talk is a must watch. It features Derek Paravicini, a blind, autistic pianist of phenomenal ability who can recall, play and improvise just about any piece in any key – by ear alone.

While he’s undoubtedly exceptional, it was his inspirational teacher Adam Ockelford who helped him realise his talents, teaching him conventional scale fingering, for example, to take his playing to new heights:  www.ted.com

Not every budding pianist, with SEN or without, will end up performing at the Royal Albert Hall. But as many parents will testify, music, whether heard, sung or composed, can be a unique way of helping children with learning needs take part and become immersed in a rich world of sound that can help to bridge the often vast gap from their world to ours.

Written by Charlotte Phillips. Charlotte is a music teacher and member of the Good Schools Guide Educational Consultants team

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