Teaching Music To Special Needs Students

2011Symposium_1_2Billy Rueckert is 13 years old. And he likes to prove people wrong…Billy has cerebral palsy, and he was barely 10 when he peeked into the band room…and informed Miss Roggen he’d like to learn to play an instrument. Anything. He wasn’t picky.”

I remember him coming through that door with his walker,” says Tammy Roggen, the school’s band direc- tor since it opened 12 years ago. “And I’m thinking, ‘What instrument am I going to put him on?’ It was a challenge because he couldn’t hold anything.” And that’s how Billy came to play the tuba.

He learned sitting down, elevated by pillows, the tuba held up with a special brace, using his three fingers that worked best. “His feet wouldn’t even touch the floor when he first started,” says Roggen. “I was like, ‘How is he going to survive?’ But he just kept trying.”

Billy started in the sixth-grade band and moved up to concert band. By eighth grade, he’d moved on to symphonic band—the choicest band at the school. But this wasn’t enough for Billy.

He told Miss Roggen he wanted to join (marching band)…Not one to discourage, she found a chair with special clamps and suited him up with a sousaphone… “We would carry it on the field and carry Bill out, and we had to put cushions on the chair…Then we put the sousaphone on, then we had to carry out the music stand.”

“You should have seen it,” says Billy’s mother. “It was like the Beverly Hillbillies. We all had something to carry.” “He teacher-and-student4didn’t care,” says Roggen. “He was out there playing with the other kids.” But Billy Rueckert was not done. This fall he tried out for All-State Band.” It’s a bid deal, says Roggen. “I never made all-state.” Billy got his tryout number, did his tape, submitted his music anonymously to the judges like everyone else. Nowhere on the audition paperwork did it mention that he can’t write or walk alone or kick a ball…Turns out billy Rueckert, age 13, is one of the best middle-school tuba players in Florida. In fact, he’s No. 8.

“It just blows my mind,” Roggen says. “It’s such an inspiration.”

…Think about him on the field, playing away, happy as can be, the other kids marching around him. Think of him wowing the crowd at All-State Band…

Think of the effort it takes for him to dress for school, get to class, scratch an itch. Think of Billy Rueckert, and how he never gives up.

Billy was 11 years old when he attended Watson B. Duncan Middle School. The Junior High Band played at the elementary orientation. “I loved the sound of the band; there was nothing like it. I was looking for my niche so I joined band. (I wasn’t going to be on the basketball team.) My parents were surprised and of course supportive.”

With his parents he went to his band instrument fitting. His first choice was the trumpet because he loved the sound. But, at the time he had braces and “my facial formation needed something with a large mouth- piece.” We tried the trombone but “my arm was too short to reach 7th position. I’m still a small guy, but at the time I was only 4 feet 5 inches. Then Ms Roggen rolled out a tuba; I played it and the tuba was a comfortable fit…I used a stand called a Tuba Tamer and I currently have one myself.”

“There is a lot more to music than you may think. Being a part of a musical ensemble is different than any experience you will have. Being a part of a group and being able to make music together as one unit is the most amazing thing.

(Emily J. Minor, Palm Beach Post, February 4, 2003.)

Christine Lapka has suggested several ways music teachers can equip themselves to meet the needs of special needs students. First, go out and get what your student needs. Develop an alternative way of playing an instrument so that the child can play, learn about the special needs of your students, take time to make alterations to what you are doing so the impossible becomes possible, and find others who will help you meet the child’s needs—others that may include specialists or other music teachers who have successfully taught students with similar special needs. Secondly, get help beyond the professionals. Talk to the parents, the student, the student’s other teachers, and anyone who has something to offer. All of these people can guide you in teaching the student in the most effective way. Third, make accommodations. These refer to “the use of an altered delivery of instruction that does not significantly change the content or the conceptual difficulty of the curriculum, or a change in the test or in the testing environment intended to remove the effect of a disability form a student’s performance on an assessment.” Lapka categorized areas in which accomodations can be made. These categories are classroom environment, pacing, presentation, and teaching techniques. She also provided an excellent list of instructional accomodations that includes time, chunking, mnemonics, cues, color coding counting, highlight markers for repeat signs, peer leaders, private lessons, modeling, visual, aural and kinesthetic teaching, repetition, and enlarged printed music. Key in all of this is to focus son the student’s strengths and build on them.



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