Inclusive Practices You Can Incorporate into Your Ensemble Rehearsals
By Shawn Lynn Royer & Sarah Breann Royer
When we talk about inclusion in education, we are most often talking about including the students that require more classroom support in the mainstream classrooms. In its most basic form, inclusion means including everyone. Inclusion is the opposite of exclusion, which means that we exclude certain students from certain programs or ensembles for various reasons. In this article, we will address practical inclusive practices you can incorporate into your ensemble rehearsals pertaining to working with students of varying abilities, including neurodiverse students, students with disabilities, and those that need extra support.
We, the authors of this article, direct the SYO Summer Music Programs (“SYO”). SYO is an inclusive program comprised of six different ensembles. Inclusivity, to us, means that we accept everyone into the program that meets the age requirements regardless of ability or amount of support they need. If they are very beginners on their instrument or more advanced, we accept them. We also accept students that play non-traditional instruments, such as saxophones in the orchestra and violin in the jazz band. We personally believe that we can include every student in our performing ensembles; we just need to think outside the box!
Supporting Differing Abilities Through Inclusion
It is difficult to attempt to address working with students that are neurodiverse as being in contrast with neurotypical students for many reasons. First, the way that neurodiversity often presents may look a lot like a neurotypical student. Second, many of your students may be neurodiverse and may not yet be diagnosed. Third, the ways in which we approach working with neurodiverse students, neurotypical students, and students with disabilities, are grounded in the same principles.
- Pay attention to how your students learn! This means listening to and getting to know your students. Figure out if each student learns better with visual, aural, or tactile activities, and find out how they best communicate. For example, consider using picture aids to help your vocalists learn lyrics. Don’t forget to review all of your students’ 504s and IEPs. Also, talk with your school’s support staff and invite your students’ parents to tell you how you can best support their children. Remember to also check in with your students regularly to see how they are doing and offer frequent positive feedback to keep students motivated.
- Focus LESS on PERFECTION and MORE on MEETING THE NEEDS OF YOUR STUDENTS! This means that we include all students, even if it means that your performance will not be perfect or that you might not get that perfect score. This is not about YOU. This whole thing – music education – is about meeting the needs of your students.
- Create a routine and stick to it. Write your schedule on the board and support it with picture cues. Have clear expectations and procedures and support those with picture cues. Prepare for transitions by reminding students beforehand when you are about to transition and what behavior is expected during the transition.
- Keep your classroom and board clean and organized without clutter to limit distractions. Using less lighting or covers for fluorescent lights can also reduce visual overstimulation in a room. Provide earplugs and allow students to bring their own noise-cancelling headphones to rehearsals to reduce auditory overstimulation. Also, ensure that aisles and pathways are wide and clear, and set up your room and ensemble to ensure accessibility for all students.
- Build break times into your routines. Students are going to take breaks regardless if you work them into your schedule or not. If you work them in, this may encourage your students to focus just a bit longer if it is almost break time. Frequent five-minute breaks on the hour can provide your students with much needed time to refresh and refocus. If a student needs to get up and move during rehearsal, allow them to do so, even outside of scheduled break times. Incorporate movement into your lesson, such as body percussion when learning rhythms, to support the sensory needs of your students.
- Make sure the decorations and posters in your rehearsal room are representative of all types of musicians. Musicians come in all shapes, sizes, colors, genders, and different abilities. Purposefully represent musicians that look like your students, including those with disabilities.
Making Accommodations and Modifications
Due to the nature of working with students of differing abilities, you may need to make some specific accommodations or modifications to allow for an inclusive learning environment. The following ideas for making those adjustments are grounded in the idea of being more inclusive of students rather than excluding them.
- Develop a buddy system. Call it band buddies or music mentors or whatever you like. This is an incredible way to both empower your more advanced students to help mentor those students that need more support while ensuring that you have all the parts covered. Pair each person that needs more support with another student on the same part. This mentor will offer the support that the student needs both musically and socially. In this way, you are providing models for students to imitate and doubling the parts at the same time. This provides support for students that need it rather than a substitution.
- Double parts as needed. This suggestion is similar to our previous suggestion, but it also means that you might need to have a flute double a violin part on occasion or something similar. In other words, if a student is having trouble playing something in time, despite your best efforts, rather than cutting them from the part, add a person or people to the part. This will ensure that the part is covered while providing a model and keeping all students involved.
- Make alterations to or alternate versions of the parts when necessary. Flex versions are now available for many pieces which requires minimal effort on your end. However, if there isn’t a flex version available, you might have to take a few minutes to create an alternate part – one that doesn’t shift or one that only uses the left hand or one with only whole notes and half notes. This might seem tedious, but it will mean the world to your students. Altering parts could also mean something like color-coding the music (all E’s are green, all F’s are red, etc.) or blowing the pages up larger. With vocal music, if you have a student that struggles to sing the consonants, just have them sing the vowels.
- Adapt instruments as needed. This could mean attaching Velcro to a pair of hand gloves and then to an instrument to help a student hold it. Solder thumb rings onto instruments to help them hold them. Use neck straps on instruments by attaching a metal loop around it for support, or purchase tambourines and shakers that are made to be played with feet. Bass drum parts can also be played with kick drums instead.
More recommendations for making accommodations and modifications and teaching towards differing abilities and learning preferences are included in Shawn Royer’s earlier Classical Music Indy blog, Differentiated Instruction in Music Ensembles (April, 2021).
Developing Specific Activities for the Purpose of Being Inclusive
In addition to our Orchestra, Chamber Ensembles, Jazz Band, and Handbell Choir, which all include neurodiverse students and students with disabilities, the SYO Summer Music Programs also offer an Adaptive Percussion Ensemble. We have found percussion instruments to be lots of fun for everyone and they are easy to modify for physical disabilities. The percussion ensemble also allows for a low-stress and low-pressure environment where students realize that it is OK to make mistakes. Additionally, it is very easy to incorporate the buddy system in percussion ensembles and this ensemble can be used as a stepping stone into the other ensembles.
Perhaps the most interesting and rewarding part about the percussion ensemble, however, is how beneficial it is for our students. To begin every rehearsal, the students sit in a circle with hand drums and other percussion instruments, such as foot tambourines and shakers. The ensemble leader, Sarah Royer, plays a “call,” then everyone responds with a drum roll. While they’re rolling, she walks around to people one at a time and taps a rhythm on their drum or claps a rhythm while saying a phrase that corresponds with that rhythm. That is their assigned ostinato. Each rhythm she assigns corresponds to one of the word/rhythm combinations on the board. The word or phrase associations ensure that the students can remember the rhythms later. Students also get to improvise in the drum circle, practice dynamics on cue, and they learn to listen to each other while they are playing. During the drum circle portion, Sarah will also have the students switch to other percussion instruments and will change their ostinato assignments to keep them engaged. Later in the rehearsal, the ensemble learns standard percussion ensemble repertoire with buddies and various parts doubled as needed.
It is amazing to see what this percussion ensemble has done for our students. Students that were just not very good with rhythm or with feeling a steady beat are now feeling it. Students that did not previously play an instrument are now musicians. Students that have difficulty communicating are smiling, participating, getting better at keeping a steady beat, and are following instructions. It seems that everyone is excited to play the drums, so we have not had any issues so far with negative behaviors as long as we keep the students engaged. Of course, keeping the students engaged means that we TALK LESS and PLAY MORE!
In addition to creating an inclusive space in our ensembles, we have also created a physical space in our facility to provide additional support for our students. That space is the SYO Sensory Room. Our sensory room exists in a sound-proof practice room and contains a remote-controlled box that produces gentle calming sounds and a dimly colored light. The room has a bean bag chair, a few fidget toys, books, and a weighted blanket. The Sensory Room is there for any student to use at any time if they become overstimulated or just need a moment to relax, breathe, or focus their thoughts.
If you would like to create a sensory room for your students, we recommend that you provide a space that is quiet, dark with dim lights, with room that allows for students to pace or move around if possible. Stock the room with a few sensory items, such as fidget toys and manipulatives. The room should be located in an area that can be easily monitored – perhaps one that is attached to the band room – and only one student should be in there at a time.
Remember, a sensory room is a space for any student to utilize, not just those that are overstimulated. We have had students use this room when they felt an anxiety attack coming on, when they were getting a headache, or to grab a moment of silence when the band room was just too loud for them.
If you are reading this article, you probably have a sincere desire to learn how to best support your students by implementing inclusive practices. As you begin to incorporate these strategies and suggestions, it is important to remember that we are here to support our students. Do this for them, not for any glory or attention you might earn from your school or from the community. In other words… DO NOT TOKENIZE YOUR STUDENTS WITH DISABILITIES.
For example, a few years ago, we watched a news station praise a marching band director for including a student with autism in their marching band. The student was placed in the pit with a practice pad. Not only was this a sad attempt at inclusion, but it was problematic because it was degrading to the student. The student was not actively contributing to the ensemble by playing on a practice pad. Further, the student was being exploited for the purpose of glorifying the band director. Our advice is to avoid this type of exposure at all costs.
Your students look up to you and they depend on you to protect them from exploitation. Teach them music and support their needs. Listen to them and show them that you care by being purposefully inclusive.