Inclusive Choral Ensembles: Differentiating in Rehearsal and Performance
Early in my teaching career, I took my high school beginning women's choir to the annual Large Group Performance Evaluation. We had practiced everything: the notes on the page, how to get on and off the risers, the art of not wiggling on stage, and sight-reading strategies. I thought we were prepared for everything, and it seemed like we were, until halfway through the first song. That was when Jenna found her voice.
Jenna was a student with Down Syndrome that was mainstreamed into my choir class. She came to class on time everyday, sitting on the front row. She never spoke out of turn, always seemed engaged in the music classroom, and I never heard her voice stick out. That is... until halfway through our first song at performance evaluation. Jenna found her voice—loudly—and sang off-key with gusto for the remainder of the performance.
The judges' comments on our score sheet spoke of beautiful tone of the choir, but questioned if I "was I aware of the one voice sticking out? Perhaps this isn't the right format for this student to participate?" I was furious for days! Of course I can hear the one voice—I'm a chorus teacher! How was I supposed to control Jenna's decision to sing off-key? How dare they insinuate that a student with special needs didn't belong in my choir? Didn't they know that it was an achievement just to have her on stage singing with her peers?
After my frustration subsided, I realized the person I needed to be mad at wasn't the judges, and wasn't Jenna. It was me. My expectation of this student had been to "not stick out." What about her ability to grow musically, or what she could contribute to the choir? Should music be mainly therapeutic for students with special needs, or do we as music educators, have the obligation for it to be more?
According to The National Standards of Arts Education, "All students deserve access to the rich education and understanding that the arts provide, regardless of their background, talents or disabilities" (Consortium of National Arts Education Associations, 1994). In addition, the Housewright Declaration from Vision 2020 states that "all persons, regardless of age, cultural heritage, ability, venue, or financial circumstance deserve to participate fully in the best music experiences possible" and furthermore, "music educators must identify the barriers that impede the full actualization" of this goal and " work to overcome them" (Madsen, 2000).
What barriers exist in the choral classroom that impede students with disabilities from become successful music learners? After analyzing my own program, I quickly realized that the pyramid shape, one beginning choir and the progression of increasingly selective auditioned choirs, limited the students that were able to participate. Many students with special needs have a unique curriculum and schedule that would not allow them to mainstream into the one beginning chorus that was offered. There was an entire population at my school that was missing out on the opportunity of a music education.
A commitment to reaching diverse learners in the choral classroom proves challenging, especially when balancing the high-risk performance environment that our field demands. It is difficult to take a "one size fits all" approach to involving students with special needs, due to the variety of impairments that a teacher may encounter in the classroom with processing, hearing loss, fine motor skills, sight, communication, paying attention, behavior, emotional regulation, and language. Choral teachers can meet the needs of all students with and without disabilities, however, by adapting an inclusive approach in selection of music, rehearsal strategies, and varying performance opportunities.
Offering a variety of ways for students to participate in a choral program provides more opportunities for them to contribute successfully. Schedule a meeting with the special education department chair at your school, and ask the following questions:
Once the class format is established, take an inventory of what all students joining your program can do successfully. Can they match pitch? If so, in what range? Can they keep a steady beat? Do they have prior experience playing an instrument? What is their grasp of language and pronunciation ability? Do they have a unique skill, talent, or interest? Make a list of what students can successfully do, as this will assist with selection of music, rehearsal strategies, and performance opportunities.
One of the great joys of being a chorus director is that we have the flexibility of creating the curriculum—we choose the music. When working with students with special needs, the genre and familiarity of the selection can strongly impact the performance's success. This is not a suggestion to make every song on a concert a top-40 hit—however, it is something to think about when programming music. Do you have a student that struggles with matching pitch? Ask them what their favorite music is, and then see if an appropriate arrangement exists that your choir can perform. They may be able to match pitch more effectively, due to the repetition that has already undoubtedly happened due to them singing along at home.
Visual and kinesthetic involvement in a song can create many opportunities for engagement. A student with a hearing impairment consistently behind the beat may find the situation rectified when using movement during a song. By seeing a physical representation of the music, this can improve a student's ability to sing on the beat. In addition, a student struggling vocally can participate in music making through movement. Movement can be presented when teaching a song, assisting with word and phrase memorization.
One approach that chorus directors can learn from our instrumental counterparts, is the idea of assigning skill based parts. In choral music, we find music distributed by voice parts, dictated by vocal range. In instrumental music, however, parts within a section may be assigned by skill.
Choral music can also use this approach. Find pieces with a melodic line and a simple descant. A student with a limited vocal range may be unable to sing a melodic line with a large range, but could sing a simple part that only contains 2 or 3 notes. Instrumental parts could also be assigned to accompany a piece of music. Perhaps a student is unable to sing the song on pitch, but could hold down a steady beat as one of the instrumentalists for the piece of music. When selecting music, it is important to remember that the music must be age appropriate. There is no need to revert to children's music to accommodate middle or high school aged special learners. Much of the music on the radio today utilizes repetition, limited vocal range, and simple harmonic structure, which can easily be used to accommodate a wide variety of abilities.
McCord (1999, 2002, 2004) has studied various methods and techniques for students with disabilities involving music and technology, and suggests that students with learning disabilities often need innovation in music that allows them to focus on their own sensory strengths and weaknesses in regards to visual, kinesthetic, or auditory learning. Darrow (2013) encouraged music teachers to go beyond their typical subject matter approaches and incorporate visual aids, manipulatives, and technology, as well as implement musical experiences that involve the senses. When planning rehearsal, find ways to introduce material using sight, hearing, and touch simultaneously. Students can participate in the learning style that suits them best, or challenge themselves by responding using multiple senses.
Choral Teaching Strategies: Sight
In chorus concerts, it is typical to see students standing on stage in their performance attire singing traditional choral music. Instrumentalists may accompany the choir on a few selections, but the majority of a concert centers around the choir singing the music and the audience hearing the performance. This may prove problematic when involving students with limited vocal ability and for audience members with hearing disabilities. To successfully include all students and audience members, the chorus director will have to adapt his or her concert expectations to include a multisensory performance. Differentiation happens not only in the classroom; it also should drive the presentation of the finished project. A student may be unable to sing on stage during a performance due to behavioral limitations, but may be able to use GarageBand to compose music that may be played in between choir performances.
Multisensory Performance Ideas
In order to fully involve students with disabilities in the choral ensemble, the director must approach paraprofessionals, learning specialists, and parents to find out the strengths and weaknesses of the students. What effective strategies are in place in other classes, and how can those approaches be transferred to the chorus classroom? By modifying instruction to include different learning styles, music learning becomes more attainable for not only students with disabilities, but for all students. At the end of the day, the most important thing to remember is "would this child's participation make his or her parents proud?" If a student is singing music loudly and off pitch, it isn't appropriate for the student, the music, or for the success of their classmates. Instead of ignoring this situation and hoping that the student will magically start blending with the choir, it is the duty of the choral director to find a way the student can successfully contribute to the overall aesthetic experience, and continue to grow as an artist.
Consortium of National Arts Education Associations. (1994). The National Standards for Arts Education. Reston, VA: MENC.
Madsen, C. K. (Ed.). (2000). Vision 2020: The Housewright symposium on the future of music education. Reston, VA: MENC
McCord, K. A. (1999). Music composition using music technology by elementary children with learning disabilities: An exploratory case study. ProQuest, UMI Dissertations Publishing).
McCord, K.A. (2002). Children with special needs compose using music technology. Journal of Technology in Music Learning, 2, 3-14.
McCord, K. A. (2004). Moving beyond "that's all I can do:" encouraging musical creativity in children with learning disabilities. Bulletin of the Council for Research in Music Education, (159), 23-32.
Darrow, A. (2013). Applying the Principles of Universal Design for Learning to General Music Approaches. Unpublished manuscript retrieved from author.
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