Covid-19 has completely altered the way music teachers deliver instrumental and voice lessons. How can we ensure that students with additional needs or complex accessibility requirements don't lose out in the shift to the online studio?
Accessibility and inclusion in any educational setting is now recognised as a major priority, requiring prior knowledge, and flexibility on the part of the teacher. With some creative thought, helpful tech and careful planning, students’ additional needs needn’t hinder the online learning process. In fact, although academic research is sparse, anecdotal evidence and advice from practitioners suggests that many students with learning or access issues flourish in an online setting.
In some cases, the transference of teaching to a digital medium engages tools to enhance learning and alleviates the difficulties faced in traditional classrooms.
The better your understanding of a student’s impairment and how it effects their experience of music, the better you can shape the online teaching environment to their needs. For instance, students with hearing impairment rely heavily on feeling vibration from the teacher’s instrument. As this is not possible online, sightlines might take on greater importance than in your studio or classroom lessons. Students with sight issues are reliant upon physical and auditory cues in traditional settings. The former cues do not translate directly online, as teacher and student are in separate locations; and the latter cues may be complicated by the introduction of latency and interference. A good approach here is to experiment, and keep communicating with your student by whatever means possible – verbally or by text – to understand how they are finding the lesson, and what they need you to do differently. It may be that parents and caregivers play a role in finding practical solutions, especially as the student may not be immediately forthcoming about the complications they are experiencing as a result of the changes to their learning.
Here is a list of common challenges your student may face, and some suggested solutions:
Playing in an overly resonant or busy acoustic environment
In the online teaching environment, this applies both to the student’s acoustic space and to yours. In both spaces:
Minimise disruptive background noise interference. This could include ensuring that all doors and windows are closed, choosing rooms with plenty of soft furnishings to reduce echo, keeping your microphone close to your mouth or instrument to keep the sound dry, and utilising digital input to hearing aid technology (see below)
Never talk at the same time as music is being played – not only is the online connection best suited to sending parcels of information in one direction at a time, but for those who rely upon clear, single strands of audio input or lipreading, the confusion of multiple sensory sources will hamper communication
Impaired verbal and physical communication between teacher and learner
The specific challenges around this will vary, depending on the student. Always ask them what will be helpful, and do whatever you can to encourage them to have the confidence to ask for changes or greater clarity throughout the lesson
For students with full sight, face the camera directly when you are talking to them, focusing the webcam view on your mouth and face. Make sure the brightest light source in the room is facing towards you from behind the camera, or your head will appear on their screen as a silhouette. Check with them at the beginning of every lesson that they have a clear and bright view of you. If you communicate via BSL or other sign language, ensure there is a clear, well-lit view of your hands, and wear a plain, dark coloured top so that your hands are more clearly visible
Ensure the student has time to process any spoken, signed or written information before demonstrating, and consider asking them to paraphrase the question or instruction back to you verbally to make sure they’ve understood, as some students may feel nervous about telling you they haven’t heard or seen clearly
You may find that it helps to exaggerate any physical gestures, including mouthed language, sign language or instrument demonstrations to make your explanations clearer in the online environment
Children with learning difficulties, physical disability or sensory impairment can tire more quickly, as they are using more energy to concentrate and synthesise information. Take regular breaks, have easy and familiar exercises for them to do on their own to vary the learning methods and help them relax in the new learning environment, and shorten the lesson if necessary
In group learning sessions, establish clear rules around taking turns to speak or play, to minimise acoustic confusion, and make sure that the other students have a clear video link to enable peer-to-peer communication. Consider sending students with learning barriers new material in advance, so that their disability doesn’t hold them back from progressing with the other students
If the student is struggling with a rhythm, ask them to watch you on the screen or listen to the speakers depending on their stronger sense, while you clap it to them. Find a way to indicate the barlines, if possible, so that there is still a strong connection to meter
It may be useful to have two video inputs at your end, and a split screen for the student [link to mini-tutorial on this]. This will keep your face and lips visible for verbal communication, while pointing out specific sections of the score, or demonstrating a technical instruction with your instrument
For students on the autism spectrum, any issues relating to reading social cues and interpreting nuanced instruction will be heightened in the online environment. Communicate instructions or corrections to the student in text form, either through integrated messaging in your conferencing programme of choice, or via their mobile phone. Also consider following up the lesson with an email summary of what you worked on in the session
Try to retain the structure of your face-to-face lessons as much as possible. If there needs to be a change, inform the student in advance of the lesson what those changes are likely to be, especially if the student is on the spectrum. If you are not sure how the first online lesson will work, it will be helpful enough just to let them know that it is likely to be different, and that you will use the lesson to work out a new routine together
Students with neuro-divergent issues (such as dyslexia, dyspraxia, ADHD and associated conditions), may or may not have certain behavioural traits or individuated learning styles. Hopefully you will have learned these in your face-to-face lessons, and adapted appropriately. They do not affect a person’s intelligence or potential, so if you can find the teaching mode that works best between the two of you, the student’s music-making should not be inhibited by their condition. Make yourself aware of any visual tech adaptations they may need, such as coloured overlay for glasses or computer screens, and be creative about multi-sensory and multi-modal teaching approaches, time spent on micro-tasks and scheduling breaks. It may also help to start by laying out the larger plan for the lesson, before moving on to smaller tasks
Keep any documents or resources you send to neuro-divergent students simple and clear, with two-colour high-contrast colour schemes
The use of technology to assist students
Hearing aids and cochlear implants vary in how they process different frequencies, and are designed specifically to aid with amplification of speech. So, remember that while implants may be helping the student to hear music more clearly, they likely won’t be reproducing it exactly as you hear it. Concepts of loud, soft, high and low may have different meanings for some musicians with these aids
People who use a hearing device find it much easier to follow a single talker, singer or instrument than sounds coming simultaneously from multiple sources. Keep the auditory traffic simple and unidirectional
Experiment with your own playing. It is highly likely that the student will hear percussive or staccato sounds better than sustained legato playing, and may find something like the guitar easier to follow than the piano
It is possible to programme modern hearing aids, altering the settings to be better suited to the broader frequencies and more extreme dynamics of music. Caregivers may want to contact their child’s audiologist for further information
If you are listening to a recording together in the lesson, or you have prepared a digital backing track or click-track [insert link to separate mini-blog here], send the link or file to the student so that they can play it at their end, rather than trying to transmit the sound over the wifi connection, and listen at your end through headphones, so that the student doesn’t hear a delayed echo through your microphone
Different types of assistive technology help users of hearing devices to reduce problems caused by online transmission and background noise. Options include headphones which transmit vibration through the wearer’s cheekbones, audio direct input leads, as well as wireless devices such as ear hooks, neckloops, and Bluetooth streamers, many of which also have an inbuilt microphone. This opens up the possibility of easily transmitting your playing directly to the student’s implant, hearing aid or headphones. Discuss these options with the parents, in the first instance, as they may have already looked into these solutions without success, or finance might be an issue
Free online resources
Crouse, Rice & Mellard, “Learning to Serve Students with Disabilities Online: Teachers’ Perspectives,” Journal of Online Learning Research (2018) Vol 4, Issue 2, pp. 123-145
The National Deaf Children’s Society (NDCS) has produced comprehensive guidelines for teaching deaf children music, many of which can be adapted to the online teaching environment. The following guide is available via UK music education charity, Music Mark:
Deschaine, M, Supporting students with disabilities in k-12 online and blended learning. Lansing, MI: Michigan Virtual University (2018).
Retrieved from https://mvlri.org/research/publications/supporting-students-with-disabilities-in-k-12-online-and-blended-learning/
Erasmus resource: Teaching Music to Students who have Dyslexia
Vincent, R, “Dyslexia and Music Teaching”, Music Teachers Helper Blog (2016).
Retrieved from https://blog.musicteachershelper.com/dyslexia-music-teaching/
Music and inclusive teaching: information from the British Dyslexia Association Music Committee