The Importance of Accessibility in Music Education
by Paul Babcock
Brian and David
Thirty years ago, when I was starting as a percussion teacher, I was approached by the parents of two fifth-grade boys living with Down Syndrome. Brian and David Muhs had been excluded from the school’s band program. When their parents urged the school to reconsider, the band director reluctantly agreed to let them participate – if they received extracurricular instruction. So, Brian and David’s parents asked if I would teach them.
I knew very little about the challenges that someone with Down Syndrome faces. But I knew there’s magic with music, no matter your age or ability, and I wanted Brian and David to have the opportunity to play the drums.
I approached our lessons as a percussion instructor, wanting to meet my students where they are. I began with typical instruction techniques and broke down the music elements into smaller parts. We practiced slowly and repeatedly until they mastered the techniques. I refined those strategies to meet the boys’ needs and musical growth.
Brian and David benefitted from the musical training and pursued their passion for drum playing. Now, at age 40, they continue their drum lessons and continue to be a part of the community at MacPhail. In addition to weekly lessons and participating in performances, they manage two candy machines at MacPhail as part of their vending machine company. Over these many years, I have learned so much from Brian and David. I have learned how to be a better teacher through our time together. I’ve learned teaching strategies that have carried over to my lessons and classes with all my students.
Accessible Arts Education
This past fall, I was introduced to Rhoda Bernard, the managing director of the Berklee Institute for Accessible Arts Education in Boston. As a music educator and advocate, Rhoda is committed to providing opportunities for music education for all.
I deeply resonated with her passion. I was particularly inspired by the training she provides for music educators to adapt their teaching for all learners. The Institute for Accessible Arts Education (LINK) includes opportunities for degrees, certificates, and study groups for current and aspiring music educators. I greatly appreciate Dr. Bernard’s work assisting music educators in their efforts to meet all students where they are.
MacPhail Center for Music, a community-based music school, provides music learning and performance opportunities for student musicians of all ages, backgrounds, and abilities. MacPhail strives to cultivate an inclusive atmosphere where everyone is welcome. Music is a common bond among us all. Through music, we communicate with friends, neighbors, and our community. We share our emotions through music as we celebrate, commemorate, and memorialize the events of our world. Music is deeply embedded within our cultures, representing our identity individually and collectively. No one should be denied the opportunity for music learning and for participation to be a part of their life.
Rhoda’s approach impressed me because she presented strategies that any teacher could implement. In a recent seminar provided by Rhoda to MacPhail teachers, a violin instructor brought up a situation she was currently facing with a young student. The student had perfected “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” a stable of early violin training. However, when the student was asked to perform the song along with piano accompaniment, she suddenly couldn’t remember the finger positions on her violin. When the aural component of the piano was added, it completely disrupted the student’s ability to play. The caring teacher wanted to help the student, but nothing she tried worked.
Rhoda coached the instructor with specific strategies that initiated a second learning process to help the student incorporate the piano with what she had already learned on the violin. After the discussion, the teacher left the session with Rhoda with some practical techniques she could use immediately. I think this kind of support is invaluable for opening doors for all students to participate in learning to make and create music.
When Brian and David Muhs started their musical journey, they faced many obstacles. And they faced resistance to their participation. Through their persistence, they encountered acceptance as well. Their high school band program embraced them. They were embraced by the students in their MacPhail percussion ensembles and by the parents and families of those students.
When we, as a society and as members of learning institutions, embrace the abilities of all students to learn, we all grow together. There is work to do, though, for these positive experiences to become afforded to all. I applaud Dr. Rhoda Bernard’s work at the Berklee Institute for Accessible Arts Education. I look forward to MacPhail Center for Music’s continued commitment to providing opportunities for all students.
Learn more about Rhonda Bernard and accessibility work at Berklee College of Music: PBS – How an Elite Music School is Increasing Access for Students with Disabilities