Music Lesson for Visually Impaired Children in Schools

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"The term 'visual impairment' refers to people with irretrievable sight loss" (Open University, 2006). However, this category of people who require special education needs (SEN) also includes people whose impairment can be recovered after medical help. In general, a person is not considered visually impaired when vision is possible with the help of glasses or contact lenses.

Visual impairment can be caused after genetic malfunction and visual damage to the eye before birth, after birth and during life span (Miller and Ockelford, 2005).

There are 1.5 million children worldwide that suffer from visual impairment. There are many eye conditions that can cause visual impairment in children. Amongs them are Albinism, Cataracts, Coloboma, Cortical visual impairment (CVI), Glaucoma, Nystagmus, Optic nerve disorders, Retinopathy of prematurity and Retinitis pigmentosa (Miller and Ockelford, 2005).

There are some factors that can affect the visually impairer's ability to cope with their condition and function better. The specialist therapist's support can be a major influence, and the family's attitude has a significant part as well. Additionally, social and emotional safety has been proven to be very important.

Music and the non-specialist music teachers and the SEN children

Music can be beneficial to every kind of special education need without even the appropriate knowledge of the music teachers. Since the mind has to be extremely alert all the time, causes tension. Relaxing music can decrease tensions levels (Kersten, 1981). Researchers in the area of music found that music can produce listening as well as vibration. Elizabeth May (1961) has found that deaf children can feel music through vibrations, and perform in a unique way.

According to Zimmerman (1997), music can enchant self-confidence, develop ambition and satisfaction, in individual and group work within the school environment. Music lesson in the curriculum is very important because it helps to promote self efficacy in children. It facilitates relaxation and fun in comparison with the therapies and other lessons that the children are taught. Furthermore, children with special education needs might compare themselves with the other children in the classroom. However, during the music lesson they are given the opportunity to relax and participate equally. In addition to that, music can enchants creativity for the children with special education needs.

Kersten (1981) has indicated that, "Music provides an important aesthetic contribution to the lives of sighted individuals"; therefore, VI students can reach creative levels through musical activities. In the case of non-sighted children, music toys can be very helpful since sighted children have vision as the first sensory in order to realise objects and especially toys.

Furthermore, these students can play a rhythmic instrument and produce steady rhythms, and participate in music compositions. In general, a non-sighted person is able to expand life experiences by the use of other senses.

It is a known fact that visually impaired people use sound as a way to compensate their loss of vision. Attending concerts is always pleasurable because they can fully participate like everybody else in the audience. It is very significant how this form of equality can influence their feelings of self-esteem. Most of the visually impaired are listeners, yet some of them are more involved with music by performing or even composing.

Non-specialist music teachers have a great responsibility when educating children with special education needs. Although, they are not trained to know a way to react in the presence of any problem, or, how to teach a song to each different case of special education need, the music teacher is important to be informed and take the appropriate training concerning how to teach the child. Being aware of the basic symptoms the children display is one way to teach them.

The Music teacher in comparison with the Music therapist

There are many differences between the music educator and the music therapist. "Music therapy and music education are distinct disciplines and have separate degree requirements" (Patterson, 2003). Patterson (2003) points out that the therapist and the educator are two different parallels. The educator is the person responsible to teach music; on the other hand the therapist addresses social and communicative skills through music. In other words, the aim of the music teacher is to produce music, the aim of the music therapist is to provide an improvement in mental and physical health through music. These two roles should not be confused. However, there are some frequent misunderstandings that music teachers and therapists are undertaking the same training, and they are providing the same services.

What is the role of the music teacher? VI children frequently visit either a therapist or a music therapist; therefore, music teacher is not responsible t o treat the child but to teach music as for the other children. The music lesson should provide joy to the children and if they are treated differently, that might cause negative feelings and stress. Children with sensual or physical impairments have the ability to become very talented musicians, and the teacher should keep that in mind and treat them equally.

According to Patterson (2003), music educators can cooperate with music therapists, through consultations or in-service training. This accommodates the opportunity for music teachers to learn new techniques and strategies. They can be informed and updated concerning the possible problems that a special education need child will face in a mainstream school.

Children with visual impairment in mainstream schools

In the mainstream school, a lot of difficulties might be an obstacle for a VI child. First of all, the child may have difficulty reading notes from the board because of "distortion of depth perception, colour perception, what is being seen and perceived" (Arter, 1999). Furthermore, the child may not be able to focus to near and far distances, and this may cause visual fatigue to the child. These problems can be solved by providing more time to process the visual information.

There are many opinions concerning the school environment's role. Some people support the idea that the school should offer safety for impaired people. However, others disagree with this, bearing that only few measures should be taken in order to assist them.

According to Patterson (2003), many teachers have stated that they do not feel prepared to deal with children with learning difficulties. A survey of contemporary mainstreaming practices in the southern United States support this (Music Educators Journal 58, April 1972). Furthermore Jaquiss (2005) has collected some statements by music teachers that show the unpreparedness of the music teachers:

"I need much more time to plan if pupils with SEN are going to be coming to my lessons"


"I have enough to do without worrying about kinds who can't read or write".

According to this, some teachers would feel more confident if they could have more training on how to teach music to students with special education needs.

Witchell (2001) states that teachers' expectations should be realistic, and a secured method of learning is required for SEN children. Furthermore, the Philpott and Plumeridge (2001) suggest that engaging a holistic approach that combines performing, composing and listening increases the natural evolution of musical development.

Extracurricular work, in and out of school, for the VI children

A school is a place that acts as a small community where someone can make friends and participate in groups and in different occasions. The visually impaired and every other special education need children have a very difficult daily program because of the teacher's requirements, and the therapies they are undertaking every day. In this case, it is rather impossible to demand from these children to participate in any extracurricular activity after school. Pressuring the child to join any music group, demands more effort from the teacher and the child.

Nevertheless, there are many musical ensemble activities that children can participate, which do not require notation. Some examples are: the Caribbean steel pan, the art and craft of the steel band, gamelan orchestras and different genres, which require improvisation by the musicians. In this case visually impaired children can fully participate at the same level with their classmates, and feel a sense of equality and same capability.

Visually impaired children in the early years

Zimmerman (1997) illustrated that children who can see are more appealing because they interact more. On the other hand, infants who are non-sighted might not interact as much, and might not get the same response as the sighted infants. During the early years children prefer toys from wood or metal than plastic ones because the sound they produce is more exciting. Furthermore, in this age visually impaired infants are able to manipulate audiovisual materials. A posting-box recorder can expand acquaintance and grow control over sound through listening pleasure.

In the mainstream nursery school, the sighted child is participating in singing nursery rhymes and musical games. Vision is the sense that enables children to link superfluous sounds with what they see. Zimmerman (1997) suggests musical cues in order to help the visually impaired children. The non-sighted should be given time to touch the instrument, produce a sound by mistake and start exploring the instrument. One nice teaching method is to give instruments as a reward to the well behaved children with visual impairment.

Visually impaired at the Key stage 1

The national curriculum in England and Wales, in key stage 1, is accessible to non-sighted students as well because it involves singing and playing an instrument, composing and being a part of an ensemble. Zimmerman (1997) states that visually impaired students are able to even play xylophones, when the teacher takes off the note pieces that are not supposed to be played. Moreover, the author suggests that since the visually impaired student cannot count on or copy other students, a solution is to hold hands and take turns.

Visually impaired at the key stage 2

In this stage, children are able to sing and understand basic harmony in relation to the song. The music teacher by utilising the sense of touch as a cue can indicate to the blind and visually impaired students the correct time to enter the song. The preparation for the performance (rehearsals and stage preparation) can be more difficult than the performance afterwards. The use of Braille, written language for the blind, is essential for the children in music lessons for children with visual impairments in order to realize the pitch and the length of notes.

Visually impaired at the key stage 3

In key stage 3, music specialist teachers are present in schools and they are responsible for the music lesson in special designed music rooms. It is rather difficult for the blind and VI children to express their talent because a whole class is working at the same time with the teacher having facial expressions. The noise level in the classroom might affect significantly the non-sighted child's ability to understand and follow the lesson. Zimmerman (1997) noticed that less sighted students prefer to have a leading role or be just a passive member than have the same role as the majority of other students. In this age the non-sighted children are able to use the Braille rhythm notation. More lighted, bright colours and enlarged photocopies in a music stand can help students to work faster.

Visually impaired at the key stage 4

At this stage, the General Certificate of Secondary Education examination is taking place as well as the Standard Grade. Visually impaired children are able to take these examinations with the help of Braille, word processors and by writing the answers by hand.

The lesson it-self: performing, listening and composing

As mentioned above, children who are visually impaired use their sense of hearing in order to communicate and participate in the same level with other students in the classroom. A quiet environment helps the children to differentiate the sounds. In terms of performing, Witchell (2001) as noted that the music teacher should know every student's musical level. In this way the teacher will be able to place the student in the appropriate level of performance. The teacher can use short musical phrases to assist the less sighted students to copy, repeat and develop. Furthermore, rhythmic ostinati and the use of the pentatonic scale can be a great tool in assisting the student to achieve better results. Working in pairs, one VI student and one sighted student can accommodate more successful performance. Pairs can practice in a practice room for better results, because VI students find it more difficult to concentrate in their activity with other students playing music in the same room. In addition to this, the use of Alternatively Clearvision music books (which includes also the Braille system), provides equal opportunities for all children to work together without any differentiation. Moreover, the use of a recorder in the classroom can help the VI students to practice and memorize a musical piece more easily.

"The sky is the limit, since when given the opportunity to choose, able pupils often select difficult and challenging routes, and enjoy taking risks" (Witchell, 2001). This quote should also refer to the visually impaired students, because they are as capable as the sighted students in performing.

Listening activities have been proven to encourage students to apply their aural acuity in response to what they hear, and create their own understanding. It is suggested that the teacher should ask easy answered questions to increase students' participation without any loss their confidence. Witchell (2001) has distinguished three basic levels to determine the pupils' progress. Students' ability to differentiate sound qualities and instruments are the key elements of the first level. On the next level, the students are able to recognize expressive features. Finally, at the third level, the student can classify the structure of a piece.

The last and very important aspect of teaching is composition which creates and improves the creativity of the students. The teacher takes a more facilitator's role concerning the composing part of the lesson. However, teachers sometimes neglect their role as a director and have problems teaching the class. Composing can provide a sense of power and control to the less sighted students because they understand and learn better when they compose. There are many ways to help the visually impaired children to learn how to compose.

The teacher should keep a steady pace to facilitate the students learning ability to compose. One way to achieve this is teaching a specific genre to the children and let them work on it. Another way for the children to learn to compose is learning a specific scale. Moreover, the teacher can explain the principles of the song forms and melodic patterns and apply the lyrics to the music in order to make it easier to the students to learn.

Additionally, the amount of time given to accomplish a composition task should be adequate. Ten to fifteen minutes are enough for students groups to compose a small piece.

Every individual pupil has his own needs. It should be the bottom line to ensure that music in schools meets every individual need; hence, music teaching should contribute to all children so its impact could be maintained though their life span.

Visually impaired children are able to fully participate in all musical activities in a mainstream school. However, there are some factors that could help these children in performing, listening and composing.

The teacher should permit to the VI students to choose the instruments of their liking. Moreover, it would be helpful if the children use a personal tape recorder or a mini-disk player. In addition to that, it is essential to make the students aware of what instruments are available in their classroom, by marking them with a highlighter marker. On the contrary, the teacher should never remove the instrument from a student without letting them know. Furthermore, sudden and loud sounds can be very annoying for the VI children. In addition to that, poor quality and unturned instruments would delay the children's progress.

Concerning specific activities, the music teacher should explain the tasks to the VI children in the same level with all the children in the classroom. As mentioned above, the teacher should find a practice room for the VI children. Talking while children are creating will affect a successful outcome. Moreover, the teacher should never question that they will need help in recording or that they will have a perfect musical memory.

Many authors have stated that a music teacher in a mainstream school should make the VI student feel as more capable as possible. Learning for visually impaired students has to be ordered to become more beneficial towards them. The music lesson should be a pleasurable activity that meets every student need.