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Unleashing potential with adapted instruments

In the music world, there’s a huge spectrum of instruments at your fingertips just waiting to be played. But for those with physical disabilities, accessing these instrumental options can be a challenge. In the past, keen disabled young musicians may have been limited on their choices or even discouraged from playing altogether.

As teachers juggling multiple students and priorities at once, it can sometimes feel like an insurmountable challenge to address specialised needs. This is especially true if you’re not sure who you can turn to for help or guidance!

Luckily for everyone, times are changing. Organisations like The OHMI Trust and internal initiatives like ours at Kent Music are making music more accessible than ever for young musicians in and out of the classroom.

OHMI rise to the challenge

For many children with upper limb impairments, traditional musical instruments can present challenges from the outset. With an estimated 1 in 400 children born with cerebral palsy each year and many others with congenital limb differences, the need for greater accessibility in the music classroom is clear. Most children with physical impairments or limb disabilities – up to 90% – attend mainstream schools.

OHMI, a specialist organisation in adapted instruments, points out that “virtually every musical instrument you can think of requires 10 highly dextrous fingers to play them effectively, and there are over 40 medical conditions that can affect arms and hands.”

Adapted instruments and enabling apparatus can profoundly benefit students. Contrast the feeling of exclusion when handed a traditional instrument, with the sense of belonging felt when a student is given an adapted instrument that they can play alongside their peers. As a Rachel Wolffsohn from OHMI beautifully puts it, “In order to feel included in any group, you need to be anticipated.”. So how can we make sure we’re anticipating students’ needs?

Anticipating Needs

One of the first steps a school can take is to identify the preferred instrument or relevant physical needs of a child. Communication is key. What are the student’s specialised needs? What are your and their goals for their education? Most importantly, what do they want from learning an instrument?

For schools who undertake whole class instrumental tuition (WCIT) with primary classes, it’s worth taking some time to consider what instrument would best suit the needs of your group of students.
Here are some key considerations for commonly chosen WCIT instruments:

For example, are all children physically able to hold a traditional ukulele? Do they have the hand shape or muscle control to push down a string?
You could consider…neck straps to take some weight off hands and arms, or even resting the ukulele on its back on a table or other surface.

Brass, Woodwind and Recorders
Do any students have problems with lips, mouth or teeth? Children with a cleft lip or palate may struggle.
You could consider…exploring different options for the size of mouthpiece, or use a lighter reed where appropriate.

With creative thinking, there are simple adaptions that can be made which make a world of difference for students. It’s wise to talk to your hub if you have any concerns over accessibility for your WCIT classes. You can also get in touch with our Music Resources team here at Kent Music who can offer suggestions, insights and solutions to explore.

The team at OHMI offer support of various kinds to schools considering adapted instruments and needs, whether you’re looking at WCIT or individual learning.

You’re not alone in this!

In-house initiatives

As awareness grows, so too does the demand for adapted instruments. The landscape is certainly changing, with a much greater focus on inclusion in music-making. Techniques like 3D printing are starting to be explored for adapting instruments, opening up opportunities for further accessibility. Meanwhile there are an array of specialised accessible or adapted instruments available, both bespoke and otherwise.

Here at Kent Music our Music Resources team is constantly working to increase our stock of inclusive instruments. The department has already started working on adapting instruments in-house and building partnerships with organisations like OHMI.

We are always expanding our knowledge and experience of supporting students with additional needs. Our team have already been tinkering away at some great prototypes to use in schools! Whether it means building up a stockpile of resources, creating vital relationships or just being able to provide guidance, our team wants to be a resource for you.

How to get adapted instruments into your classroom

There are several ways that schools can access adapted instruments. If you can identify a student’s preferred instrument, you can seek solutions specifically for it. If a child would simply like a go at an instrument without preference, there are cheaper and more accessible options.

OHMI will soon be launching an online service to aid in the selection process. This service, available via the OHMI website, will provide guidance for choosing an instrument based on preference or relevant physical need. This hands-on, anticipatory approach fulfils the need for an individually tailored music education.

While we aim to make it as easy as possible, accessing these instruments can come with challenges. Adapted instruments, often produced at smaller scales than their mass-manufactured counterparts, can come with a heftier price tag. However, local funding can sometimes be raised to cover costs.

Hiring options are also available through OHMI, which can allow you to try adapted instruments without the need to purchase them outright.

If you’re not sure of the best solution, a call with a member of the OHMI staff or the KM Music Resources team can be arranged to explore options together. At Kent Music we have a large stock of instruments and a well-informed, creative team who are always happy to discuss your needs and explore how best to support you.

In conclusion…

As music teachers, we know the challenges you face making music accessible for every young person. It can feel daunting, but the support is out there to help you and your students make music more accessible.

By working with us and organizations like OHMI to provide adapted instruments and guidance, your classrooms can become places where all abilities can flourish.

Find out more about OHMI:

Get in touch with us about instruments:

We are indebted to Rachel Wolffsohn from OHMI and Felicity Redworth from our Music Resources team for their time and detailed answers to our questions for this article – and of course their dedication to making music accessible.

Kent Music is an OHMI Affiliate.