Deaf-friendly music teaching
Deaf children and young people enjoy listening to music, playing musical instruments and creating their own music as much as hearing children and young people. Generally, the teaching and learning process during music lessons or instrumental tuition doesn't need to differ for a deaf child or young person.
When teaching music to a deaf child or young person, remember that their perception of music will vary just as much as hearing people's. They may prefer certain types of music or instruments to others. For example, some deaf children and young people may find it easier to hear lower or higher frequencies depending on their level of hearing. Encourage them to explore and experiment with different instruments to see what suits them best. However, remember to be guided by the student when it comes to choosing an instrument.
When teaching music to a deaf young person, be mindful of the small yet effective adaptations listed below. As well as top tips for teaching individual students and groups.
Music plays a big part in how we interact with babies and young children, as well as how they learn and develop. This is no different for deaf babies and children. As deaf children grow it's more likely they will give music a go if they've been exposed to it at a young age, so making adaptations and including them in music focused experiences is important.
Here are some of our tips for teachers, nursery workers, childminders and baby music group practitioners to make music in the early years accessible to deaf babies and children.
- As with hearing children you can use music in small groups to teach children to be aware of others and wait for responses. This might include children learning to wait their turn before playing an instrument or using other sounds as a cue for making a sound themselves.
- Try a variety of sounds over several sessions to see how the children you are working with react. Some deaf children are sensitive to certain pitches or tones.
- Vibrations can be overwhelming at first so experiment carefully and they will show you what they like.
- Encourage rhythm building first, like clapping and stamping. Very young babies respond to rhythm and pulse naturally.
- Use clear and simple gestures to assist with communication, including lots of eye contact and facial expressions.
- Many deaf children learn by watching and doing – so be as hands on as possible.
- Keep active, walk or bounce around the room to rhythms and change the speed frequently to keep things interesting.
- Gently encourage participation and listening. Listening to music in an informal setting, such as through a personal music player, may come independently at school age.
If you teach music, there are some simple adjustments or adaptations you can make to ensure deaf students in your class can access lessons.
- Where possible, use rooms with soft furnishings that do not have an echo or background noise.
- Deaf children and young people may need to have the lyrics repeated several more times that you are used to, before they are able to learn them by heart.
- When your students are learning about composition, think about the environment where they will be listening to them. If others are creating different pieces it may be worth splitting students into several rooms, or asking students to be quiet while they take it in turns to listen to their compositions.
A significant part of music lessons, learning an instrument or simply enjoying music, is listening to music. Here are some helpful tips for making sure that deaf students can hear, understand and enjoy music with their hearing peers.
- Start with simple pieces of music, with a clear melody or just one or two instruments. Gradually introduce pieces with more instruments.
- If you’re using a CD player or music dock, check with the child that the volume is at a comfortable level for them.
- Avoid talking while the music is playing and be careful of background music that may make it difficult for a child to hear what else is happening.
- If the music you are listening to has lyrics, ask the child if it would be helpful to have them printed onto a piece of paper or displayed on a screen before you listen to the piece.
- Look for smartphone apps such as Shazam and Sound Hound that help identify what music is being played. These apps sometimes provide the lyrics too. You can find out more about apps that are useful for deaf children and young people in our technology section.
With some simple adaptations to individual instrumental lessons, deaf children and young people can learn to play musical instruments like their hearing peers. As with teaching any child or young person an instrument, remember to be patient and allow time for them to process what you're saying before you demonstrate or ask them to play.
Here are our tips to make individual instrumental lessons deaf-friendly.
- Think about the acoustics in the room that you are teaching in. Try to use rooms with soft furnishings and the least background noise so that sounds are clear.
- When you are teaching, face the student so they can lipread you and see hand positions on the instrument you are using.
- Think about how a deaf child or young person can see music through finger positions, posture and mouth shapes.
- Establish the beat and rhythm of any piece before you play prior to starting, and maybe ask the child if they would like you to conduct throughout. Depending on the child’s level of hearing, some may find it different to get the melody before they understand the rhythm.
- Always check the volume level with the child in case it’s too loud and overwhelming for hearing aid users. Be aware that some digital hearing aids suppress loud noises.
- Do not give instructions while the child is playing, as there is a chance they will not hear what you are saying. Avoid humming the rhythm at the same time as an accompaniment is playing or while the student is playing, as it can make it harder for them to hear what they are doing.
- If a mistake is made while the student is playing, they may not have heard it. Be clear on where the mistake was. Point to the score and make time for demonstration. Remember that a deaf child or young person may take longer to learn new things in comparison to their hearing peers.
- It is good practice to keep a log so that progress can be tracked. It is also useful when communicating with parents to let them know what their child needs to practice and check understanding.
For someone who plays a musical instrument, being part of an orchestra, band or musical group can be a very enjoyable activity. But the larger the group, the more overwhelming the sound may be or more difficult it may be for a deaf student to recognise where a sound has come from.
Orchestras, in particular, are set up to be visual, with musicians positioned so that they can see the conductor. A deaf child or young person can use this to their advantage. Here are some tips to make group instrumental work deaf-friendly and ensure a deaf student is able to make the most out of group sessions.
Make sure the child has had a chance to play on their own with a tutor to establish the rhythm and melody prior to them joining the group. So they get used to the piece before it’s played within a bigger group and have the confidence to play along with their peers from the start. The different instrumental groups could also meet regularly to run through their own parts before they are introduced to a full orchestra or big band.
Check if the child needs help to tune their instrument with the rest of the orchestra. Tuning up can be a particularly noisy part of group practice, so it's important to agree communication rules prior to starting. For example, no playing or tuning up while conversation is happening.
Check out our top tips for communication.
In group sessions, sit the students in a semi-circle so that they can see everyone and communicate clearly and check with any deaf individuals where they would prefer to sit within the group. It's also important to consider their positioning within their instrument group.
Depending on their level of hearing, they may prefer to sit at one end of the group, closer or further away from neighbouring instrument groups. Ask the child if they would like to have someone specific positioned next to them, to relay any information that is given out.
Finally, try not to move instrumental positions as it may take time for the child to get used to what they can hear in a new place.
Be careful not to single out a deaf child if they make a mistake, they may not be aware that it has happened.
If they need help, consider pointing at the score to support them to keep rhythm if they are finding it hard playing along with another person or group.
Ensure the conductor is always on a raised platform so that they can be clearly seen. There should be no visual obstructions such as soloists or stage props. The conductor should be using a long baton, to heighten the visual and help the child keep in time with the rest of the group.
Conducting should be consistent – if there are to be any changes to the conducting method or style, talk directly to the deaf child or young person. A deaf soloist may need additional support with timing from the conductor. Allow time for clear discussion in advance to avoid miscommunication.