xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx Teaching music to deaf children
by Luana Marler, R&S Chair for Music Industry
marlerAs a musician and a person who deals with both the music business and the deaf world, my “hearing” perception was that students with a hearing loss would never hear, understand or appreciate music.

I was born into a musical culture and can’t imagine having to experience life without music.

Fortunately as I began talking with fellow interpreters in schools I was told that many of the deaf children (both with and without hearing aids and cochlear implants) were in music classes. This was enlightening and encouraged me to investigate instrumental music classes for deaf students and the incorporation of sign language into choral programs.

Historically one of the first schools to teach music to deaf students was the Illinois School for the Deaf. They allowed the resident boys the opportunity to participate in a brass band. The band was supported by state and private funds throughout its nearly twenty-year existence. It gave students a musical outlet, provided functional music and entertainment for the other resident students as well as community members, and became a symbol of strength and ability among members of the deaf community. Fred Fancher, a deaf bandmaster from Tennessee, conducted the band. The band ensemble presented concerts in many towns and cities throughout the United States.  MENC reported that the quality of the music by the boys was very good. . While the band received a fair amount of criticism along with a vast amount of praise, it has been recorded as a most successful and meaningful endeavor. Even though the band has been defunct for more than fifty years, some music classes and activities at the Illinois School for the Deaf are still offered to students. music-lesson

As more and more children started participating in the instrumental music program it was discovered that like hearing children, the ability to play an instrument helped with the frustration with these children. Tim Lautzenhauser states in his book, “The Art of Successful Teaching” that “Music offers a chance to let go and express the rainbow of emotions we all feel, and through this experience expand our own realm of emotional expressions.”  

The children were taught by developing a strong sense of rhythm, followed by breathing exercises, hand clapping, marching and body swaying to standard repertoire such as “Old Mac Donald Had a Farm.” Some children were able to play by reading the score

It’s interesting to note the prospective of the deaf child. Just like with hearing children, music notations represents two things; a hand position on an instrument and a time frame. However the deaf child cannot “improvise” and must depend totally on the music. Many deaf children remove their shoes for the band or orchestra practice to be able to feel the rhythm from the other instruments.

According to the research done by Darrow, in 1989; in the schools offering music to deaf students, start most deaf students with understanding about how to keep a steady beat. Once that concept is understood, the next step is rhythmic training and from there advancing to notation, tempo markings and dynamitic structure.

Sound is not as much of an issue as understanding the structure of music; how the notes blend and the individual attribute of the notes; which finger positions produce a note and how long do you hold whole notes, half notes and quarter notes.

Band and orchestra instructors require support when teaching deaf students. Parents, special education teachers, and audiologists can all offer help in how to work with deaf students the classroom. The problem with these classes is similar to many other classrooms. The support for this is costly and often times the interpreter has no music knowledge, making the job more difficult. As with most things, simply asking the deaf students what works is the best way to proceed.  Let them lead in this area of their development. Both digital hearing aids and cochlear implants have difficulty distinguishing the fine tones of the musical structure. It will be interesting to see how the improvements on these aids allow children to experience the joy of music in the future.

As the incorporation of Sign Language becomes more popular for both hearing and deaf children, many composers have added information about sign language (along with the actual signs) to their music. By doing a search on the J. W. Pepper website (jwpepper.com) of the words “sign language” you come up with 62 titles.

An excellent selection specifically for matching sign language to music is John Jacobson’s Sign Language for Singers. There are also a number of books for elementary teachers that have hearing impaired or deaf children in their classrooms or simply wish to incorporate sign language into their choral performance.  This is Music ( Dena Adams and Claire Clark) Sing Me a Story ( Jill Gallina) , the musical On with the Show by Sally Albrecht and Andy Beck, Love in any Language by Roger Emerson and Donald Moore’s Peace I Leave with You, to name a few.

If you need help with any selections or help with signing, please don’t hesitate to contact me.

Luana Marler
Vice President, J. W. Pepper and Son, Inc/Dallas-Fort Worth
State Certified Sign Language Interpreter

Tim Lautzenhauser, 1992, Page 31