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At first glance you might think a weak arm would make playing a musical instrument very difficult. But many instruments can be played with one hand, or hands of differing strengths, and the pleasure of music making may actually encourage your child to make more use of their affected hand.
Playing an instrument can increase self-confidence and help general coordination and social development. Children can enjoy group musical activities at home or at school, youth clubs and other organisations.
Once you have chosen your instrument, it is of course important to find a teacher who will welcome the challenge of teaching a child with special needs. Sound Sense (see below) should be able to help you find a suitable teacher through its database of community musicians.
Children from the very beginning like bashing things to make a noise, and percussion instruments are the obvious way to introduce children to music. Many can be played with one hand or hands of differing strengths. From there, your child can progress from untuned instruments, such as drums, and shaking instruments, like maracas, to tuned instruments such as xylophones and glockenspiels.
“I am just trying to think of an instrument my son could play successfully with one arm. I think it will have to be the drums! Look at ‘Def Leppard’ who had a one armed drummer!!“
Under the terms of the National Curriculum, pupils in English schools aged five years and over should have ‘experience of playing tuned musical instruments’. Traditionally the first tuned instrument learnt has been the recorder, but some schools now use ocarinas. Both of these instruments are normally played two-handed, but one-handed recorders and ocarinas are available. These can be expensive but the charity Reach has an equipment hire scheme.
“She loves to play her recorder and is very enthusiastic in playing it… Learning the recorder has been a huge boost to her confidence. I think she can see that this is an area she can do well in and be ‘just the same’ as others. I have seen her face numerous difficulties in some activities she attempts, but the recorder is something she can easily play and it is so wonderful to see her progressing so well.”
On an electric keyboard, the stronger hand can play the melody and the additional part can be programmed in.
“J is 5 and loves music. My mum has recently bought an electric piano (really cool with lots of different instrument sounds to it) which he absolutely loves. We only go to grandma’s house now for the piano, although it has to be on ‘Harpsichord’ and the music book open on ‘The Grand Old Duke of York’!! – nothing else will do. He loves music at school and I would love him to play an instrument as he seems to have real ‘staying power’ when it comes to music.”
These instruments are some of the most suitable for children with hemiplegia. However they require some blowing strength, so they are not good for young children. If your child’s weaker hand cannot support the instrument, slings and stands are available through Remap (see below).
“My name is Emily Luck and I am 11 years old. I have mild left sided hemiplegia. I have been learning the trombone for just over a year. I thought it would be a good instrument to learn because I don’t have to use my left hand much. I am enjoying it very much but I don’t practice as much as I should! I like the fact that you can make lots of different sounds but you need good lungs.
“I use my right hand to move the slide and just use my left hand to hold the instrument. I can manage this but sometimes it gets tiring. My school have lent me my trombone and it comes in a hard case so it’s quite a heavy instrument to carry.”
Children with hemiplegia can play orchestral string instruments (violin, viola, cello) but only if they have a reasonable amount of control over the affected hand, which will be used for bowing. Another difficulty is that instruments are usually strung to be played right handed, and although left-handed violins do exist, they are expensive and only available in full size.
(Note that ‘right handed’ here assumes that the dominant hand will be used for bowing, whereas a child with hemiplegia will use this hand for holding down the strings and their affected arm for bowing. So someone with left-sided hemiplegia will find it difficult to find a suitable instrument.)
Guitars are an easier option since they are available in left or right-handed versions, and many famous musicians, including Paul McCartney and Jimi Hendrix, have played left-handed. A guitar can even be played one-handed if laid flat on a keyboard stand, allowing the player to use his or her thumb as well as fingers. Bass guitars are easier to play since they only have four strings.
“I have right hemiplegia (so am left handed!) but play bass guitar right handed, i.e. have my affected hand strumming/plucking the strings and my good hand doing the fret work. My right hand is actually not that badly affected, so can hold the plectrum and control it ok! One of the advantages of playing the guitar (or bass!), as opposed to the violin, is that they are fretted, so there is a guide to where to place your fingers on the neck of the instrument.”
“When choosing a guitar, take your time to decide. You may find it easier like I did to pick the strings with your affected hand, and press the frets on the neck on your unaffected hand as your fingers can move faster. My first bass was right handed, and had a composite body. This made it light, but hard to play because of my hemiplegia. My current left handed is wood-bodied, and heavier, but easier to play.”
It may seem obvious, but the voice is one instrument that anyone can develop. Singing can increase your child’s confidence and, if they join a choir, their social skills too. There are thousands of choirs across the country. Get in touch with your local music service or council for more details.
Reach – http://www.reach.org.uk/ – is the Association for Children with Hand or Arm deficiency. Go to the website for the loan of a one-handed recorder or to buy an ocarina.
Remap – (www.remap.org.uk) – is a free bespoke service that adapts existing equipment for people with disabilities.
The Piano Education Page – www.pianoeducation.org/pnoonhnd.html – has a list of pieces for one hand (both right and left).
Living My Song – www.livingmysong.org.uk – is dedicated to exploring ways in which everyone can discover and express their own musical personality. Go to Articles for a guide to choosing an instrument.
The Full Pitcher Music Resources – www.fullpitcher.co.uk – has a range of free online resources. It also has a Music and Disability Forum where you can ask questions or look for resources.
The OHMI Trust – www.ohmi.org.uk – is dedicated to the development of musical instruments for the physically disabled with a focus on adaptations or emulations of traditional instruments capable of the highest level of virtuosity yet playable without the use of one hand. If you are interested in playing an instrument contact them to find where to get specially adapted instruments and equipment.
Sing Up – www.singup.org – is a government funded scheme for education professionals, to help children ‘find their voice’ and start singing. The site has links to an extensive song bank, lesson plans etc, and training courses include teaching children with additional needs.
Drake Music – www.drakemusic.org uses technology to enable disabled children and adults to play conventional musical instruments, and provides training in assistive technology.
Disability Arts www.disabilityartsonline promotes all disability arts and culture and has a great searchable directory of projects.
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