Learn Affordable Ways to Make Accessible and Safe Instruments for Special Learners

No doubt, you agree that every student needs and deserves the chance to learn to make music. We never want any child to be excluded from this important developmental and socially rewarding activity. Music can open the senses, spark the imagination, impart knowledge, build vital connections in the brain, and provide new shared experiences for students who are often left out. It helps create joyful community where everyone belongs, so healing for anyone who has felt isolated by their challenges.

Together through teaming up, we can help our special learners find new tools, talent and joy when we make music a regular part of resource and special education.

This requires the right instruments and real training for teachers who have never learned ways of leading music with people with exceptional physical, cognitive or emotional needs.  This blog and others in the future will offer excellent techniques, tips and tools so students can fully participate in music, express themselves, join “the band” and “the choir” to let their lights shine. Even for students with a wide range of moderate to severe challenges, making music can be safe and exciting. Guitars in the Classroom is dedicated to the pursuit of the goal of full participation in music for special learners in 2018! If you or someone you know wishes to join the effort, please email jess@guitarsintheclassroom.org. And if anyone wishes to donate to this cause, here is a great place to begin. www.globalgiving.org

Makala Plastic Waterman Ukuleles

Thanks to the folks at Kala Brand Music, there is now a ukulele that can withstand rough use and still sound wonderful!

IMG_3790For students whose motor skills, involuntary motor functions or impulsivity could lead to an instrument being dropped, thrown or broken, the answer is the Kala Brand Music Company’s Waterman ukulele. This is a brightly colored, good sounding uke made of high grade plastic with excellent tuners. These ukes are virtually indestructible! They can survive impact, they can be washed off and even disinfected and still come out sounding sweet and playing well. Teachers are able to get sets of these ukes for their classrooms when they post a request for crowd funding at http://donorschoose.org. Many GITC teachers have had great success getting their ukes through DonorsChoose.org! Anyone can help by contributing at that website. If you are a teacher with GITC, you can order your discounted ukulele set for the classroom directly at this website: https://education.kalabrand.com/

Stabilizing Ukulele Mats

Check out this EASY adaptation to help keep ukuleles from slipping around while being strummed.


For students with limited fine motor skills or spastic muscles, you can make stabilizing ukulele mats using vinyl, non-adhesive shelf liner. These lay flat on wheelchair trays or desks 81Weow3tRfL._SL1500_so ukuleles can be placed on them, face up.

This “traction mat” solves the problem of a ukulele slipping or falling while a child with physical challenges is strumming. Special Ed student, Hameed from Euclid Elementary in San Diego (pictured above) can strum along with his classmates no problem using this quick and easy modification.

Hameed’s Story: How a Plastic Ukulele and a Traction Mat Made a Difference

Strumming securely has led to a big change in how Hameed feels about being at school these days! This elementary student, despite having cerebral palsy, survived a treacherous escape from Afghanistan with his parents and four brothers and sisters. Once out of the country, his family lived in a refugee camp in Turkey in terrible circumstances for four years before obtaining refugee status in the U.S.

This child has suffered greatly. His level of disability makes speech impossible although he can produce sounds. Hameed’s teacher, Val Simons, gets him. And fortunately, Val has been studying with GITC for three years now. She has been learning to play, sing and lead music during our free after school professional development classes in San Diego. Taking the classes each year, volunteering her time to practice and learn, Val has become adept at songleading for learning in her special education classroom.

Val shared that Hammed was suffering from very poor health, physically and emotionally when he started at Euclid. He was in a contraption that was not quite a wheelchair, his teeth were black and his hips were displaced. This has all changed for the better since he arrived and has received dental and medical care and the committed educational support he needs to thrive.

IMG_3795The cerebral palsy that limits Hameed’s mobility and motor coordination keeps him in a wheelchair full time. Tedious recovery from corrective hip surgery requires him to stand for 45 minutes in a very painful position everyday to stretch his muscles. Val thought of having him listen to music when he was in this device and she reports that music is the only thing that stops him from screaming, poor guy. Kudos to Val for providing him with headphones. It was obvious to her that he responded positively to the sound of music, so we adapted instruments in her room to make it easier for him as well as the other students to begin to play.

Before we started leading adaptive music in Val’s classroom and found a way for Hameed to actually strum, he was chronically depressed. He would tune out, sleep during class, keep his head down on his wheelchair tray and he would often resist interacting with the staff.  

But once we had made a traction mat for the plastic Makala Waterman Ukulele shown here, and we placed the uke on top of it, Hameed’s aid was able to help him move his arm and thus, his hand across the strings of the instrument. For the first time since arriving at Euclid, he SMILED. We were in the room witnessing this breakthrough and it was the most rewarding experience to witness his long-overdue joy. Now Hameed can move his hand across the strings rhythmically on his own! He also sings now- not with lyrics- but in beautiful high, pure and sustained notes that speak his heart. We are all moved to tears to listen. These photos above show you what we are seeing, but you’ll want to imagine his beautiful voice.
The Duck Brand Select Easy Liner Shelf Liner we found is 12 inches wide and 10 feet long. You can make 8-10 ukulele mats per roll by cutting the shelf liner in half lengthwise, and then cutting pieces that measure the length of the ukuleles.

1117171202aHerco Thumb Picks are Large, Bright and Flexible!

We recommend providing students with under-developed finger coordination or finger isolation skills a big Herco thumb pick! These are bright, large and flexible and make easy, large motor strumming possible. For a student who wants to strum but needs a pointy helper to keep him from accidentally knocking his uke onto the floor, these picks can adapt to different sizes of thumbs! You can purchase the picks online through our friends at Strings and Beyond in Southport, North Carolina! https://www.stringsandbeyond.com








Shaker Egg Bracelets

Do you have students with limited fine motor skills? These shakers are just the thing to give your students access to an instrument, while including them in classroom music time in a meaningful way.

There are many brands available in music stores and online at discounted prices so we did a little “tractor pull” to figure out the differences in some of these brands. Here is what we discovered.

What you’ll need:IMG_0878

  • Sport wristband
  • Roll of adhesive velcro, 3/4“ wide (you’ll need both the hook side and the loop side)
  • Egg Shaker
  • Scissors
  • Plastic ziplock baggies





Step One: Cut two pieces of the loop (fluffy) side of the adhesive velcro. Peel off the protective covering and stick the pieces onto your wristband. Press firmly and draw your thumb across them several times to make sure they adhere to the fabric.




Step Two:

Cut one piece of the hook (prickly) side of the velcro. Peel off the protective covering and stick the piece onto your egg. Press firmly and draw your thumb across the velcro several times to make sure it adheres to the egg.


Step 3: Attach the egg to the wristband by connecting the hook and loop pieces of velcro.






IMG_0815Step 4: Put the shaker on your wrist and simply move your arm to make a sound!Students can also put the egg shaker wristbands on the toes of their shoes and just tap a toe to play. If you have students who don’t need the wristband adaptation, the shaker eggs are easy to remove and can be held and played as originally designed.



Step 5: Storage tip: Keep your shaker(s) in individual ziplock bags. Otherwise, the velcro will catch on the other shakers or whatever materials are near them!

We hope these tips and instructions will provide you with a great starting point to leading music for students with special needs. Please stay tuned for more blogs and DIYs for music inclusion in 2018! If you’d like to share a story, a suggestion or a photo or video (with family permission of course), please write to us at programs@guitarsintheclassroom.org!

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