Choosing An Instrument
for a disabled player - Acoustic Instruments
Choosing an instrument is seldom an easy matter but, when the prospective player has a disability, things can become unbelievably complex! Here is a list of considerations we've identified. And, no doubt, there are plenty of points that we've overlooked!
Which instrument holds most attraction for the prospective player? This is a most important factor because we will often overcome enormous odds when we are really determined to do something. Motivation and persistence are both essential in learning to play a musical instrument, where there are few quick rewards!
Playing an instrument involves many kinds of physical coordination: gross motor skills, fine motor skills, eye/hand and left/right coordination all have a vital part to play. Almost any disability affects one or more areas of coordination. Each instrument has its own pattern of coordination demands and this is is even more relevant than physical strength.
Some instruments require more physical strength than others but it may be possible to adapt the playing position or to obtain stands and other aids to offset this.
Some instruments are obviously bigger than others, but we also need to consider the relative size of the player. Even a descant recorder may be a big instrument for someone with a growth deficiency. Many instruments are available in smaller versions that sound at a higher pitch. Flutes and clarinets, for example, come in a range of sizes, although it may take some research to track them down. Stringed instruments are widely available in quarter and half sizes.
Apart from disabilities resulting from accidental injury not involving the brain or central nervous system, there will be 'hidden disabilities' affecting visual and/or auditory perception. Frequently, there is a problem with reading musical notation. In the case of folk instruments, the expectation is that they will be played without recourse to notated music and this is worth considering because it influences the way these instruments are commonly taught.
Visual presentation of music for piano is more complex than that for a melody instrument. Some instruments commonly play slower music than others and this allows more time to decode the music. A player with a great facility for playing by ear can get away with a minimum of music reading.
The auditory perception and comfort of people with hearing loss is very complex and individual, although there is often a preference for low pitches.
Music and the Deaf
This is linked to perception, as good aural or visual memory will compensate for many perceptual difficulties.
What do family / friends play?
If the disabled musician is able to play an instrument that combines readily with others played by family members or friends, there will be many more opportunities for group music-making. Are there any instruments in particular demand? Individual tuition and practice are very important but, without opportunities to play with others, these can be lonely and less motivating.
Is a suitable teacher available?
Although this appears late in the list, it is a major consideration and may even prove to be the most important. An open-minded teacher, willing to adapt teaching styles and repertoire according to the very complex pattern of strengths and weaknesses of the disabled pupil, is essential to the success of the venture.
Availability of Music
A point often overlooked in the choice of an instrument is the fact that the disabled performer, battling with many obstacles to performance, may need to have his/her difficulties accounted for in the musical arrangements or in the presentation of the scores. A 1-handed pianist cannot play music arranged for two hands. A partially-sighted player may need to have the music enlarged or otherwise re-formatted. Someone with memory problems will find it helpful to have accidentals placed before each sharpened or flattened note, along with other aids. There are many more examples, some common to most players with a particular disability and others unique to the individual.
Supporting and Positioning an Instrument
If a stand is required to support the instrument, it may be necessary to obtain advice from an occupational or physical therapist or from a specialist instrument-maker. Playing a badly-positioned instrument can do a lot of physical harm and have a negative effect on progress and motivation. Proper positioning is also crucial to ease of playing, optimisation of technique and continuing motivation. ‘Remap’ is a UK charity which has designed and fitted stands for several disabled instrumentalists.
Stands for Woodwind Instruments
Instruments for One-handed Players
More people play the piano than any other instrument. It is perfectly possible to play it one-handed and there have been some well-known concert artists who played in this way. However, they have usually been advanced pianists who lost the use of a hand, later in life. The odds are stacked against a hemiplegic player with coordination and/or perceptual difficulties attaining great technical facility on this, or any other, instrument. It is possible, though, to achieve really musical results, within a limited technique, and to enjoy a life-time of music-making.
A one-handed pianist, will need music that combines the melody line (usually played by the right hand) with the accompaniment (usually played by the left hand). It is not physically possible with five fingers to play all the notes available to two-handed pianists. There is a repertoire of music available for left-, or right-handed, players but little of it is at beginner level. The beginner will be very dependent on the teacher’s willingness to engage in research or adaptation of materials.
The Piano Education Page - Repertoire for Piano One Hand
Most brass instruments are played 1-handed, making them very worthy of consideration. It is possible to play left -handed, although the standard instruments are right-handed. Although only one hand is involved in forming the notes, the other hand is very important in supporting and positioning the instrument, so a stand will probably be required.
There are several models of recorder adapted for 1-handed playing (left, or right). The adaptation consists of adding key-work to cover the holes normally closed by the missing hand. In consequence, each model has its own, often complex, system of fingering.
Dolmetsch Musical Instruments
Fluitstudio, of Amsterdam - flute ergonomy and woodwind adaptations
Yamaha Musical Instruments
The flute is more difficult to adapt than the recorder because it is normally played in the horizontal position. However, there are instances of the instrument being successfully adapted for 1-handed players.
We have heard of instruments being adapted for1-handed players but have not been able to find them online. Try Fluitstudio, of Amsterdam.
Stringed instruments can be adapted for playing with the bow in the left hand and also for bowing with a prosthesis.
TRS Prosthetics Research, Design & Manufacturing
Child’s first concert, using a prosthesis
International Forum on Musical Instruments Adapted for Persons with Disabilities