Adapted Music Lessons vs Music Therapy Sessions

As a certified music therapist, I am trained to use my musical abilities to help clients achieve goals, develop abilities, and improve their overall quality of life.  There are countless approaches to music therapy, which are all based on different theories of psychology and musicality.  My training allows me to select an approach that is appropriate for each client or group I work with in order to best serve each client’s special need, and to utilize the unique skills and abilities each individual possesses.  One such method is the use of “adapted music lessons.”

So what exactly is an adapted music lesson?  This is a question I am asked frequently when I describe my music therapy services to others.  While music therapy is becoming increasingly known in everyday life, the concept of an adapted music lesson is still fairly new and unheard of.  Essentially, an adapted or integrated music lesson is exactly what its name suggests.  It is a music lesson where adaptations or modifications have been established to best suit the special needs of the individual(s) involved in the lessons.  These adaptations may be few, or frequent depending on the needs of each individual student.  While many concepts of an adapted lesson are similar to a standard music lesson, the modifications allow for the client to learn at a pace and in a style that they are comfortable with.

How does an adapted music lesson differ from a music therapy session?  In many ways the two are similar.  I consider an adapted music lesson to be a specific approach to music therapy that can be selected from a list of other potential approaches such as song writing groups, 1:1 improvisation sessions, or movement and music groups.  In an adapted lesson, the focus is on learning instrumental and musical skills, with required adaptations applied as needed.  These adaptations include modified lesson duration, modified lesson pace, focus on specific music skills, and instruction of an appropriate instrument.  The latter is of particular importance, as an individual’s special needs may make some instruments more appropriate than others to learn.  For example if a person has a fine motor impairment, the piano may be selected instead of the guitar as the guitar has a demand on fine motor skills that even the most highly developed individual can find challenging.  Piano, while still being challenging, would be easier to play initially then the guitar.  While the individual’s instrumental desires need to be incorporated as part of the lesson plan, strategic steps need to be taken to make sure the individual does not get overly discouraged, which could jeopardize future sessions.

The adaptation(s) used should be determined by the special needs of each individual, which makes each lesson unique to each individual.   For example, if an individual with impaired fine motor abilities wanted to learn piano, modifications could include initial focus on single finger playing, smaller intervals, and allowing an increased amount of time to develop these skills.  Adapted music lessons require a facilitator who has experience with music therapy, music education, psychology, and other related training.  If done properly, these lessons can allow an individual the chance to develop musical and other similar abilities, as well as improve quality of life

While any individual can benefit in some way from adapted music lessons, I have found these lessons to be particularly appropriate for higher functioning individuals with a special need.  These individuals are aware of how their special need(s) affect their everyday lives, and it is possible that they could associate a negative stigma to therapy, as it implies that something is wrong or needs to be fixed.  By approaching clinical work through adapted lessons, the focus is instead on learning a new musical or instrumental skill.  This will in turn lead to the potential for increased confidence and feelings of self-satisfaction as a result of learning a new and enjoyed skill, and reduced feelings of being held back by their special needs.  In the words of Canadian music therapy pioneer Fran Herman, you are “accentuating the positive”.