Making Music Together

Ideas for Carers
Unsuspected Creativity

Active Participation

Sensitivity To Non-Verbal Responses


Playing Untuned Percussion


Electronic Keyboards

Suzuki Q-Chord

Deciding When To Play Percussion Instruments


Most frail or disabled people are cared for by members of their family who know something of their past history. If the disabled person has previously shown particular musical ability or interest, the carer will usually seek to continue providing suitable musical experiences, although they may lack confidence in their own musical knowledge and skills. Where a strong musical interest has not been identified, carers may not be aware of the satisfaction and well-being to be gained by both parties from exploring musical activities. 

We believe that we each have creative musical potential which often lies hidden, even from ourselves. So, we seek to provide resources that facilitate self-discovery and development of the musician within.


Unsuspected Creativity

Carers are sometimes surprised to find that their 'disabled' partner demonstrates an unsuspected level of musical ability and creativity, once physical barriers are removed: a girl with profound and multiple learning difficulties responds to changes in a piece of music that go unnoticed by the carer, or a speechless young man with quadriplegia  improvises beautiful music on a virtual instrument. 

We can often see examples of unsuspected creative ability manifesting itself in the early stages of Alzheimer's Disease. The losing of inhibitions, frequently associated with the onset of the disease, creates many problems but it may also have a positive side! In the privacy of their own home, carer and cared-for need have no embarrassment about trying new things and making the errors that always accompany new learning.


Active Participation

Listening to music for enjoyment is very beneficial but active participation is even better. Wherever possible we should let the disabled person take the initiative, giving them lots of opportunities to make choices.

In the eagerness to involve someone who is severely disabled, it is easy to fall into the trap of indiscriminate 'hand over hand' playing, making all the decisions about how and when to play. Often, such 'playing' consists of maintaining a continuous beat. Although well-intentioned, this is unrewarding for the person being 'assisted' in this way and, in some instances, it may even be resented.


Sensitivity to Non-verbal Signals

In Living My Song workshops, we have observed, time and again, the stimulation and engagement that are the result of facilitators working to elicit, even tiny and infrequent, intentioned participation. If there is great sensitivity to non-verbal signals indicating when a profoundly-disabled person is 'tuned-in' to the activity, tiny movements can be amplified by 'hand-over-hand' playing whilst allowing the disabled participant to make a personal response to the musical and social stimuli.

When a degree of brain-damage is associated with a disability, the sufferer may drift in and out of contact with reality and, in the course of a session, emotional responses may change many times over. It is important to respect the refusal of a proffered instrument, etc., but that shouldn't prevent us from offering again, later, when we may elicit a quite different response.



Now is the time to bring singing out of the bathroom and into the living room! It is satisfying to sing in the bathroom because of the resonant acoustic. Similarly, we have been amazed at the degree to which a little bio-feedback from a microphone, can encourage people to sing. Even people who normally do not communicate verbally will often vocalise when offered a microphone. Much pleasure can be gained from karaoke-style sessions with backing CDs/tapes or, better still, interactive music files like those on the Full Pitcher website or in GridPlay resource packs. The online files have simple controls to slow down the playback or to change pitch where the music is not in a comfortable range for a particular user.


Playing Untuned Percussion Instruments

Simple percussion instruments will provide much scope for music-making. They should be of good quality, avoiding like the plague anything that resembles a toy.

Claves ( rhythm sticks) come in pairs and these are ideal to share. In cases of extreme disability, one rhythm stick can be placed in the hand of the disabled person, who will feel the rhythmic vibrations when it is tapped by the carer's stick.

Finger Cymbals also come in pairs and can be used in a similar way. Each cymbal has an elastic loop designed to be slotted over a finger.

However, playing in which a disabled person is a purely passive partner should be avoided, if possible. S/he will gain far more satisfaction from deciding when to play, even though playing is sparse and lacking in rhythmic interest. Later, we will suggest ways to capitalise on limited physical participation.



A glockenspiel is a tuned percussion instrument, like a xylophone, but with metal bars. A glockenspiel with removable bars is a very useful resource for a disabled musician. Most music shops sell a chromatic glockenspiel set out like a piano keyboard, with the familiar arrangement of black and white keys. These 'keyboard' glockenspiels are less likely to be associated with toy instruments. (The glockenspiel is, in fact a 'professional' instrument, used extensively in military bands and the percussion section of orchestras but old associations sometimes die hard)

Electronic Keyboards

An electronic keyboard is another great resource for family music_making. It can be used in a number of ways even by those with no keyboard experience or knowledge of music theory. We will get into the 'how' shortly.


Suzuki Q-chord (Omnichord)

A Suzuki Q_chord (successor of the Omnichord) is another instrument with which the beginner can immediately create pleasing sounds but which, in the hands of an expert, can provide professional accompaniments for live performance. It is a cross between an electronic keyboard and a guitar. The guitar notes are played by strumming on an electronic thumb_plate. Beautiful sounds can be produced and it never goes out of tune.


Deciding When To Play Percussion instruments

It is more rewarding for a musician, of any ability, to play a sparse part which is central to the overall musical effect of a piece than to play throughout on a part that seems to contribute nothing in purely musical terms.

Taking Turns

When, at least, two people make music together, there are opportunities for turn-taking. Throughout musical history, many different musical forms have grown out of this very simple idea. 

...Taking Turns: Verse/Refrain
Songs with a chorus/refrain are an early example: solo verses alternate with a refrain, in which everyone joins in. 

...Taking Turns: Contrasting Dynamics
Often a piece has loud sections sandwiching or alternating with quieter sections.

...Taking Turns: Contrasting Rhythms
Sometimes tunes are built by contrasting alternating rhythmic patterns. A disabled player will probably not be able to reproduce the rhythmic pattern accurately but can listen out for the change of pattern, starting and stopping accordingly.


Players with greater rhythmic control may be able to play rhythmic patterns. If so, there will be lots of scope for imitating and inventing rhythms for turn-taking activities.

When introducing a new piece for turn-taking, first play or listen to it, discussing or commenting on what happens in the music. If you have a choice of percussion sounds available, choose which would be most effective played in each section. Then, you can each have your 'moment of glory' accompanying your section with the appropriate instrument. This gives the disabled player more sense of ownership of the performance.


Observing Accents

If a tune has strong rhythmic accents, encourage the disabled player to strike/trigger their instrument just on these accented notes, throwing the rhythmic character into even stronger relief. People with extremely limited movement often derive great satisfaction from this. Finger cymbals are often very suitable in this situation, providing a strong, resonant sound, without harshness.

Filling the Gaps

Some tunes have rhythmic gaps in them which are just crying out to be filled in with percussion sounds. Indeed, many folk dances were composed for this very purpose: in the gaps, the dancers stamp, clap hands or knock sticks together. be continued


See also GridPlay: Resources for Teachers & Carers