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date: 26 February 2020

Commentary: Special Abilities, Special Needs

Abstract and Keywords

This article presents an overview of Section 1 of the Oxford Handbook of Music Education, Volume 2. It argues that high quality research is the key to moving music education forward for those with special abilities or needs, both in policy and practical terms. The global music education research community should acknowledge serious shortcomings and devote more resource to this area in the future. It provides three reasons why music-education research should focus on the concerns of children who are “special” in one way or another.

Keywords: music education, research, special needs, children

Engaging with music variously involves a range of different skills, depending on the nature of the activity concerned—whether listening, composing, performing, improvising, or simply recalling a favorite snatch of melody in your head. Cognitive abilities, such as the capacity for auditory processing and memory, will inevitably be required; imagination will come into play in acts of creation or re-creation; physical skills will be needed to cause or control sounds; and social and emotional intelligence will be demanded to express oneself and communicate with others. Hence what may be termed “musicality” is not a single skill, but a profile of capacities, whose development and actualization will vary according to internal and external motivating forces and opportunities, as Gary McPherson and Andreas Lehmann show in chapter 1.3 of this volume.

Although the disposition of musical profiles will inevitably vary between individuals, it appears that some degree of musicality is to all intents and purposes universal, even being present among those with the most profound disabilities (as the “Sounds of Intent” research undertaken by Graham Welch and me that is set out in chapter 1.2 suggests). Moreover, musical savants—those with advanced musical abilities in the context of intellectual impairments (see, for example, Miller, 1989; Treffert, 2000, 2010)—graphically demonstrate the modularity of musical intelligence. For example, it is perfectly conceivable for children to engage in advanced improvised musical dialogues with others, even though their severely (p. 8) delayed global development means that they are unable to communicate verbally (Ockelford & Matawa, 2010; Ockelford, 2011a).

Hence the challenge for policy-makers, managers, and practitioners is not whether to provide appropriate music education for all children and young people, irrespective of their abilities or needs—but how, and Judith Jellison (chapter 1.5) and Alice-Ann Darrow and Mary Adamek (chapter 1.6) discuss this topic in some depth, and make a number of recommendations. It is clear that educators have a crucial role to play in dismantling the barriers—attitudinal and environmental—that still prevent individuals across the world from being able to engage in a fully inclusive fashion with the musics of their culture. In this regard, it is important to note that music education is distinct from music therapy (as Katrina McFerran and Cochavit Elefant make clear in chapter 1.4). All too often, if children or young people have disabilities or other special educational needs, there is an unquestioned assumption that a therapeutic approach will be the most appropriate way for them to access music (in school and beyond), whereas music education and therapy could (and, I believe, should) be complementary, each driven by distinct musical and extramusical aims (Bruhn, 2000; Robertson, 2000; Ockelford, 2000, 2008; Markou, 2010). In short, therapy should not be used as a substitute for education, and vice versa. The situation is complicated since music education for pupils and students with special needs has two distinct strands: education in music (which seeks to advance musical skills, knowledge, and understanding) and education through music, whose aim is to promote wider learning and development, including cognitive, social, and communication skills (Ockelford, 2000).

A key ingredient in moving music education forward for those with special abilities or needs, both in policy and practical terms, is high-quality research, and this is where the global music education research community should acknowledge serious shortcomings, as a spur to devoting more resources to this area in the future. By definition, children who are “special” in one way or another will be in the minority, but I believe that, far from being on the periphery, their concerns should lie at the heart of music education research, for three reasons.

First, a commitment to equality of opportunity means that there is an ethical imperative for research to be undertaken that seeks to improve provision for all children and young people. There is a real urgency to move beyond anecdotal accounts of success (fascinating and inspiring as these may be) to more systematic approaches that tackle some of the underlying issues that promote or hinder progress for groups of learners who share particular characteristics.

Second, by seeking to understand how people function in exceptional circumstances, we can shed light on how we all think, feel, and behave. I have written elsewhere of children with severe or even profound disabilities offering us unique and powerful insights into what it means to be musical, if we can only slough away our prejudices and learn to listen with fresh ears (Lubbock, 2008; Ockelford, 2012). And the individual profiles of musicality that evolve in what I term “extreme early cognitive environments” (EECEs)—such as those incurred through congenital blindness or intense autism—can result in such peaks of music-perceptual and (p. 9) cognitive ability that we are able to view these characteristics with unusual clarity. Recognizing the consequences of EECEs can throw the nature/nurture debate into new relief (Ockelford, 2013). For example, around 40% of children born with little or no sight (and around 5% of those with autism) go on to develop absolute pitch in the first two to three years of life, strongly suggesting an environmental effect operating within a general (though not universal) genetic predisposition (Ockelford, Pring, Welch, & Treffert, 2006; Ockelford & Matawa, 2010).

Third, by researching and developing sound pedagogical practices for children with disabilities and other special needs, we will develop approaches that are likely to be good for everyone; as Jellison (chapter 1.5) notes, we need to move from making individual adaptations and move, as far as possible, toward designing “universal” solutions. While continued technological development is likely to play a large part in this process, ultimately, it is people's attitudes that count, and it is changing attitudes to disability in music education that the research community needs to spearhead.

How will we know when we have arrived? As the demographics of disability change across the world (due to advances in medicine, which tend to eradicate the more straightforward causes of sensory and motor in impairment in countries as they develop economically and socially, while leaving a legacy of people surviving with far more complex needs), and as music education itself continues to evolve to reflect the explosion of new musics in fast-changing cultures, inevitably, music education research in the field of special needs will remain in a state of flux for many years to come. But maybe there is a simpler answer. Maybe, when, in a future edition of this book, our thinking has advanced to the stage where it is no longer felt to be necessary to have a segregated section dealing with “special” profiles of musical ability and need (as the circumstances of all learners are included and addressed throughout), then we will at least know that the journey to music-educational equality is well under way.


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