Academic journal article Australian Journal of Music Education

Improvisation as Communication: Students with Communication Disabilities and Autism Using Call and Response on Instruments

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Music Education

Improvisation as Communication: Students with Communication Disabilities and Autism Using Call and Response on Instruments

Article excerpt

The deficits in social reciprocity that are critical to the diagnosis of an ASD reflect an intrinsic inability to read and comprehend the feelings, experiences, and motives of others. These basic social understanding skills allow interpretation of the verbal and nonverbal messages of others. (Hyman & Towbin, 2007)

Heather, a non-verbal student with cerebral palsy, used electronic instruments to respond to calls from peers in her class. She was able to accurately respond to musical questions performed by a peer and surprised all of by spontaneously speaking "I love this!" while holding up her Orff mallet.

Linda, also a non-verbal student with cerebral palsy, developed enough control to play the Soundbeam with a high degree of musical understanding. For example, she played the word "banana" using the same pitch inflection that would be used when someone speaks the word.

Students with physical disabilities that impact speech are able to effectively use call and response improvisation to express feelings and musical ideas once they find an appropriate instrument and learn how to play it. Students with autism seem to struggle more with responding to mood and the musical ideas of others.


As a music educator from the jazz world, I have looked for ways to engage children in jazz through improvisation. The ability to express oneself through music is a meaningful experience for our students and I have been particularly interested in bringing jazz improvisation to students who struggle with verbal communication. This paper explores the stories of three students who have disabilities that impact their ability to verbally communicate. I focus on their initial attempts to use improvisation as a way to musically communicate with their peers. All three are elementary students in grades four through six. Both traditional and electronic instruments were made available for the students to use. However, Linda was unable to play a traditional instrument. Teaching these three students, helped me to develop strategies for reaching and understanding students who have limited or no communication abilities.

Wiggins (2001) used the term, "doorway in," to describe ways to connect with students by tapping into their present interests and abilities (p. 4). Call and response became my "doorway in" and my teaching strategy for reaching all three of the students in this paper.


Lincoln and Guba (1985) report that "for naturalistic inquirers, the reporting mode of choice is the case study" (p. 357). Studying children with disabilities is best achieved through qualitative methods because the researcher is unlikely to find two children alike enough to draw similarities. I chose the three students because they had a variety of abilities to communicate; verbal but awkward and resistant to speak and interact with peers, non-verbal with the exception of a few difficult to understand phrases and nonverbal because the student is on a respirator.

Stake (1995) identifies the most interesting cases in education are people and programs. "We are interested in them for both their uniqueness and commonality" (p. 1). The children in this study all desired to improvise on instruments and in that way they are common, but the ways they improvise are different.

I collected data during my residency through field notes, a journal, and audio recordings of selected performances and sessions. I also had many discussions with teachers and staff to gain greater insight into the children and to support or disprove my observations. Trustworthiness of the data was established through my extended immersion in the field and through triangulation of the multiple data sources. Data were entered into a qualitative research program to aid in discovering patterns indicative of changes in children's musical experiences. Since children had unique abilities and disabilities, I chose not to compare them to others. …

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