By Rob Jackson
At the start of summer, after my junior year of studying music education, my advanced methods professor emailed the class asking for volunteers to teach trombone lessons to two eager special-needs students at the Minnick School in Harrisonburg. I play trombone, and with my practicum at a local high school wrapping up, I had some time in my schedule. I volunteered.
After some emails to work out logistics and paperwork, I toured the school to find a room that would work best for the lessons. I asked the staff about the interests of the students, received informational sheets they made and began my lesson planning. I was unsure of where the students would be in their playing, so I thought through plans that would work wherever I found them to be. We could build from there.
My first lesson ended when the student threw his trombone across the room.
He was excited to take a trombone lesson with a trombone player, but that excitement somehow morphed into frustration and, suddenly, the trombone was arcing through the air and banging against the floor. I was surprised, of course, but with the help of other teachers, we calmed the student down, examined the damage, and put his trombone away. This was a challenging moment for me. I was not sure what had caused the escalation in emotions, but I knew I needed to take time to reflect on and adapt my approach. Despite my changes, the student threw the trombone again during the second lesson. This time, thankfully, the instrument was inside its case.
It occurred to me then that the student was more interested in talking to me than playing his trombone. Instead of constantly encouraging him to play, I would just answer all his questions while mixing in the occasional moment of myself making sounds on the trombone. A particular “race-car sound” left him in awe every time he heard it. Having noted that the student escalated toward the end of the previous sessions, we also shortened his lesson time. These measures helped to prevent any further incidents, and the student thoroughly enjoyed talking about trombone cases, which I did not mind at all.
Working with the other student was entirely different. Although both students were very nice and loved the trombone, this student was more relaxed and more eager to play the instrument. Over the course of the lessons, he was able to grow as a trombone player: He learned to play shorter and longer notes, and even multiple different notes in a row. Every time he “got” what I was doing with him, he would flash a big smile, overjoyed at what he was learning. It may not have been the fastest progress, but it was steady progress that he worked for and was justifiably proud of.
In volunteering to teach these lessons, I came to further understand what I had learned from other teaching experiences: Students with disabilities are still students, with their own interests and individual needs like any other. I showed both students how to march like they were in a parade, how to make different sounds on the trombone (beyond just playing a single loud note), and I talked to them, trombone player to trombone player. I was able to overcome the negative and build on the enthusiasm of the students so that they were happy with their choice of playing the trombone and taking lessons.
Rob Jackson is a Music Education student at James Madison University.