How To Make An Accessible Music Plan

by David Meyers

My spine is tingling. I am about to walk into a home to teach music to a teenaged student who is on the autism spectrum. At first, I’m nervous, but then I take a deep breath and feel a wave of confidence, because I am prepared with an Accessible Music Plan.

Music is an appealing mix of melody, harmony, rhythm, and thematic language.  However, a student with autism or sensory processing deficiencies may have difficulty interpreting and executing multiple functions of music at the same time.  An effective Accessible Music Plan should be designed to simplify and motivate processing to reduce barriers between music-learning and music-making. This will enhance students’ ability to engage in and optimize the music-learning and music-making process. If successful your plan will motivate students and increase their self-confidence.    

An Accessible Music Plan should be student-centered,  tailored toward their preferences, learning profile, attention span, and sensory sensitivities.  It is my philosophy that I cannot make a student contribute if they do not want to. By creating an Accessible Music Plan that is geared towards the student’s interests, the student will be more motivated to participate.

Before I meet a student for the first time, I always have their parents fill out a questionnaire. Having an insight into the student’s abilities, preferences, sensitivities, and challenges helps me tailor my Accessible Music Plan. The things I need to know to be successful are: 

  • Size, physical ability, and stature: Learning about their physical status guides me in approaching the fine and gross motor skills involved in playing our instruments. 
  • Sensory sensitivities: Knowing their sensory abilities and deficiencies allows me to avoid triggering a negative response from the student and helps me prepare appropriate documents.    
  • Behaviors: It is important have an awareness of what behaviors to expect. This helps me determine whether the student is enjoying  our class or experiencing distress.  
  • Likes and tendencies: To keep my students motivated, I want to be informed on what songs they already know, who are their pets and family members are and what foods or activities they particularly enjoy, etc. 

This information supports me in choosing songs and activities that are accessible for that particular student.

Here is an example of a lesson schedule I use for a 40-minute music lesson:

1. Hello song/beginning routine

2. Song based on a theme or student interests 

3. New Song and.or musical skills

4. Fun activity or musical game

5. Familiar song or activity with prior success

6. Good-bye/end routine

Take the time to map out a list of song activities, being conscious of how you begin and flow through your session. Some students thrive if they have a posted schedule, whereas others may find it stressful if they do not accomplish everything on the schedule, or if you vary from the schedule. Since having flexibility in your Accessible Music Plan is important, I recommend not posting a schedule, unless you feel it truly benefits your student.

Beginning routines

It is important to have a consistent beginning routine that your student enjoys.  This can be a song that introduces the participant(s) and engages them at an accessible level.  Ideally, your opening song will include a directed response or contribution, which recognizes and engages the student from the moment the class begins.  My “go to” start is a song I wrote called “Sing Hello” (lyrics set forth below). Please click on RockonMusic Songs to listen to the song on my website. 

Image description:  “Sing Hello” lyrics in red and black letters.

Be attentive to your student’s interest level.  If your student is motivated, add some extension activities to your routine or song.  I often continue the song by singing “hello” to my students’ pets or “hello” in other languages.  If your beginning routine is not captivating your student that day, it’s OK to end quickly and move on.

Song based on theme or student interests

The second song may be your most important choice, as it sets the tone of the lesson.  I have found that the lesson is most effective when the second song you choose is  a familiar one or one that deals with a theme based on your student’s known preferences.  Selecting a song based on a student’s personal or musical preference is an ideal way to engage them in the activity, whether by singing, vocalizing, clapping a steady beat, or playing an instrument.  With a familiar song, your student can rely on their ear and prior knowledge to partake in the activity.  Once they are engaged, you can use the song to reinforce a musical concept and lengthen the  focus time on the activity. The theme may be an appropriate pop song they like, or a familiar tune to which we rewrite the lyrics about someone or something that brings us joy. 

Image description:  Dave Meyers playing guitar with a student, sitting on a couch against a yellow background. 

New song and/or musical skills

A good time to introduce new musical and social-emotional skills is after your student has achieved success in the previous activity.  Encourage students to try new things, even if it seems daunting at first.  With proper supports, scaffolding, and patience, the initial stress a student may experience when learning a new concept or engaging in an unfamiliar activity may turn to beaming pride when the student finds they have completed the activity or mastered the skill.  Here again, knowing the individual student’s willingness to try new things, frustration tolerance, and ability to manage stress or anxiety, will guide you in deciding whether or how far to push your student to try new things.  For some students, this may not be possible, or may take multiple attempts.  For others, the anticipation of learning something new builds excitement and motivation to participate in the lesson. It is important to provide cues, letting them know in advance that this is something new and may challenge them. Examples of a new skill may include playing a familiar song with a new fingering or rhythmic pattern, learning a new song from a different genre or language, or trying a new instrument.

Fun activity or musical game

Since many of my students are challenged to maintain long attention, I often break up the session with a fun activity or game.  We may play the game “Hangman,” using a musical topic or familiar subject in the hidden word.  Sometimes, we do short  improvisational acting scenes or games that require a thinking response to engage students’ reasoning and language skills. Enhancing the activity with a rhythmic movement or component helps bring attention to creative thoughts.  

One of the activities I do is one I call  “Boom Chaka Laka.”  This call-and-response game fosters creative thought, with a short reinforcing steady beat in intervals between answers.  We start by picking a category, such as “Things to eat for breakfast.” Then we pat the “Boom Chaka Laka” on our laps, desk, or a drum.  Here’s how it goes:


Boom Chaka Laka Laka. Boom Chaka Laka Laka. 

Boom Chaka Laka Laka, BOOM! –“Pancakes! Your turn!”


Boom Chaka Laka Laka. Boom Chaka Laka Laka. 

Boom Chaka Laka Laka, BOOM! – “Cereal! Your turn!,” and so on

A familiar song or activity with prior success

As I near the end of each lesson, my goal is to leave my student with a good feeling of accomplishment and self-confidence. The student may have struggled with the challenge of learning a new skill or engaging in an unfamiliar activity.  At this part of the session, it is important to emphasize the student’s agency by giving your student choices.  Pre-select two or three fun and familiar songs or activities, and allow your student to choose one.  Providing more options may be confusing or anxiety-inducing.  If you have a track record with your student, pre-select songs or activities that have been successful with that student. For new students, pre-select one or two songs or activities they already know (based on the parent’s questionnaire responses).

Image description:  Dave Meyers playing guitar, while a student plays electric keyboards in a garage.

One way I reduce processing barriers is to include cues to the musical response within the lyrics of the song, such as in my composition called “The Doorbell Song.”  This activity combines simple movements with hands and three different instruments.  It is fun, musically accessible, and one of my most requested routines.  Please click on RockonMusic Songs  to hear the song on my website. 

Image description:  Lyrics to “The Doorbell Song” in red, blue, green, and black letters.

Good-bye and end routines

When it’s time to wrap up, I usually sing a “good-bye” song.  It should be lively, in order to leave your student with a good feeling about your session. Many students enjoy  “Nana Nana, Hey Hey Hey, Kiss Him Goodbye.” song by the group Steam.  After each “Nana, Nana,” I hit a crash cymbal and invite my student to crash a cymbal.  If the student has sound sensitivities, we can pretend to crash and make a “Psssshh” sound.  I extend the last “Goodbye” with  a long drum roll for an enjoyable energy release. Regardless of ability, my students enjoy the energy of a rock-concert style ending and respond. 

Having a Plan B

Although you have taken time to organize your lesson plan and flow, it is important to have a backup plan.  Always have a replacement song ready to quickly redirect if your student is not having a positive response to your exercise. You may find out that your student is having a bad day or is upset about something.  Alternatively, you may find out they are happy because of a special event with family or school. Be prepared for those special days by having alternate songs ready, such as birthday songs, holiday songs, or favorite songs that have the effect of cheering up or soothing your student, as the occasion may dictate.  This can help to redirect frustration or nervous energy, or allow students to express their emotions through the words of a familiar song, all in a safe space.  Sharing their thoughts and emotions with others will help to build their trust and a social connection.  The most important goal of my lessons is to create a positive experience for my students, so the ability to deviate from my initial Accessible Music Plan is part of the plan!

Plan C

THERE IS NO PLAN C.  You already have an Accessible Music Plan, plus songs ready to redirect,  if necessary, so you are fully prepared!  

After your lesson, write down in your log what parts of your Accessible Music Plan worked and what didn’t work.  Then you will be even better prepared to design your next Accessible Music Plan for your student.

About the author

David Meyers is a music teacher, song-writer, and the owner of RockOnMusicSchool (one word). He is an expert at creating Accessible Music by adapting songs and instrumentation for those with support needs. David has conducted workshops on Accessible Music Strategies for Autism Parenting Magazine, the Children’s Music Network and the Early Childhood Mastermind Group. He  has served on the Board of  Directors of the Children’s Music Network (2019-2020) and currently a trustee for the Hudson Valley (NY) Blues Music Society. David produces the annual RockonShow, an inclusive concert which highlights the talents of neurodiverse individuals. Check out clips from previous concerts on his website and look for weekly posts on Dave’s Facebook page Facebook:RockonMusicSchool


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