Mallet adaptation with ACE bandage wrap. Photo: V. Thomforde

Making It Work: Adaptive Techniques

Adaptive Techniques:

Instrumental Possibilities for Students with Physical Disabilities


Last September, I attended a conference on Music and Physical Disability organized by the OHMI Trust.  While I was there, I heard many speakers reference the “Social Model of Disability.”  This idea proposes that it is the attitudes and structures in society that make someone disabled rather than their impairment or difference.  How does this change our conception of instrumental music education?

If instruments were designed to be played with three arms or two heads, we would all be disabled. Conversely, if a student with limited movement has an instrument controlled by the same joystick she uses for her electric wheelchair, she is no longer disabled.  She is an instrumentalist.

We can make instrumental music more accessible to students with physical disabilities in a variety of ways.  These can be categorized as follows: changes in technique, instrument supports, adapted and customized instruments, and instrument selection.

Changes in Technique:

As a majority of musicians are able-bodied, teachers may have preconceived notions of exactly which body parts are used to play each instrument and how.  Students with physical disabilities should be encouraged to use whatever technique allows them to play at the highest level possible.

Examples of technique changes include:

  • The right hand can be on top for a recorder, or the left pinky can cover hole four.
  • Toes can hold barred instrument mallets.
  • A violin can be held like a cello (see Gaelynn Lea).
  • Trumpets and tubas can be fingered with the left hand.

Instrument Supports:

Instruments are for playing, not for holding!  Instrument supports can make a tremendous difference for students with physical disabilities.  Velcro and ACE bandage wrap can be tools for brainstorming and even creating solutions.

Mallet adaptation with ACE bandage wrap. Photo: V. Thomforde

Bike gloves can be adapted to hold mallets for those missing fingers or with low muscle tone.  Look around your classroom as well. Percussion stands and microphone stands can hold small percussion instruments.

Photo: V. Thomforde

If you are looking for ready-made products, there are several.  For instance:

  • The Clave Companion is a simple device for creating a resonance chamber.
  • MERU has created stands for brass instruments and guitars.
  • The MBrace and Viking Stands hold guitars, and I imagine they could hold ukuleles.

Adapted and Customized Instruments:

Although they are typically more expensive, adapted and personally customized instruments offer students the best opportunity to have instruments that work for their bodies.

At the most basic level, a standard instrument can be modified.  Strings can be swapped on a ukulele so that a player can use the right hand on the fretboard.  A trombone can be set up so the left hand can operate the slide.

For a more in-depth look at adaptive recorders, read my article in the Fall 2018 issue of the Orff EchoI would like to mention, however, two new products that I learned about post-publication.

  • Nuvo Soprano Recorder with Keys: This instrument is a fully-keyed recorder, and it only costs $15.  I think this instrument could be useful for students with finger disabilities as well as students who receive OT/PT services.

  • 3D Printed One-Handed Recorder: This instrument was commissioned by the OHMI Trust to be an affordable one-handed recorder.  It is not commercially available yet, but it will be soon!

3D Printed One-Handed Recorder by Paul Yeomans

Peter Worrell and Maarten Visser are both phenomenal instrument makers who specialize in customized woodwind instruments.  Their work is extraordinary!

Instrument Selection:

The instruments we have in our classroom are typically a miniscule selection of the musical instruments in the world.  If our goal is to inspire all students to play instruments, we may need to look beyond what we have in our classrooms.

Consider introducing students with disabilities to a broad selection of instruments.  What could your student play?  Harmonica, tabor pipe, ocarina, alphorn, Native American flutes, berimbau, didgeridoo, autoharp, Chapman stick, the list goes on!

The selection of digital instruments is expanding rapidly.  Here are just a couple that have caught my eye:

  • The EyeHarp allows the user to play music by tracking eye movements. It is free and open-source!
  • AUMI allows users to create music through movement and gestures.
  • The Linnstrument is an expressive midi controller.
  • Orphion is an app for iPads that allows the user to customize pitch sets, timbre, and articulation through touch.

Pedagogy Tips: 

When you have a student with a physical disability, talk to your student and your student’s family outside of class to brainstorm ideas.  Students know their bodies best, and they will be able to tell you what works and doesn’t.

Consider experimenting like your student.  I will always remember the first time I met my college piano professor.  She asked me how I played a scale, and then she sat down and played it with only her thumb and her index finger.  It was the first time anyone emulated what I did at the piano.  Immediately I was charmed by her empathy, and for years she continued to play with seven fingers when she helped me figure out solutions.

Not only can you reach out to your students and families, but colleagues at your school.  Get to know your team of special educators.  OT and PT teachers may not know about musical instruments, but they do know about how to create adaptations and modifications, and their rooms are often filled with helpful supplies.  Find out if your student is on an IEP or 504 plan (and if so, read it!).  If your student is on a plan, school funds may cover the cost of adaptations.  I know a boy whose school bought him a Dolmetsch one-handed recorder ($$$)!  Not all students may be on plans; I never was, for instance, as my parents and teachers didn’t think I needed one.  Regardless of what formal documents your students may or may not have, your colleagues can give you advice about how to create adaptations which you can tailor to apply to instruments.

It is crucial to find out which musical timbres your student prefers.  Even if trombone is the most practical band instrument for your student to play, she may not get very far if she dislikes the sound of the trombone.  If your student loves the sound of the flute, but a flute is inaccessible, is there another instrument with a similar timbre that she can try?  For instance, Matthias Schlubeck is a professional panpipe player with no hands.

While finding any and all instruments that work for your students is worthwhile, do consider students’ strong social motivation to do what their peers are doing.  If your class is playing recorders but your student with a disability is playing a woodblock, make sure that several other students are also playing a woodblock.  If it is possible for your student to play a modified part on a recorder, do so.  As Orff-inspired teachers, we already gravitate towards layered, differentiated parts, and creating adapted parts for students with disabilities can and should be part of our planning.

Students with physical disabilities have the same interest in creating music as their able-bodied peers.  Our role is to find a way for them to play.  With careful consideration, we can help students find instruments they can enjoy for a lifetime.  I love brainstorming solutions and learning about more, so feel free to contact me to discuss ideas!

Valerie Thomforde

Valerie Thomforde teaches general music and chorus to elementary and middle school students at Carlisle Public School. She is a past-president of the New England Chapter of AOSA. Valerie has presented in local school districts and at the 2016 AOSA National Conference. Most recently, Valerie did a presentation on Adaptive Piano Techniques at the OHMI Conference on Music and Disability. Valerie was born with an atypical cleft hand and she has been an active member of the Helping Hands Foundation for many years. Her blog on adaptive music can be found at

See all posts by


  1. Beth Brooks on January 31, 2019 at 5:06 pm

    Thank you so much! I have a very bright 2nd grader who was born with nothing below his elbow on his left arm. He so wants to play with two mallets like the rest of his classmates, and will learn recorder in 3rd grade and ukulele in 4th. I have searched for months for solutions, and your article was immensely helpful.

    • Valerie Thomforde on February 4, 2019 at 8:33 am

      Thanks, Beth! Keep in touch if you want to brainstorm more!

  2. Drue Bullington on January 31, 2019 at 5:28 pm

    Bravo, Valerie!!! You bring so many possibilities to life for so many adult and school-age learners! Thank you!

    • Valerie Thomforde on February 4, 2019 at 8:34 am

      Thanks, Drue!

      • David Nabb on February 21, 2019 at 8:57 am

        Thank you for writing this!! Your work is so very important!!

  3. Deborah Dille on January 31, 2019 at 5:35 pm

    Valerie, thank you so much for this article. One of our teacher’s daughter is differently abled and uses her eyes to control a board, so the eyeharp might be a possibility. I also like the recorder with keys. There are a couple of kids who could really benefit from this (and I can think of another handful who would like to try it as the “easy way” out!) . We have a DCD program at our school and are adding more students next year, so I am always looking for ways to adapt for them with limit time and uncertain para support! Thanks again!

  4. Ann Kolakowski on January 31, 2019 at 10:18 pm

    Thank you so much for writing this article. I am interested in how your adapt bike gloves for students to hold mallets.

  5. Georges Rouget on February 1, 2019 at 11:11 am

    I would like to learn about how to present Orff instruments, a mini orchestra, to seniors, and I am open to advice, suggestions, links, be it to articles or people! I am a level 1 Orff instructor.

  6. Susan Noseworthy on February 1, 2019 at 2:57 pm

    Dear Valerie,

    How wonderful to hear your amazing success with adaptive techniques for making music. Your love and dedication to this cause is unending. Beautiful job with this article and continue to keep up the awesome work. I met you your sophomore year of college and knew right away that you were going places and would do wonderful things. I miss your smiles!! Hope all is well with you and yours. Love, Sue

  7. Alex Lubet on February 1, 2019 at 3:13 pm

    This is great, Valerie. If one restrings a uke or guitar for left-handed use, it should really be reset. The dealer should be willing and able to do this. For certain asymmetrical models, a left-handed instrument will probably be needed (although lefty Jimi Hendrix played right handed guitars) and will likely need to be special ordered.

    • Valerie Thomforde on February 4, 2019 at 9:08 am

      Good point, Alex! Thanks for your input!

  8. Masumi on February 1, 2019 at 7:07 pm

    Thanks for this helpful information! It’s really good to know all the options we have to support our students.

  9. Alan Purdum on February 16, 2019 at 10:10 am

    Great article, Valerie. Thank you.

  10. Sharon Evans on February 19, 2019 at 10:19 pm

    Thank you so much and for all the love that was underneath all the wisdom!

  11. Sarah Coleman on August 14, 2019 at 11:29 am

    I have a 4th grade student this year who has no hands, just rounded elbows. We play recorder in 4th grade. Do you have any strategies for how to keep them included? I loved your idea about the ace bandages to hold mallets. I just am having a hard time seeing how recorder would be possible.


  12. Valerie Thomforde on August 24, 2019 at 12:57 pm

    Hi Sarah,

    Sorry for the delay! I am the proud new mother of a 16 day old baby boy!

    So as much as I advocate for trying to get students to play the same instrument as everyone else in the class, it would be very difficult to do a lot of recorder playing with no hands. One idea might be to tape off appropriate holes on an alto or tenor so that your student could play a drone note as the class plays melodies. (I imagine your student could find a clever way to hold it with his arms and elbows.) The drone note could have a simple rhythmic ostinato.

    I am so glad the ACE bandages worked!! You could also have your student play drone patterns on Orff instruments. It would be nice to teach all students this pattern and have several other students play with your student with no hands so that your student is not the only one.

    I’ll keep thinking about this and let you know if I have other ideas. Best of luck, and thank you for working hard to create a musical experience for all of your students!


  13. Carolyn Yankovitz on January 19, 2020 at 11:44 am

    I have cerebral palsy that impacts my left hand. An affordable One handed instrument would be wonderful. Do you know when the 3D Printed One-Handed Recorder by Paul Yeomans will be available? Or, do you have any information about that product? The link doesn’t work.

Leave a Comment

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

The reCAPTCHA verification period has expired. Please reload the page.

Filed under

Sign up for latest Orff Tips, Lesson Plans and Advocacy Tools

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.
PP1 Lead Magnet

Empower your students to create their own music in this free 3-day challenge with Roger Sams. (Lessons delivered via email)

Why Studio 49

Learn about the legendary factory that started it all and why so many teachers like you love our instruments.