Give the child opportunities to explore a wide range of instruments – perhaps colleagues, relatives or friends of the family are musicians?
Let the child listen and, possibly, watch how the instrument is played, and then give them plenty of time and space to explore on their own.
If they can’t see, gently guide their hands to the salient features of the instrument, and explain things as briefly as possible when the need more information.
Above all, be led by the child’s natural curiosity – letting them experience new things in their own way and on their own terms may well be more valuable than coming at things with too much of a pre-determined teaching agenda.
If the child shows a real interest in an instrument, then, if possible, they should have some introductory lessons.
Some instruments are easier than others to play in the absence of sight (for example, those that normally rely a lot on vision, such as the glockenspiel or xylophone, which are played with beaters, are more difficult than a keyboard, where the fingers are in contact with the notes ), though a child’s motivation to play a particular instrument may prove to be an overriding factor. Determination is everything!
It is prudent to try things out for a term and see how it goes – it is important to be flexible if the child decides that they would like to try a different instrument instead!
The importance of touch
If the child can no longer see, they may have a visual memory of what their chosen instrument looks like and how to play it, which you can tap into.
With the permission of the child, their teaching assistant or parents, you may need to guide the child physically to show them what to do.
Remember that learning by touch is a more painstaking process than learning visually, so allow more time for patterns of movement to sink in. Children who are starting to decline cognitively may also need more repetition than you are used to.
Playing by ear
Many teachers who have been trained in the Western classical tradition are reluctant to try to teach children to play by ear, as it is not something they have done themselves.
However, it is just a matter of mapping the songs that we can hear in our heads onto the physical movements needed to make the sounds on an instrument, and it is something that can be developed with practice.
A key motivational factor can be to begin by teaching children one of their favourite tunes (or at least the main motif from it).
If you can add an accompaniment, their immediate sense of achievement will be strengthened even more.
Most people across the world make music quite naturally without using notation. However, some genres (such as Western classical music) typically use scores.
If the child you’re working with needs sheet music enlarging to be able to see the notes, this can be done relatively easily on a tablet or iPad. Eleanor's Story @ 01:12
A system of braille music exists for those with little or no sight, though it takes time and patience to learn. Eleanor's Story @ 05:00
Discuss the options with the child and their parents to decide what is best – depending on the style of music the child wishes to learn to play and on their general literacy and cognitive skills.
Learning and remembering music
Learning and remembering music is a natural thing for all children to do, and sight loss can promote and enhance this ability.
Encourage the child to memorise songs and instrumental pieces of all kinds.
You can help by pointing out the repetition and other patterns of notes that characterise music, for example, one passage may be ‘the same but one note higher’ than another.
Make recordings as aides-mémoires for use between lessons.
Young children naturally make up music for themselves whenever they sing or tap a drum.