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Special Needs Classroom: Teaching Improvisation with Logic Pro & iPad
Adam Goldberg on Sat, July 28th 6 comments
Through improvisation, musicians can gain valuable insights into the ways in which melody, harmony and rhythm can work together. For the Special Needs students, there are even great benefits...

Learning to improvise can be an extremely liberating, musically eye - and ear! - opening experience. Through improvisation, musicians can gain valuable insights into the ways in which melody, harmony and rhythm can work together, which can enable them as composers. For the Special Needs students, there are even greater benefits to be had in addition to these that can improve their lives in invaluable ways outside of the music classroom. Those include building confidence and enabling independence.

Using Technology Can Guide the Student into Making the Right Musical Choices

In teaching improvisation to the beginner, the trick is to limit the choices of notes, harmonies, and rhythms so that they are not overwhelmed with options that they are not ready to handle or understand. I found this very difficult to do with my students, until introducing Logic Pro and the iPad to my classes.

Logic Pro

In a previous article, I described the basics of using the Chord Memorizer. Following the procedures outlined in that article, an improvisation friendly instrument can be created simply by activating or de-activating the desired notes in the Chord Memorizer. In doing so, any scale, or portion thereof, can be played on a MIDI keyboard or device routed to the Chord Memorizer. Certain notes on the keyboard can be made not to sound, because they do not trigger anything in the output, or '˜Results In' section of the Chord Memorizer. Students will learn not to play those notes, thereby developing a greater sense of what notes '˜work', or sound good, in any given musical context.

The iPad 

In this article, several apps are mentioned that can be modified to suit the students' various levels of ability. Any app that allows the user to choose or customize modes and scales can serve as a great tool for teaching improvisation as well.

Synthmate app

The synthmate app, programmed to play only the root, 5th and root in a one octave range, in C.

Start off by limiting the range and scale so that the student only has a few notes to choose from. This is a great way to allow the student to experience success, thereby  encouraging them to want to try more. I should also note that it is important to set rhythmic parameters as well. Assign specific basic rhythms for each student - based on ability - to use for his/her improvisation. That way, the rhythm becomes a guideline to help the students play the right notes at the right time. Remember, structure is the key, even when improvising.


Animoog, with a C major Pentatonic scale, programmed over a tenth.


ThumbJam, displaying a G major pentatonic scale selected over two octaves.

Building Confidence, Enabling Independence.

So, with the young improviser's new found ability to make the right choices for themselves in a musical context, we as music educators start to build confidence in the student. This confidence will eventually carry over into other areas of their lives, enabling them to be confident enough to make the right choices on a daily basis, which is a main component in making them independent, productive members of society. 

In the below audio example, seven of my students recorded an excerpt of a little jam they performed live at the Upper West Side Apple Store, in NYC. The student improvising on ThumbJam is only eleven years old.

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Comments (6)

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  • artmuse
    Hi, I'm enjoying your articles about music for Special Needs students. Right now my special needs kids are included with my grade level classrooms. I'm going to see if I can change it since I know that we do better meeting together as a special needs group. I too have a music room full of technology. This came from a 1995 Tennessee Innovative Technology Grant. The school and the state have continued to fund the music room which is also filled with Orff mallet and other percussion. I am masters level Orff trained and include lots of mallet & recorder improv. At present we have 13 iMacs using G.Band, Sibelius Student, Music Ace, Groovy Music and Making Music. I am really looking to create some iPad apps that focus on notation and pitch matching skills sometime soon and during retirement. I'm starting my 31st year. I realize these aren't exactly the activities you focus on but I just wanted to give you a heads up about Music at Lascassas School in TN. Keep up the good work: ) Will
    • 9 years ago
    • By: artmuse
  • Dekuruy
    Hey Will, Great to hear from a fellow music teacher. Yes, you can have your Special Needs students create very viable music together using Orff and the techniques I've mentioned above. What's also great is that you can level the musical playing field, so to speak, and have Special Needs students perform together with the grade level students by utilizing the technologies now so readily available. Both groups of students will love the chance to utilize the technology in a musical context. Take care, Adam
    • 9 years ago
    • By: Dekuruy
  • Adam, You had me at "Orff"! Four years ago my school district changed their service delivery model to total inclusion. Fortunately, I had a generous principal who had over the years invested in my Orff training and purchased a regalia of instruments for me over time. New administrator now. She still supports Orff, but the District is moving towards technology. I am a digital immigrant quickly trying to learn digital native language. I have ipads, and macbooks available to me, I am at a total loss as how to incorporate them (ipads and macbooks) into my Orff classroom for my special needs students, so I was thrilled to find your article! I teach 4-K, K, 1st and 2nd grades, 455 students, in 19 classes which all contain special needs students of varying abilities. My mind is overwhelmed with the options you give. Could you advise where to start (Step 1), particularly for my severe students? Renee (Make it simple when it comes to technology as I am a neophyte when it comes to buttons, and gadgets! However, I need to grow!)
    • 9 years ago
    • By:
  • lostnthesound
    Adam, Kudos to you for the article. Aside from aiding in several Autism studies, my wife is also a Special Ed teacher with a focus on children with Autism. She currently implements the iPad into her routine with her children, and the core concept behind this "success" approach is so spot on. Cheers!
    • 9 years ago
    • By: lostnthesound
  • Dekuruy
    Thanks so much for the comment. I'm happy to share any ideas or techniques that I find useful and beneficial for my students, and my hope is that others in Education, and in particular Special Needs Education, will benefit. I endeavor to expand my outreach. If your wife thinks that she can assist me towards that goal, in telling others about my articles here on mPV, or, in contacting me through these comments, please feel free to do so.
    • 9 years ago
    • By: Dekuruy
  • Dekuruy
    Hi Renee, So, as step 1, for your more severe students, I would recommend apps like Bloom, or Trope. If the students demonstrate a sense of rhythm, then they can try an app like synthmate, which can be modified to yield only a few 'no fail' choices. It's hard to know what else I can tell you at this point, not knowing anything about your students. Assessing your students in terms of rhythmic ability will give you a good idea of what they may be able to do with iPads, or Orff instruments. Let me know how it goes.
    • 9 years ago
    • By: Dekuruy
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