Musicians with disabilities teaching on the music pedagogy course at the Sibelius Academy, University of the Arts Helsinki

Over the last four years, professional musicians with disabilities from the Special Music Centre Resonaari have given lecture-workshops as visiting teachers on the Teachers’ Pedagogical Studies programme (60 ECTs) at the University of the Arts Helsinki. The Teachers’ Pedagogical Studies programme provides formal teacher qualifications required for teachers in the Finnish educational system in general. The special education course as part of the Teachers’ Pedagogical Studies programme presented here exclusively focuses on issues concerning special education compared to general education within arts education. Approximately 60–80 students attend the course every year. A large proportion of the music students are music education students, but there are also students from other departments pursuing the qualification for instrumental pedagogy including folk music, jazz, Western Art music, and church music.


On this special education course one lecture is conducted by two musicians who may be categorized as having learning disabilities. They are employed in part-time positions at the Special Music Centre Resonaari, an extracurricular music institution offering music education for children and adults who experience various challenges in learning ‘the usual way’. Amongst an established network of Finnish extracurricular music institutions with many of them having entrance exams, Resonaari is known as a unique school for its approach and pedagogical innovations. It manifests an activist stance by supporting and encouraging its students to become active performing musicians, constantly creating links with the world outside the school. One example is the school’s pilot training programme aiming to establish a vocational degree in music.

The musicians with disabilities invited to give lecture-workshops in the Teachers’ Pedagogical Studies programme at the university are from the abovementioned pilot training programme. The lecture-workshops are recognized as a part of the musicians’ training. The Finnish government subsidizes their part-time work at Resonaari alongside the disability pension that allows the musicians to work for a limited number of hours per month. The design of the university lecture-workshops typically comprises a short introduction by the supervising teacher from Resonaari followed by the two musicians leading rhythmic exercises based on the Orff-method. The musicians continue the workshop by introducing and teaching rhythm, melody, and harmony components through a variety of exercises. This is followed by constructing and playing a simple musical piece, where the aforementioned musical components are combined through interaction between the musicians and the participating university students. 

Teaching with rather than teaching about disabilities

The approach presented here emphasizes including disabilities in music teacher training through encounter and interaction (teaching with) rather than teaching about disabilities. Disability as part of the special education course is defined as one form of diversity rather than a human ‘deficit’. In this case, the encounters have caused the students to reflect on the difference as uniqueness rather than otherness. The course has prompted responses from the university students connecting the themes of equality of opportunities to wider questions of structural discrimination within institutional music education.

For example, the students have questioned why people with disabilities need to have their own music school to be able to have access to music education and music as a hobby. The experiences have also brought up important discussions about what the prerequisites are for the musicians with disabilities to teach and lead workshops. As mentioned earlier, a supervising teacher from Resonaari supported the musician throughout the lecture-workshops, which had raised questions about the division of the roles and the responsibilities between the musicians and the supervisor.

This could also be seen to reflect the students’ perception of the performative roles assigned to students and teachers in mainstream music education. A course such as the one illustrated here can disrupt the students’ perceptions of what music teaching and music performance is, or ought to be like. Furthermore, it is an example of how sometimes one intervention can have an impact on the perceptions of a large group of people and potentially instigate institutional change.

Performing disability

The researchers conducting a study on this particular special education course argue that ‘performing disability’ in music teacher education may evoke a needed shift. Instead of merely promoting tolerance for difference, or concentrating on ‘how to teach’ people with disabilities, music educators could “take advantage of the different strengths, perspectives, and types of expertise as opportunities for cooperation that not only complement inclusive music education, but also help to move beyond inclusion and towards a democratic, diverse society” (Laes & Westerlund, 2017).

This article is a part of the publication titled How are diverse cultures integrated in the education of musicians across Europe? Other chapters can be found here.

Works cited

Laes, T. & Westerlund, H. (2017). Performing disability in music teacher education: Moving beyond inclusion through expanded professionalism. International Journal of Music Education. Vol 36, Issue 1, pp. 34 – 46.

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