Developing interactive skillls

Working one to one

The techniques in this section can be the basis for a vast amount of work and need very little further explanation. They can all be extended in a variety of ways to accommodate the particular needs of each child. For instance, conversation work can start from simple vocalisations – just as many parents do instinctively with newborn babies.

The techniques also benefit considerably from repetition. Each one is open-ended and they can form a wonderful indicator of a child’s progress over the longer term.

Musical conversations

Much music is made up of imitation and contrast, so the structure of a musical conversation, using instruments rather than words, is a very useful one. It can be teacher/pupil or pupil/pupil or the idea can be adapted to form a group exercise. You just chat away using an instrument rather than words. The keys are:

  • The idea of turn-taking in conversation is familiar to almost everyone.
  • It is wonderful to do this activity with no verbal cues whatsoever.
  • You need very little equipment. Simply share an instrument such as a tambourine or a drum.
  • Use the physical offering of the instrument as the signal to play.
  • Conversations provide great way of getting to know people’s musical abilities.


There is a natural relationship between movement and sound.

  • One person makes a gesture. A partner plays or sings their interpretation of that gesture.
  • Gestures can be made with hands but also with eyes, noses, feet or just about anything.
  • Conducting is fun to start off with and yet the possibilities for development are without limit.
  • How you develop the idea with pupils will depend on each individual and group.
  • Pupils often find it easiest to mess around with about 3 fixed gestures, mixing and matching as they wish, and then after a while feel free to let their imaginations take over.


This is a wonderful way of playing music together and forms a part of much detailed work in music therapy. As with musical conversations, supporting involves adult and child both playing. The key characteristics are:

  • The child has a fixed role: to play whatever they like.
  • The adult has a fixed role: to support the child in whatever they want to do.
  • Both roles should be non-verbal and instinctive.
  • The supporting role may include giving a pulse while the child improvises.
  • The supporting role may include copying what the child does and perhaps developing it.
  • The supporting role may include making new musical suggestions, so long as these don’t dominate the child’s ideas.
  • Both adult and child could have access to 3 or 4 instruments to have a range of sounds available.
  • Even with all these instruments, silence is fine.
  • A session may last anything from a couple of minutes to a couple of hours.
  • Making a video of sessions can be very helpful as the work tends to move too fast to remember everything that happened.


The three techniques already mentioned all involve active participation from a pupil to some degree. Where a child is not able to give a clear response, working from the natural pulse and rhythm of their breath can give rise to the most beautiful work imaginable. The breath becomes part of the music and the music becomes part of the breath. Just play or sing along and you have a very strong sense of unity between music and child.

Using building blocks to devise group sessions

Much of the one-to-one work will instantly translate into group activities simply by turn-taking and observing. A session structured in this way has a lot of value.

However, you could also use simple riffs and pentatonic scales (see our Repeating Patterns page) to make background textures that can be played by the whole group with one child having their musical conversation as a solo.  This not only means that the whole group is actively participating all the time, it also gives you a simple form of musical structure with foreground and background and a series of “verses” as each child has their turn as the soloist.



A lot of the electronic equipment available is designed specifically for work with people with complex needs. However, just using voices can take you a very long way. Electric guitars can be great as a small movement can produce a big sound. The same can be said about a large tambour or drum.

There are some wonderful “supersized” percussion instruments available specifically designed for use with children with complex needs. And never underestimate the possibilities of a piano. It seems the most technical of instruments but in fact it is nothing more than a set of switches, each one of which gives you a specific note. What’s more, these switches are extremely sensitive to variations of touch and are colour coded to allow access to 2 pre-selected sets of sounds….(white keys and black keys!)

You’ll find more information about equipment by clicking on one of these links:
keyboards, guitars, percussion, technology.

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