Script For A Presentation For Over-21 Adults With Special Needs

PSO cellist Adam Liu and I were recently invited to do a 45-minute presentation for the first Woodlands Foundation Notes from the Heart Music Camp for adults over 21. Adam plays the erhu as well as the cello and I play violin and viola, so between us we had the potential to provide a wide range of sounds and styles. As usual I brought percussion instruments so that we could have an audience-provided rhythm section as needed! And I knew the campers were very willing to sing on request.

I found the most challenging part of playing for a group with highly individual abilities was designing a program that could be engaging and inclusive on multiple levels. I knew that the music selections needed to be relatively short and that we would need to shift gears a few times. For me the key to engagement was to ask the audience a lit of questions.

So this is how our program unfolded:

Adam and I began by holding up and introducing the instruments. In addition to the violin and viola, I showed them a Nepali violin, the sarangi, a four-string instrument unfamiliar to everybody, with carvings of a bird and an elephant god (Ganesh) on the back. This provided an interesting contrast to the western violin and the erhu.

I also showed them an ocean drum. (How many of them had been to the ocean?) While I played it, we used the sound to imagine being by the water, and then we used our voices to create the whooshing sound of waves coming to shore.

Adam, playing cello, gave the campers some drone notes to sing as I played a bagpipe version of Auld Lang Syne on the violin. We asked, “Does anybody recognize this piece? Does anyone know the words?” With their participation, singing the drone notes while I played the melody; together we became the bagpipe. Adam and I then played a short bagpipe version of The Water is Wide. One of the campers identified the piece and proceeded to sing the words with a beautiful, pure sound, to the subsequent applause and cheers of everybody.

I followed that with a local fiddle version of Drowsy Maggie. We added some audience percussion when I introduced and played the scordatura Appalachian tune Dry and Dusty and a few American folk dance tunes. One of the participants was able to identify every key we played in.

To change the pace, Adam introduced and played a Chinese melody on the erhu, followed by a cello piece from a Bach suite.

We switched to viola and cello and played five Romanian folk dances by Bartok. After each dance I asked what title they would give the piece. The participants’ responses were astoundingly creative.

And finally we switched to playing local sports songs: take me out to the ball game and the Pennsylvania polka. Everybody sang, played percussion, danced, or waved Terrible Towels

To thank the participants for all the wonderful ideas and positive energy they contributed to the event, we finished with simple gifts. The song is familiar, and they could still play their percussion to a quieter, slower beat. One of the campers accompanied us beautifully on the two-headed drum, the madal, an instrument he had never played before.

I leave the Woodlands inspired and humbled by the participants’ brilliance, enthusiasm, and creativity.


  • On the Ocean Drum, make wave sounds. Then have the audience, with their voices, imitate the sound of the waves.
  • Start the audience singing, matching the specific pitches the cellist plays. Those will be the drone notes for the bagpipe tune. Add the melody on the violin to create the complete effect of a bagpipe.
  • On violin, play  fiddle tunes such as Drowsy Maggie and(Scordatura) Dry and Dusty, followed by other folk dance tunes. The audience can play percussion un-pitched instruments to accompany this.
  • On erhu, play Horse Race. Have the audience make galloping sounds with their instruments.
  • On cello, a Bach Suite movement
  • With viola and cello, Romanian Folk Dances Bartok
  • Take Me Out to the Ball Game
  • Pennsylvania Polka
  • Simple Gifts

For further consideration:

What other repertoire could you use for combinations of two instruments?  What are you working on that could be played in place of the Bach Suite movement? How do you determine what is appropriate? Who can you ask? Who works with these campers and could give you feedback?

What are the goals of your session? How else could you have them participate?

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July 2014 updated April 2016