Boosting accessibility of iPads for music making in the classroom

This blog post is the first in a series of technology-based pieces from the Exchanging Notes project, in which we will share resources that have worked well in our accessible music sessions at Belvue School.  See this post for an overview of what we have been using so far.

iPads are a vital part of our music sessions, enabling us to present a range of options for virtual instruments. Their versatility means that they can be set up in a very tailored way when needed.

Using iPads in the classroom has helped make our music sessions more relevant, as many young people are likely to go on to access them independently in other settings.

This year young musicians on the Exchanging Notes project have used iPads in many ways:

  • to compose independently using MadPad
  • established practice routines and mediated peer learning with Yousician
  • improvised with ThumbJam
  • learned to document and produce their own loop-based music in Garage Band
Peer learning in peri sessions at Belvue School using Yousician.

Sometimes accessibility requires a bit of tweaking to make sure everyone can access the equipment: here a few of our favourite tips and tricks that you might find useful in the classroom!

Guided access

Guided access is a feature built into iOS which restricts which parts of the iPad can be used.  

This feature is useful for:

  • blocking off certain features such as instrument selection or volume control
  • making sure that menus don’t drop down to get in the way of playing
  • ensuring that using multiple fingers won’t accidentally switch to a different app

For example, we may wish to use the keyboard feature of Garage Band, without the potential confusion of accidentally entering the loop screen during a session.  As a result, more young musicians can be left to use iPads independently during a session.

To enable Guided Access: go to Settings -> General -> Accessibility.  Set the passcode to something memorable (e.g. all zeroes) – this is separate from the main passcode used to unlock the device.  If at any point you forget the guided access passcode, you can reset the iPad by holding down the home and power button.

Here’s a daily checklist developed for our music sessions:

  • Load your music app of choice, and press the home button three times to enter guided access.
  • Press the home button three times again to enter the guided access settings for the current app.
  • Touch the screen to draw a box around areas to block (1).
  • Touch and drag the white dots (2) to resize the boxes
  • Find the x button (3) to delete a box.
  • Touch Options (4) to enable the volume buttons if desired.

Press Resume/Start  at the top of the screen to the begin the guided access session, or press End/Cancel to go back through all the other apps in use for the day.  Your guided access settings will be retained for later.

We have found it useful to leave certain controls open by drawing boxes selectively – this screenshot of Garage Band shows the keyboard and volume control open to use by drawing three boxes:

Although the Guided Access feature creates restrictions by definition, it is important to reinforce the benefits with young musicians, and show how the process works where possible, perhaps giving responsibility to set up for others in peer learning situations.


A range of music peripherals are available specifically for the iPad, and a USB-lightning adapter can dramatically expand options.

Many of the keyboards in our music classroom have USB built in, and so can be plugged in to control Garage Band, ThumbJam, and other apps. Most apps will recognise the keyboard without the need to enter any options.

The school’s musical Lazy Susan (powered by a Bare Conductive Touch Board), plugged into Garage Band through a USB adapter.

ThumbJam is particularly flexible, enabling simultaneous touch, MIDI keyboards, and microphone input to trigger notes (see this blog post for more ThumbJam ideas).

There’s even an option to force incoming notes into the current scale (e.g. switching off all the black notes on the keyboard), which can be handy in group improvisation sessions where the focus isn’t necessarily on staying in tune with each other!

To use your voice for playing and recording melodies on instruments plugging in a USB microphone (or use a speaker at a distance to prevent feedback), and press the microphone/note input button in ThumbJam:   The pitch of your voice will be detected and used to play the currently selected instrument and scale.

Playing the screen

Did you know it isn’t always necessary to come into direct contact with the screen? iPads screens are based on capacitive sensing, so this can create more opportunities for access.

At Belvue School we have been experimenting with laying paper and OHP transparencies over the screen, combined with guided access, to create interactive musical scores for ThumbJam and Garage Band.

Using transparencies to create overlayed scores in a training session.

The iPad isn’t restricted to playing with fingers – some people might prefer to play with other parts of the body, such as the nose or tongue!  A clamp attached to a microphone stand can go a long way towards making sure the iPad stays in a stable position.

We can also extend our reach to the screen by using a stylus.  Sometimes this can be useful to help focus and try different musical gestures as well, as if using a xylophone beater.

A range of shapes and sizes are available commercially, but a pen wrapped in tinfoil often works fine as a quick solution – as long as some of the skin of the person using it comes into contact with the foil.

Do you use these techniques in your own classroom, or have ideas that you would like to share? Leave a comment below!

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