Autoharp madness!

Some days I could see it clearly… Some days I had to focus intently to even catch a glimpse of it… As long as I was looking forward, it was always there.


I’ve got this autoharp, right? This old, crappy, dust covered, CMS-standard-issue autoharp. It is one of those instruments you inherit as a music teacher that you can’t imagine ever using. They are a bitch to tune, they’re awkward and heavy, and they don’t look even remotely cool to the kids.

My first few years teaching, I would let my students with autism strum the autoharp while I pressed chord buttons and sang a tune. They (sort of) enjoyed it. As I’ve searched for ways in which to engage them better, I have realized the autoharp is the perfect instrument for them, but I needed to make a few adjustments first and then follow up with a consistent plan.


First of all, I grabbed a few markers – black, red, and green. I colored Cmaj red, G7 black, and Fmaj green. If I added Amin, I could play most of the top 40 songs out there, but all I really need for this class is I, IV, and V7. Now that my autoharp was ready, I needed to make some signs to hold up.

In the interest of time and effort, I settled on some construction paper, tape, and pencils. Do they look like my dog could have done a better job constructing these things? Maybe… But they work perfectly. It’s not about Steve Jobs-level slickness here, it’s all about functionality, people. 

Finally, I needed to make sheets for each song I planned on having them learn. I cut out a ton of black, green, and red construction paper squares. I basically glued them onto a larger sheet of construction paper and, voila… You have an easily identifiable accompanying reference.



Now… I’m going to briefly touch on the steps I used to implement this system, but I need you to understand – this doesn’t happen overnight. It takes weekly reinforcement, repetition, and familiarity with the system by your students. I can tell you, I had the vision in my head long before I was able to see results. Don’t give up!

1)      Teach them a song by rote. (Choose a song they enjoy. If you have one planned, and have made all the materials, but they aren’t feeling it – choose another one and make new materials. No matter how much you have put into the materials, they need to be bought in for this to work. You can’t shove it down their throats and have them enjoy it at all.)

2)      Keep bringing the song back each week so they are very familiar with it.

3)      After they are familiar with it, bring out the accompanying sheet and have one student point at each square for each steady beat as the group sings. You can guide their hand at first, but you eventually want to get to a point where they are doing it on their own.

4)      During these lessons, you can start introducing them to the autoharp by accompanying yourself, letting them touch it, strum it, and play with it. Emphasize a SOFT STRUM!!!!

*****The point here is to make sure they are developing enough dexterity to press the keys down hard enough, but also use a soft strum. Don’t give up if it takes some time*****

5)      Have the class sing the song while each student takes a turn strumming the autoharp while you press the keys.

6)      After they are comfortable with the steady beat strum, it’s time for them to do both.

7)      Before having them play the song, practice holding up the signs of which color they should press while strumming a steady beat. Make sure they are quick on the change.

8)      Begin changing your color signs in time with what they will need to do to perform the chord changes you want for an accompaniment.

9)      Put it all together – one student plays the autoharp, the student who will be next taps along on the accompaniment sheet, and the rest of the class sings.

Boom. Your kids are accompanying themselves on autoharp, they are loving it, and you are the one who has made this possible.


Anyone can make music and be successful doing it. It only takes planning, effort, and dedication on your part to make it happen. Let me know about some things you have stuck with that nobody else may have seen potential in, but you’re glad you did.




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