Blog

Dyslexia and Music Teaching

deslexia3

Have you noticed some of your pupils struggling more than usual to learn to read music? Do they score low in sight-reading tests? Do they take a really long time to learn a piece and then seem to be playing more by ear than by reading the music?

Maybe, just maybe they are dyslexic.

Sadly, many dyslexics go through life undetected. They’ve learnt to somehow find ways of avoiding situations which involve numbers and/or words and have endured endless frustration at the hand of parents, teachers, peers and themselves. Going back a little in time, before such learning difficulties were widely acknowledged, dyslexics were often label as “stupid” or “slow.” However, in my experience of teaching dyslexics (I currently teach four, with a further three pupils awaiting diagnosis), they certainly do not lack intelligence. In fact, one of the adults I teach, who has word dyslexia, is extremely good at maths with a high profile banking job and three related patents to her name!

At this point, I would just like to clarify that I am no expert in dyslexia but perhaps it might be useful to share a few ideas I’ve picked up along the way to help you with teaching students whom you may know or suspect have dyslexia.

As reading can be challenging, dyslexics often learn to rely more on other senses and methods. For example, if a student is struggling with learning a new song by reading the music, giving them a recording can be a massive help because their auditory skills are often very strong.

I’ve found that printing music or other material on cream paper is a big help to some (but not all). Often school teachers will recommend coloured overlays which can be helpful. Every dyslexic is unique.

I now know to photocopy their music and use coloured highlighters to flag mistakes or to help dynamic markings to jump out.

Encouraging them to spot patterns in the music is a very helpful technique as with other pupils. Are the notes going up or down? By step or skip? Is that a sequence?

Can the music be enlarged? And especially if you are working from a Sibelius (or similar) file, can some of the detail be deleted or simplified first? For example, are the guitar chords needed? Or the lyrics? Can the fingering be minimised or the phrase marks left out for now etc.?

Patience on the part of the teacher and parents is vital. Dyslexics need extra time to complete a task. If proof of diagnosis can be given, most examination boards will permit the use of extra time which is especially important for a sight-reading test. The ABRSM for example allow 3 minutes of preparation time for their sight-reading tests compared to the normal 30 seconds which makes a huge difference.

Short-term memory amongst dyslexics can be challenging. Smaller goals, shorter sentences, speaking slower, making the task simpler can definitely help the learner.

If an approach doesn’t seem to be working, try something different. Why not ask them what they think would help.

Above all, give your dyslexic student lots of encouragement and sincere commendation for their efforts. They often endure lots of frustration and sometimes bullying from those around them so a positive, empathetic music teacher can do much to reassure them as a human being and to inspire their musical growth.

Do you have experience teaching dyslexics? What approaches have you found beneficial?

 

About the Author

Reuben Vincent
Reuben Vincent is a freelance musician working as a composer, producer and private music teacher, based from his purpose built recording studio in Bagillt, Flintshire, North Wales, UK. His main instrument is the piano although he is also known for a "mean" solo on the Kazoo!!!

12 Comments

  1. Robin Steinweg

    Reuben, this is so helpful. I’d never heard that there can be short-term memory issues with dyslexia. Thanks!

  2. Tonia Stoney

    Thanks for the teaching tips, Reuben! They were very helpful!

  3. Debra Alexander

    Hi Reuben, Thanks for bringing dyslexia to the spotlight, and for your good teaching points. Regarding your spotting patterns tip, I worked with a gifted dyslexic musician who could play anything by ear, but struggled to read. He was into Broadway show tunes and classic Tin Pan Alley songs, and we found that learning the theory behind the chord symbols (frequently printed above the notation on those kinds of sheets) could assist in finding the right notes more quickly. Thanks again and All The Best.

  4. Ed Pearlman

    Interesting–I heard a talk by two experts on dyslexia who showed how dyslexics use a different part of the brain to compensate for a verbal center that isn’t up to speed. I went up to them afterward to ask how dyslexia affects music, and they said they did not find that it affected music playing very much. They also said that very little research had been done on music and dyslexia.

  5. Jenn

    Interesting timing on this. I’m mildly dyslexic, and a piano and voice teacher! My sight reading has improved by leaps and bounds. Oddly enough, I feel like I’m a better teacher because of it.

  6. Reuben Vincent

    Thanks for your comment Jenn. I’m sure you have a wonderful insight on the subject of dyslexia. Have you any tips that have helped you or your students?

  7. Reuben Vincent

    Interesting comments Ed, thanks. In my experience, dyslexics often have a wonderful ability to perform musically but can find it a struggle to read sheet music. Nothing should deter a determined individual, I agree!

  8. Reuben Vincent

    What a fantastic, inspiring example. Thanks Debra for sharing

  9. Reuben Vincent

    Cheers Tonia

  10. Reuben Vincent

    Thanks Robin

  11. Jenn

    This article made a lot of good points, especially regarding patience on the part of the teacher. I don’t have any students with dyslexia that I know of, but I use a lot of the tricks I’ve learned for myself and they were all listed in this article which was nice to see. I use them with students who struggle with sight reading.

    I tend to read laterally rather than vertically and look for patterns rather than reading every single note, if that makes any sense! Same with chords, I tend to focus on seconds, thirds etc based off a note that’s easy to distinguish. It’s hard to describe without having a piece of music to demonstrate. I also enlarge my music when I can, and I use colour coded highlighting for problem areas that I mix up. Dotted notes and runs are very difficult. Basically, the more black on the page, the more difficult to read. I also need more time to prepare.

    It’s still very difficult but I practice sight reading every day for myself personally, and as a teacher. I excel at ear playing and memorizing lyrics so listening to a recording really helps. Because of this, I prefer playing jazz or contemporary over classical because I can be creative. I also enjoy writing my own music. I could write so much more about this!

    Thank you for writing this article. My dyslexia has been worse lately which has been stressing me out. This should be mandatory reading for all music teachers!

  12. Marisa Sharpe

    I have two students who are dyslexic. One technique I have found to work very well is to cover up as much of the music as I can while leaving the line he is reading exposed. Four lines of music seems to be too much clutter on the page and he can focus much better if I cover up lines not immediately being read. I would love ideas on how to get them to remember note names. One of my students has an amazing memory in other areas, but cannot seem to remember note names for anything! I know a technique in helping dyslexics learn to read is to manipulate letters with clay and really feel the form and shape. I wonder if manipulating notes with clay would somehow solidify note placement and names. I’m going to try that. I’d appreciate more suggestions.