Music and Dyslexia/SpLD

By Janette Skeath

Instrumental Teaching with the SpLD/Dyslexic Student in Mind

As the field of dyslexia widens to include numerical as well as literacy skills, there is now growing evidence to suggest that musical potential may be slow to emerge in the dyslexic student too. A pupil who has a Specific Learning Difficulty (dyslexia) will experience a combination of problems unique to himself or herself. However, there are some well known problems which are often shared and what follows is a description of these conditions as they may affect the pupil in a musical situation. The article finishes with a series of practical suggestions which have been used and developed over a long period and which have contributed to many dyslexic pupils achieving considerable success.

Language problems can become a very great difficulty when the dyslexic student is faced with having to learn the jargon associated with tempo, style and dynamics. Words such as "hemi-demi-semi-quaver" can cause problems for the dyslexic who misses out the middle syllables (or the last syllable), a trait which could lead to a misunderstanding of the meaning of the word. This is compounded by that fact that music often keeps the Italian, French and German vocabulary to be interpreted by the musician. The fact that musical vocabulary has evolved over many centuries has inevitably led to alternative names being in current usage. These two or three sets of nomenclature can cause a lack of confidence in the pupil. ("G" clef / treble clef, for example, or bass clef / "F" clef are areas of typical confusion).

Enharmonic equivalents are often a cause of confusion too. Directional confusion can lead the musician into a maze of problems. For the non-dyslexic the left right direction is taken as automatic, not so for the dyslexic. All the instructions which need to be assimilated before the performer begins are not to be found at the top left hand side of the music. Many dyslexics when they are reading scan the text back and forth jumping the words they do not recognise and going back to reassure them on the meaning. These learning styles are inappropriate, as the sequence is vital to the success of the player. Music is writing from left to right, to be interpreted by a flautist into a horizontal sequence. Here the problem is one of rotation. Poor short-term memory means that the student may have spent time learning and mastering a particular phrase and then comes to play the piece again putting the newly learnt section into context and the memory lets him down with disastrous effect. Memorising scales and arpeggios becomes a laborious exercise and can put the student off attempting an assessment because of the added amount of over-learning needed.

Poor short-term memory, together with a weak appreciation of sequencing, are common areas of frustration and need careful handling by the teacher.Counting bars of rest is a vital, yet often under-rated, skill but one which can pose difficulties for the dyslexic unless clear strategies are taught to count effectively.Perhaps an obvious area, but one worth mentioning, is the weak ability to memorise music. The well-rehearsed movements, which to the non-dyslexic come flooding back as soon as the introduction is heard, may not reappear in the mind of the dyslexic.

Sequencing difficulties can cause major problems. In the simplest of situations many dyslexic students need reinforcement in the order of the alphabet. The musician has to accept that "H" does not follow "G" any more - indeed "A" follows "G"!! (and that this seven letter pattern can repeat itself more than once in different positions on the stave.) These are many times in written narrative when to have taken the gist of the sentence is sufficient for the readers to have understood the meaning. This is not so in music of course. Melodic sequence can only be achieved if the notes are played in strict order. Musical notation dictates that as the notes are played more and more quickly additional links are added atop the symbols. This, one learns, does follow a sequence. But sometimes the symbols are shown attached to isolated notes and on other occasions the symbols may be changed a little because there is a need to beam the notes together into beats. The grouping of notes into beats is also rather confusing for the pupil who has to learn that there are times when other factors are taken into account (such as complete half bars in four / four time) which will over-ride the basic rule. The art of skilful repetition commonly used in music is a form often not appreciated by the dyslexic (who may fail to recognise a theme when playing in a minor key, for example.)

A lack of spatial awareness is perhaps most significant in the case of the pianist. For many parents the first choice of a musical instrument for their child to learn is the piano. This however, may not be the most appropriate choice. Consider the pianist presented with this set of factors to understand: The higher the note the note the higher up the stave the notes are positioned. The pianist has to accept that the higher notes are found towards the right-hand end of the keyboard and vice-versa. Add to this scenario the fact that each hand has different notes but it is the thumb on the left hand, which plays the highest notes in the bass clef. I fear that many potentially gifted musicians have given in to the spatial difficulties of learning the piano and not continued learning an instrument at all. Reversing letters and numbers is common in dyslexics.

In music too there is scope for potential difficulties if the student has a tendency to turn the notes or symbols round. The musical symbols for rests are a potential danger zone for the young player. Consider the quaver -rest which, if reversed, becomes a crochet rest! Similarly the semibreve-rest and the minim-rest which are the same symbol translated 180 degrees. To confuse the issue, the semibreve rest also doubles up as a whole bar rest which can confuse the musician who thought he had learnt correctly that a semibreve rest was equivalent to four crotchet beats - only to be told that if a whole bar is rested then irrespective of the time signature a semibreve rest will be used! Time signatures reversed from 2 crotchet beats in a bar to 4 minim beats in a bar can lead to significant misunderstandings! The symbols representing the time value of notes can also be a cause of confusion. Whereas in the English language the letters are either upper or lower case, in music the stems of the notes can be drawn upwards or downwards according to varying conditions: e.g. it is usual to arrange the notes on the stave with the stems going up or down according to their position but in choral singing the same voice has stems going in the same direction. The symbol which is designed to represent a crescendo if, inadvertently, it becomes turned round can cause a change in dynamic which is not intended.

Visual / perceptual problems can present the dyslexic with problems very early on in their musical experience. The staves are often presented in very small print and the dyslexic faces a challenge to decipher the presence of minute dots, bar lines, stems and beams. Even symbols showing repeat marks and dynamics can be missed altogether or misread in performance. For some dyslexics the glare of bright lights shining onto white paper is very distracting. Research has revealed for some SpLD students the words seem to move around on the page and that the script presents an image of white rivers flowing between the words. To the dyslexic musician these revelations are even more significant. Printed music offers a similar, if not more exaggerated, opportunity for these visual problems to emerge and become a real difficulty.

Short concentration span can lead the performer into dire straits if, for a moment, concentration is lost through a distraction and the musician loses their place in the music and cannot find it quickly enough to go on.

Stress and the fear of failure can cause the dyslexic considerable pain. In the final performance the quality of the player can be hampered by the need to play faultlessly, often at speed, whilst keeping one eye on the conductor! The dyslexic has to spend so much time over-learning the piece of music, which is to be learned that there is a very real fear of exhaustion and frustration when the day of the performance comes. Another real fear is missing repeat marks or forgetting the ruling on repeats. The risk of failing through having to stop and restart playing again may be in the forefront of the performer's mind. The knowledge that the music has been played many times before is no comfort to the dyslexic student who may see it on the stand and react to it as if it is to be sight-read.

The comments made above may lead you into thinking that music and dyslexia do not go together. Please dispel those thoughts. I have had some exceptional success with dyslexic musicians not to say the indirect boost that the ability to play an instrument and appreciate music has brought to the student's self esteem.

Teaching Strategies Designed to Reduce the Difficulties Presented by a Dyslexic Pupil

Always remember that although the pupil may have learning difficulty, there is nothing to suggest that their intelligence is affected in any way, indeed the dyslexic pupils may be amongst the brightest you have the privilege to teach.

Meticulous lesson planning and recordkeeping is important so that each lesson builds on the success of the previous one. Build up the student's skills in very small steps, structuring the work to be learned. Success is based upon success, so teach in a lively way at an appropriate level for the pupil and find time to praise and reward. Every now and then I offer a challenge to the pupil to take up if they so wish and then award a small prize if the criteria are met. Award success to fit into the school's system or have a scheme of your own.

The best time to stop a lesson is when all is going well.Each lesson needs to rehearse the content of the previous lesson and include only a small amount of new skill learning. Regular over-learning is the key to a skill being fully learnt. Make the lessons fun. For the majority of music students their interest is on the level of a hobby and needs to be thoroughly pleasurable.

Examination techniques such as aural tests, sight-reading scales and arpeggios have their place in each lesson and are best built up steadily over many weeks of structured learning. Try to discover how the pupil's mind is working through questions like "explain to me how you reached that conclusion."

When you know your pupil well it is possible to target the lesson so as to build on the pupil's own strengths. Knowledge of strong visual or auditory memory can be very helpful here.Some dyslexic students have a visual difficulty. If you are conscious of this, take advantage of the concession granted by the Music Publishers Association, which allows music to be photocopied for the purpose of helping the dyslexic musician. This has meant that the glare of white paper combined with black print can be avoided by photocopying onto coloured paper. Try to discover if your student has a particular preference over colour. Some dyslexics can show a strong aversion to some colours and conversely a marked advantage can be gained by giving the pupil the colour of their choice. Size of stave can also be increased with use of the photocopier. This can be a great help to those with a vision difficulty.

Another advantage of copying the music is to colour code it using highlighters. Key signatures and attendant accidentals can be made to stand out if necessary, or the positions of repeat marks or in fact anything which is known to be a stumbling block. Dyslexics with a directional confusion can respond well to green (go) shading at the left hand side of the stave and (red) shading on the right hand side of the stave. If, as the teacher, you suspect a vision problem hampering reasonable progress, then mention your findings to either the school or the parents and suggest that a visit to an optometrist could be beneficial.

Individual lessons often result in the teacher having a more detailed knowledge of the pupil's learning style than the class teacher. Indeed, should you suspect a learning difficulty, which has not been identified by an expert, to your knowledge, than do pass on your suspicions so as to make as early a diagnosis as possible.

When it comes to examination entries remember that the ABRSM may allow the use of an amanuensis in the theory exam. Application for this is made at the time of entry and subject to their approval.

Make the lesson as multi-sensory as possible. Music affords great scope for a multi-sensory approach. Include drama to help with all those Italian words. Run around the classroom in a staccato style or a legato style or give an instruction following a crescendo or a diminuendo. The possibilities are endless.

Use a salt tray and or plastic letters to revise symbols. Long words are best remembered for the auditory learner by tapping out syllables and for the visual learner by finding words within words, by illustrating the word in a comical way.

Help the student remember sequences of information by creating mnemonics. The well known ones are alright but the student will gain much pleasure from thinking of an original one especially if it can incorporate the name of a friend or member of the family. ("Granny Buys David Five Apples" was composed by a David whose Granny had just came to stay). Mnemonics which are unique to the pupil are often more readily remembered.

A small (and therefore portable) white board allows for greater opportunity for you and your pupil to discuss and record your teaching point. For many musicians their music lessons are seen to be different from other curriculum subjects and in order to underline the difference avoid using exercise books or vocabulary books. One way to record information, which I use to great effect, is to build up an index box. Cards are used to record the content of each lesson, the guidelines given to the student and also to reinforce the theory work tackled. There are a number of advantages in using cards:- The cards can be removed, updated and built on as the pupil's knowledge increases. The cards can be used as games. This fits in very well with my ideas to make each lesson fun. On one side of the card write the symbol or sign or word or whatever is to be known, on the reverse side write the definition or meaning or answer as appropriate. The game can be played in a variety of ways. One way is to put out the card on the table and playing in turn the pupil can only pick up their card if he can say what is on the other side. This way, the game is self-checking. Over the years I have built up packs of different card games for each ABRSM theory grade. The cards can be removed and made into useful revision packs when it is time to revise for an exam. The students see them as different and sophisticated compared to an exercise book. Alphabetical index cards allow for the easy organisation of the topic covered. Coloured cards can be used to code different topics.Be consistent in the terminology used, especially in the early stages. Avoid confusion by swapping from one name to another.

Make a collection of musical things, which you can award as challenge prizes. There are a number of items available: pencils, rulers, pencil sharpeners, erasers, stickers, paper clips, biscuit cutters, mugs, tea towels, earrings, necklaces brooches etc. etc.

During vacation time interest can be continued with wet weather activities such as musical word searches and puzzles. Investigate the various commercial teaching aids on the market. Some students find them interesting and helpful others do not. At the present time various items are available: of note are various small credit card sized devices for helping with the understanding of keys and of course the updated electronic metronome. The best way to judge these commercial packs is to try using them.

Most of all, enjoy the challenge of teaching a dyslexic pupil. Learn their strengths and teach to them. No two dyslexics are the same, and similarly their learning styles and needs will vary too.


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