Having guided a family member through dyslexia issues (and realising I faced some of the same issues myself as a child), I developed an appreciation of how this affects learning at the piano. So today I am offering things I’ve learned along the way in the hopes my observations can help either teacher or parent. This is by no means comprehensive – I’d just like to start to a discussion with anyone affected by dyslexia who has been involved with learning or teaching piano. I am genuinely interested in your point of view if you would like to add anything I may have omitted that would be helpful to us all.
Reading and writing can be a challenge for someone with dyslexia. The Dyslexia foundation of New Zealand describes dyslexia as an “alternative way of thinking – a learning reference… best thought of as a continuum of abilities and difficulties, rather than a distinct category.” I like this because the main issues of how we read something can vary hugely from one person to another. This means that adapting our teaching and learning to suit the individual is key to their progress. As private music teachers usually working one on one we do this all the time, whereas no doubt there are bigger challenges in a classroom setting. In learning an instrument it is the music reading aspect where it is most noticeable, so here are a few things I’ve done when I see that the reading process is in any way a challenge. (The first seven tips are general; the last five are related more specifically to the printed page.)
- Keep tasks short, manageable and rewarded. However, don’t shy away from the challenging tasks. Just break them down. Work on a small amount of music at a time by playing separate hands and not moving on until concepts are established.
- Have clearly defined, achievable goals.
- Use a range of note reading helps. Acknowledge that reading music is a challenge. Help with this can include note flash cards in conjunction with note reading rows. Doing flash cards games on their own is great but a longer time is needed over a period of weeks to focus on one particular set of 4 or 5 notes. It is also better to focus longer on learning the treble before focusing on bass notes. Then it is good to use note reading rows featuring these notes so the learner can see the notes in context. If helpful, make the note rows larger print to be somewhere between the size of the pieces they are reading and the size of flash card notes.
- Show and tell with visual patterns and aural examples. Don’t give an instruction that says “use your right hand now” on its own. I usually show the hand I want them to use as well. Depending on the individual child I might say “Let’s use this hand for the treble.”
- Because reading music is more of a challenge to master it is crucial to have pieces the learner can play by ear and learn them through various patterning, listening and watching you, rather than only learning music through note reading. Sometimes giving the music afterwards for them to see what they have learned can help them in making the connection with written music. (This does not work for everyone.)
- Encourage learners to memorise their music. The family member I worked with had an incredible recall of things that had been memorised. It was a skill that was not as well developed in many who could read music well.
- Small successful performances can be really helpful for building much needed confidence.
- Take away the confusion of looking between the staves on the page and then down at black and white keys that seem to have no connection. I find it helpful to cover a learner’s hands with a piece of paper once the hands are in position. The learner is often surprised how much easier that makes things.
- Check if there is clear understanding of why some notes have stems up and some down. I had a pupil once who thought one way was for right hand and the other for the left.
- Use lots of examples and link to where a concept was learned somewhere else where possible. For example: “You used this group of notes in this piece here.”
- Have big print and an uncluttered page. I think that the tutor books that have a tutor part written on the page create a cluttered look that is stressful for someone trying to make sense of all that is on the page in front of them. Where possible it is good to have lots of space on the page and a decent space between the lines of music.
- Not knowing starting notes for a piece can mean, for some, that the piece can’t be played at all before the next lesson. To avoid this stress, write the name of the note for each hand to be sure they know where to start. Maybe include a picture of the keyboard for this too.
I’ve focused mostly on some things to do when the skill of music reading is being addressed for someone with dyslexia, but it is important to realise that the bottom line is that music making should not be about a person’s music reading ability, even though that is a valuable, helpful skill for a musician. We want the ability to play and express music, however it is learned. The challenge then turns back to the teacher – to find creative ways to help the learner best do just that.