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.)

  1. 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.
  2. Have clearly defined, achievable goals.
  3. 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. 
  4. 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.”
  5. 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.)
  6. 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.
  7. Small successful performances can be really helpful for building much needed confidence.
  8. 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. 
  9. 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.
  10. 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.”
  11. 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.
  12. 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.

My little grandaughter, Naomi, turns one this week. I can hardly believe it is already a year since that day my heart sang with her arrival. We have seen her grow and develop almost every week when we would go and babysit for a few hours, and there have been other wonderful times together too, each one special. So much learning in one year!

For me the year has been going by so fast. Someone said recently that life is like a roll of toilet paper – it gets faster towards the end. Not a flattering description, but the imagery seems pretty realistic. There has been so much I had been wanting to get done that isn’t there yet, but as I reflect back on the year I can at least acknowledge that progress is happening.

When my music pupils get to the end of a tutor book I usually have them revise from the beginning and play through all the pieces independently before they move on. This is often really helpful. So many times they will comment on the super easy pieces at the beginning and they then realise, without much prompting from me, just how far they have come. As we move through the book we fill in on the parts we might have missed or that needed a bit more attention. If they have been playing more than just the latest piece each week, there is often a much better understanding of what they have learned overall.

So, as you have a think about your or your child’s learning in the past year, what are the big takeaways?

When I think of Naomi I realise that in one year she has made really significant steps, but they didn’t happen overnight. Every day she has been consistently learning about life in the stage she was at and progressively moving on from there. When I think of my music pupils I can see that those who have been consistently learning (even if only a little each week) are the ones showing progress they are proud of.

One of our greatest delights in Naomi is seeing her happy little smile when something clever seems to happen. It’s pretty much the same when I get to witness the pleasure someone gets from the effort they have put into their music and when we both reflect on how far they have come.

But I can’t leave it there. I haven’t told you about the amazing parents Naomi has. What a delight to see them grow and learn along with her, encouraging her every move and watching her develop with delight, despite many sleep-deprived nights.  They still have quite a journey to go with so much more of her life ahead yet, but from where I sit I know they are on the right track!

The parents who support their children’s learning as much as possible will have the greatest joy at their progress too. I applaud these folks because enjoying their child’s music with them as they are learning is a lovely thing – just taking an interest each week in the new material and encouraging them to go over it between lessons is a massive part of showing them that it matters to the parent how they are doing.  Whatever I can offer at a weekly lesson is worth little without this support on a daily basis. So keep it up if that’s you!

They say it takes a village to raise a child. I know too, it takes a team effort to raise a musician.

And a lot can happen in a year.

 

 

I always thought flossing was a teeth cleaning exercise. That was until I was playing for a school choir practice and the teacher in charge of crowd control said firmly at the beginning “No Flossing!”

I discovered it to be the latest fad that everyone at school was quickly learning. Children were in the playground in various stages of learning it: some with a friend showing them the movements slowly, so they could get it carefully and accurately; others had the movement right but were working on getting it faster; still others had clearly been doing it a while and were very fast.

I asked one of my pupils to show me what involved and I watched and learned. It looks more like a hip wrecking exercise, so I can’t say I’ve taken to it! It definitely qualifies as a fad. This girl got 5 million views on Youtube!

How to Do THE FLOSS DANCE – A Parent’s Guide

 

 

So what can we learn from fads?

Reaching across the generations is not a bad thing. Just taking an interest can build rapport. Being taught by my own pupil made a point of connection for me. She was tickled, I think, that I was curious about it. As music teachers, taking an interest in the things that our pupils are passionate about says something about how much we are really interested in them. It might give them reason to be interested in what we have to say, and what we are passionate about. As my sister reminded me this week, ‘people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.’

 It is clear that with flossing one has to start really slowly at first to get the movements in the right order before getting faster. If you get faster before doing that, it will take longer to learn them. Similarly, I have seen my pupils struggle to get something right. Often I have observed that they have to come to the realisation their own way that ‘the quicker they learn to play it slowly, the faster they’ll get it.’ (Not that I haven’t told them – I’m a stuck record on that one!)

 Peer pressure dictates an urgency to use whatever means possible to learn well. You don’t want to be the slowest person in the group doing that new thing! The sense of belonging that comes from peer pressure can be positive for those in the group. If the group is doing something useful and positive, all the better. Being part of a music group that is playing cool music is going to make everyone want to be there even when they don’t have to be. Last week a good number of school orchestra members that I teach were up late the night before, performing with the school choir at a local music festival. As a result, they were permitted to miss the first part of school next day. This would mean about half the orchestra would be missing the weekly rehearsal that starts before school.  Imagine my delight to find that (with the exception of 1) they were all there. Maybe they didn’t want to miss anything.

Fads can produce some great music. I have a pupil learning music from the very popular Lord of the Rings motion picture series filmed here in New Zealand. The connection to the movies is a great motivator for her to work through tricky melodies and harmonies that she might not necessarily get to in the regular instrument tutor book.

 

Pictures we took at Mt Sunday – the film location for Rohan, from Lord of the Rings, a couple of hours from here.

When people who are deemed cool start something new, suddenly everyone wants to follow the leader. Thus a fad is born. Every generation needs musicians who do this to keep the world of beautiful music fresh and vital. This works for both new compositions and also for classics reimagined. Vanessa May with her rock approach and Nigel Kennedy with his raw sense of humour and personality brought a reawakening of violin playing to their generation and inspired a wave of new young violinists. More recently, Lindsey Stirling, dancing in music story videos as she plays her violin, is doing that for today’s young people.

This is great for orchestral instruments. At the same time there seem to be endless numbers of children wanting to learn the guitar because of the influence of popular music, rock bands etc. No problem with that. I hope they learn well and enjoy playing. I also hope they get a broad appreciation of the range of beautiful guitar music that is out there, once they get past ‘Smoke on the Water.’

I have a lovely example in mind because this weekend the orchestra I play in is performing a beautiful guitar concerto written by Ulrik Neumann arr: Andersson. Our soloist is Matthew Marshall, reputedly one of NZ’s finest guitarists. I didn’t know this work until I heard it on Youtube and I think it is delightful.

Guitar Concerto (arr. K. Andersson)

 

 

 

So, fads come and go, but if we utilize what they teach us while they are here, we might learn to incorporate something in our learning that will become as regular as flossing. I’ll leave it up to whatever generation you are in as to which kind of flossing that might be.

 

 

 

My title takes me back to language learning days in Asia when we used Tom and Elizabeth Brewster’s Language Acquisition Made Practical (LAMP) method. It was a practical guide, applicable to learning any language, without getting bogged down. Learning a language can be overwhelming at times. The main idea was to learn a phrase, a question or other useful expression and then go and find a range of real people to practice it on. The repetition established the bit of language, which in turn became something to build on with further additions.

I think learning a musical instrument is overwhelming at times too.  So I thought I’d look at some easy, practical little ideas you could “use a lot” this week, applying them to something you or your child might be learning.

Bite sized chunks

Rather than playing a piece from start to finish with lots of stumbles, break it into smaller sections – maybe 1 or 2 bars (measures) and practice each section slowly until it is easy. Often it may be a line of music or even a short phrase.

Playing loud and soft (dynamics)

  • Make scales interesting by playing them gradually louder as you go higher and softer as you go lower.
  • Choose a melody from a piece you are learning and get louder as the melody goes higher and softer as it goes lower. Keep the rhythm the same.
  • Choose a favourite piece. If you struggle more to play softly, see how softly you can play it. If you naturally play gently, see how loudly you can play it. Then to bring it back to balance play it somewhere in between. Keep the speed the same whether you play loud or soft.
  • Play a broken triad (a 3 note chord) such as the C major chord C E G. Play softly for the first and lowest note, a little louder for the second and louder for the highest note. Do it until they are evenly louder than the previous note. Change to another chord or play it in a different position and do the same.

Same piece/different sounds

For those learning on electronic keyboards one of the best ways to get your child to play something more than once is to allow them to play their pieces with different musical instrument sounds. (“Fireworks” and  ”gunshots” don’t count.)

 Note reading 

Every day for a week choose a different line of music from something you are learning and read the note names backwards (i.e. from right to left).

Separate hands

Simplify difficult passages (or anything you can’t play perfectly) by playing with separate hands first. When you can play each hand correctly 3 times in a row, put them together. Hint: keep the beat the same tempo for each hand even if one hand is easier. This makes it much easier when you put them together.

Fun with tricky rhythms

Find a tricky rhythm in something you are learning. It may be only a bar or two.

  • Clap and count it out until it becomes really easy.
  • Try playing it all on one note on your instrument.
  • Tap it on something in every room in the house.
  • Give it some words to help you remember it.
  • Now come back and see if you can play it with the notes it started with.

Transposing

When you know a short piece really well in one key, transpose it to other keys you know. This is where it is helpful to know your scales in order to understand key structures.

 

None of this is exhaustive. I’m merely brushing the surface of a myriad of ways we can break down our music learning to keep us engaged and avoid becoming overwhelmed. Whatever activities work for you – and these apply for any aged learner – they need to be manageable enough to get quick wins and thus experience progress. They may end up becoming a useful set of tools you will use often. Probably one of my most valuable tools has become ”3 times perfect in a row” because I can apply it to so many different aspects of my music learning.

Let me know what was the most helpful little idea here for your situation, or if you have a little idea that you use a lot that you’d like to pass on to the rest of us.

 


I was so sad to hear of the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Palu, Indonesia this week, a city we were based in from 1988-93. Having also experienced losing our own home in the Christchurch earthquake of 2010, we know in a small measure that it can take years to recover, even from a lesser quake. The recovery from this for the people of Palu, Donggala and the west coast of Sulawesi is likely to be longer and much more challenging than what it was for us here.

 

 

We have so many memories from our time there, most of them positive, but few centered around music. Here is one memory of some stunning musicians we came across in Palu.

 

It was a fairly normal Sunday morning, a typical Palu day around 34°C and we went to church as usual. What was unusual was that there was to be a visiting choir at the service. Many Indonesian people love singing and are good at it, but nothing prepared us for what we were about to hear.

As they filed in I noticed that our hostess from our days of learning Indonesian was in the choir. We had lived with her family for 6 months while learning Bahasa Indonesia. I didn’t know that she was a singer as such, so that didn’t particularly raise my expectations. They were to sing unaccompanied. (There was a piano in the church, one of only 15 in the whole city. A piano tuner used to come once a year from another place to tune them. Anyway, I’m digressing.) It was quite normal for choirs to sing acapella.

The conductor was a young man who looked not much more than 15. I thought this is going to be interesting. And then they all opened their mouths and the first chord sent a ripple down my spine. The harmony, the volume! It was stunning. I had never heard such a magnificent choir. Not one person let the side down and it was total commitment that produced an incredible sound from start to finish. Then I found out that they were the representative choir for the province – people from various churches around that region who were preparing to participate in the national choir competition in Yogyakarta.

The following week I was contacted by our former hostess to ask if I would come and accompany the choir for a practice. They had never played with a piano, but as part of the competition they had to have two of their pieces accompanied. I couldn’t help but think it was a shame to add a piano to their already excellent sound! But I agreed to see if I could help.

The young conductor turned out to be somewhere in his 20s and was incredibly skilled.  I marvelled at his musicianship and that of the choir who learned all their music from the Indonesian not angka system. It was all done with tonic-sol-fa and their musical score is shown with numbers, along with various dots and dashes to show rhythm. Fortunately for me the piano music was familiar western notation!

After a number of practices they got used to singing with a piano and I was invited to come with them to the national competition. Unfortunately, due to our work and upcoming trip to the village area, it just wasn’t going to work out for me to go. But their conductor told me later that he had learned enough to know what he was looking for when an accompanist was provided for them, and turned down two before he was happy with a third. They had never made it into the top half before, but that year this out of the way province came 5th out of 27 provinces in the national competition. I wasn’t surprised. I knew they had something special.

 

A search for a beautiful sound in our music is the same in every culture, even though what defines a beautiful sound is going to be different from place to place. Striving for excellence brings many rewards, and much is involved in getting there. If I can in some way inspire my pupils to play music beautifully, learn to play music they want to play and enlarge their outlook to discover other music to enjoy too, then I know they are well on the way to enjoying it for many years to come.

As I’ve been reflecting on this story of our time in Palu, I pray for the community, friends and co-workers who work with them as they go through the effects of the earthquake, tsunami and aftershocks that we know from experience will likely continue for years.

***

Sorry, I don’t have  a photo (or a recording) of that magnificent choir. The other photos are of the Palu beachfront, Donggala waterfront (taken during our time there) and a meal with Palu friends.