Years ago I decided to have my three children take piano lessons. I had one problem. I had become aware that my kids were dyslexic through testing at their school and learning to play the piano could be difficult for them. I went ahead anyway and in the process learned some fascinating aspects about being dyslexic and learning to play the piano or any instrument.
To begin here is a list of Dyslexia issues you might find with a student having difficulty learning music. If your student has many or all of these problems you might want to have the student assessed for Dyslexia:
“3. Commonly reported difficulties with music
- Difficulties in the reading of music, particularly sight-reading without adequate
- Aural tests, particularly those involving memory, such as dictation.
- The understanding and production of written material (text/language and music).
- Work in music theory: understanding and de-coding information; organisation of
- examination answers.
- Analysis of music and the use of examples in written work.
- The organisation of evaluative written work: evaluation of performances by self and
- Difficulties with the sequencing of material; decisions about what is
- important/relevant; choice of wording for answers, both verbal and written.
- Organisation of complex and non-regular timetables of lessons, rehearsals and
- concerts and organisation of relevant material: music, strings, reeds etc.
- Organisation of personal practice.”
Each child had their own issues which I now know has to do with their particular learning strengths and weaknesses.
Gen, my oldest, was able to learn where the symbols of the notes on a specific line of music were on the piano but she had problems with playing two hands at the same time. She also had difficulty learning the names of the notes and chords (A,B,C,D,E,F,G, sharps and flats, etc.).
Casey, my middle son was not learning the notes at all but he could play with two hands. We discovered he was watching his piano teacher play a tune and because he has a strong visual memory he was memorizing what his teacher was doing with her hands. The way his teacher discovered his method was when she noticed he would often play one or two wrong notes every time for each song he played and they would be the same notes. She started to realize he was watching and remembering her playing the music and would remember one or two notes incorrectly.
Wil, my youngest, was able to play with two hands and memorize where the notes on the sheet music were on the piano but he could not learn music theory and remember the names or meanings of the written language of music.
Fortunately, their music teacher was a kind person and very curious. She wanted to help the kids overcome their problems as much as I. So with Gen, she focused on finding music that played one hand at a time and eventually as her coordination improved she started to play with both hands. Right-brained and dyslexic children often have some confusion with right and left in general and especially the coordination of their bodies. Training with different exercises that improve coordination and body awareness and playing sports such as gymnastics, soccer and baseball coupled with lots of patience and encouragement will help straighten out much of this body confusion dyslexic children tend to have. My daughter is thirty-four now and she still has some problems with right and left. In time she learned many of the names of the notes, chords, and music symbols because as she matured she was naturally developing the ability to understand abstract concepts such as music. Her knowledge and comprehension of music theory definitely improved.
Casey was a bit stubborn about learning to play by reading music instead of memorizing by visually watching his teacher but he eventually started to work with her. She started to teach him where the music notes and symbols were on the piano (sight reading) and as he got older and more accustomed to reading music she started to introduce music theory and learning what all the symbols were named and what their purpose was. He actually started to do quite well with the theory but it came more easily as he got older (fifth or sixth grade in school).
Wil was also able to use this “sight reading” approach but was never comfortable learning music theory. He also learned how to play a guitar but like the piano he did it by memorizing the symbols for chords and where they were on the guitar. Good enough, right? He was playing music which is what he wanted.
If you have a child or know one that is dyslexic and wants to learn to play an instrument, find a music teacher with an open mind and heart and maybe try some of the suggestions I’ve mentioned. Also pay attention to the child and figure out how they figure things out. Then go with their learning style, motivate them, be supportive and encourage them to have patience with the process.
Being right-brained and dyslexic is a learning style that cannot be changed. It’s who they are. They need information presented in a way that makes sense to them. Dyslexic students trying to learn to read the language of music have the same problems as when they are learning to read and write. I have always found that starting young dyslexic children off with “sight reading” when learning a new language of any kind including music is very effective.
What was a real thrill for me was watching my children improve, being able to perform in their music teacher’s recitals successfully and having fun because the teacher and I encouraged them to learn how to play in a way that made sense them.
Here are some helpful resources for more Dyslexia friendly music programs to help your Dyslexic student:
“Music and Dyslexia – and How Dyslexia Helps”
by Jenny Macmillan
Karey Hope deGraaf
Dyslexia Victoria Online