“I don’t suffer from dyslexia, I live with it and work with it. I suffer from the ignorance of people who think they know what I can and cannot do.” Erica Cook
Contrary to the common belief that students with dyslexia will not be able to play the piano, my experience showed me otherwise, students with dyslexia can certainly learn how to play the piano and read music notation, this doesn’t imply that the process will be straightforward and obstacle-free, and traditional methods are not always guaranteed to work. Working with many different students with dyslexia taught me that non-traditional strategies are needed to make the process smoother and in the end guarantee results.
What is dyslexia?
Dyslexia is a reading disability that cannot be accounted for by visual or cognitive deficit nor by a lack of opportunity to learn. It is not a visual processing disorder as many people think. Actually, students with the “dyslexia” label have difficulty relating letters to the speech sounds they represent.
This difficulty in processing sound might be the cause of the rarity of dyslexic musicians as a team of researchers led by psychologist Merav Ahissar stated in their research “What Musicians Can Tell Us About Dyslexia and the Brain” noticed. Their research suggested that dyslexic musicians are rare and estimated the rarity to be between 1 to 10 percent.
Students with dyslexia have difficulties in reading, not only language but reading music scores as well, sometimes this is referred to as developmental dysmusia.
Because dyslexia covers so many different areas and skills, it is of extreme importance to identify the student’s learning strengths and weaknesses and expect that it is going to take you longer to go through books and repertoires, to avoid future disappointment. In addition to this, if your student has dyslexia, it is wise to be prepared for the possibility to have difficulties in one or more of these areas.
Below are the main difficulties that I usually encounter while teaching dyslexic students how to read music, the points mentioned below should not be generalized, some students don’t display these problems, however, I noticed that if the student has a dyslexia diagnosis, then I have to prepare myself for the possibility of facing one or more of these issues at some point of time.
1. Confusing the left and the right-hand parts of the score:
I will give the following example, a line from Bastien's level 1 method book to make my point clearer.
Here is a description of what sometimes happens:
The student starts playing the above lines by reading the treble clef staff as if it were the bass clef and the bass clef as if it were the treble clef. In other words, play the chord with the right hand and the melody with the left hand, and keep going on for a while not realizing the mistake especially if it is the first time to play these lines. One of my students once played full eight measures reversed, I kept quiet, waiting for her to notice, at the end of the eight measures she asked me: “Why does this piece sound so weird?”. She had been taking lessons for at least a year, by that time, this problem should have resolved itself. while this problem is common with many beginner students, In most cases, the problem resolves itself very quickly without a lot of effort, however, if the student has dyslexia this problem seems to persist for a much longer time. It is, of course, more likely to happen while playing a piece for the first time, but once the piece becomes familiar, the student will notice the difference from the first few notes self-correct very quickly.
2. Misreading the sheet music:
Confusing notes on a line or notes in a space and having difficulty playing new pieces and sight-reading. A lot of preparation is needed at the beginning of learning a new piece to know exactly where to place the hands, what the rhythm should be like, and having a general sense of the music by looking and interpreting the sheet. If you try to drill the notes by using flashcards, or a note spelling book, there seems to be no problem, however, once the notes are on the sheet and need to be played, this is when all the confusion happens and difficulties arise. Suddenly, you will get the feeling that your student somehow forgot everything and doesn’t know which note is which.
3. Confusing finger numbers and having difficulty playing with the correct finger:
Don’t be surprised if your student who has been playing for a while is still confusing the second finger with the fourth, or the first finger with the fifth. Associating a finger with a number can be quite a challenge for many students and I noticed that this problem is more exaggerated if the student has dyslexia. Insisting to play the chords with fingers 1, 2, and five with the right hand was a problem that persisted for a long time with one of my students. This problem can happen with many students, however, this time it persisted for a much longer time and it was surprisingly difficult to correct.
4. Having a short attention span:
Having difficulty staying on one task until completed and always wanting to move to the next thing, regardless of what the next thing is going to be, a new piece, a new activity, a new scale. Once we actually move to the next activity, very quickly want to move again to the next one before this new thing is finished and so on. Irrelevant chatting and talking and continuous interruption of the lesson to drink, go to the toilet, and so on.
5. They are usually more timid and shy than the average student.
Many of my students with dyslexia are reluctant to join recitals and need a lot of convincing to play in front of other students during group lessons.
I also noticed that they feel uncomfortable and worried to start learning a new piece and need convincing to try and sight-read it before analyzing and learning it.
6. They have organization difficulties:
They are more likely to forget their books either at home or at the studio. They need continuous prompting from the parent in order to regularity practice. When they finally sit to practice, they prefer to spend most of the time improvising, playing older pieces that they already know instead of working on their new pieces.
Reading music notation involves a lot of skills and is not as simple as general reading be prepared to be flexible and resourceful in your instruction and not solely depend on one teaching method, particularly the traditional method where you start teaching music reading from the very beginning.
Here are some practical ideas and different strategies that I found to be very helpful in teaching my students with dyslexia to learn as quickly as possible how to read music notes and at the same time make sure that they enjoy their piano lessons:
1. Delaying introducing the staff and note reading paradoxically made learning reading notation quicker in the long run:
I realized that starting by teaching the staff is not the ideal way to start with a student with dyslexia. Whenever I started this way I later found myself having to restart from the beginning leaving the music notation and going back and reteaching and establishing some basics and building a solid ground. Thus losing precious time, the initial inertia and motivation of my student, and in some unfortunate cases ending with my student quitting too soon.
You may be wondering now, what exactly are you going to do instead of teaching note reading. Get the basic skills solid and keep reading to find out how to do it.
2. Color coding has always been a wonderful tool. My students lean on it whenever they need:
Many piano teachers look down upon color-coding, I understand that it does give the impression of being childish or sometimes slightly unprofessional, especially when used with an older student. However, I cannot stress enough how helpful it has been to many of my students. Color coding doesn’t mean having to always have the notes or the staff colored, or painting the keys on the piano with different colors, it is not childish and in most cases, it is only used for a short period of time, in the beginning, and later on, only resorted to if and when needed. If you are interested to know more about it, you will find more detailed information HERE.
3. Teaching the scales and the chords from the beginning proved to be very important:
Learning the 5 finger scales and open chords from the very beginning proved to be extremely helpful to teach my students the letter names of the keys and how to quickly locate them on the keyboard, it taught them how to move and play using all their fingers and at the same time it helped my students with dyslexia quickly learn how to improvise and play simple lead sheet and have a lot of fun on the piano without needing a strong music-reading skill. All of this ended up giving them a lot of confidence and motivation to keep coming for the lessons and not give up too soon.
4. Involving the parent in observing and ensuring practice has always been very crucial:
The importance of parents’ support and involvement is always crucial to all children’s progress, regardless of the student or the subject. This importance becomes crucial if the student has any type of learning disorder.
5. Stepping back a little bit to give them a chance to figure things on their own has always been the best tool:
It didn't take long for me to realize that when I approach teaching as a coach rather than spoon-feed every tiny concept, and through guiding my students to learn new things on their own I end up having the best results, particularly if my student has dyslexia for the following reasons:
It shows me how much progress my students are making.
It helps me understand their best learning style and the technique that I need to adopt in teaching.
It boosts my student's self-confidence because getting the feeling that they are figuring out everything on their own and they are learning independently.
As an example of how to go about this let me tell you about a typical lesson with Jenny, my student who has dyslexia and has been taking lessons for a while, let's assume I'm going to coach him through the following 2 lines from Alfred level 3 book:
I start by explaining to her that this will be our lesson for today and I want her to look at the piece for a few minutes before we start and prepare to play it in any way she chooses. I set my timer to 4 minutes and I sit back and observe, making sure that I am giving her space by pretending to be busy with something else.
In most cases, this is how Jenny prefers to study her piece:
1. She chooses 2 different colored pencils and marks the G and F lines on the sheet as demonstrated below:
2. She checks the placement of her hands on the piano and starts playing with each hand separately, most of the time completely ignoring the rhythm, dynamics, and everything else.
3. If she felt that she was successful with the above and the timer hadn't gone off yet, only then, she would try to figure out the rhythm, and articulation. Unfortunately, she almost always completely ignores dynamics and repeat signs.
When it is time for me to step in, Jenny would have had the chance to figure out many things on her own, as well as show me exactly where she is having the most difficulty and the lessons become much more effective.
6. Be open to taking suggestions from the student:
Continuously asking my student for feedback proved to me of extreme importance, every student know best how to compensate for the challenges that he/she faces when learning, taking cues from them can drastically simplify things and make the learning process much more fun, interactive, and quick. As an example let me tell you about Freddy, my student who is diagnosed with dyslexia, and how taking his suggestion into consideration was a great decision:
Freddy had been having lessons for over a year with another teacher before his mother reached out to me asking me if I could teach him piano because she wasn’t seeing a lot of progress in his piano playing abilities and he was showing signs of burnout, he was losing his confidence and was feeling stressed out.
After having our first introductory lesson, it was obvious to me that Freddy wasn’t able to read notes and was only memorizing his pieces. Moreover, he found it difficult to find his way on the piano keyboard, always mixing up the F’s with the C’s and so on.
We had to retrace the steps and after getting the mother’s approval to start from the very beginning and after I started the color-coding strategy, Freddy had a smile on his face and asked me if it was ok to label some of the keyboard keys with a colored sticker. To be honest, I had never done it before and I still remember how I hesitated, imagining stickers on the piano keys triggered something inside me, something not positive, but remembering my own advice, I thought I will give it a try for a short period of time and see what happens. When I said yes, I saw a huge smile on Freddy’s face and neither of us looked back. What is very great about all of this is that with time we needed fewer and fewer stickers and now Freddy is able to play without any, and it happened relatively quickly. Freddy now has moved up many levels, can read music, and play lead simple sheets. He loves his lessons, enjoys the piano, plays and sings, and most importantly he has regained his confidence and his love for music.