June 27, 2012

Inside Out, Back to Front and Upside Down - Dyslexic Thoughts

Some dyslexics have few or no obvious problems reading music. Others never learn to read music at all. I had only minor issues in music in spite of some fairly immovable problems in other areas. But the more I talk with others and read about how dyslexia affects music reading, the more I notice little issues that I have always assumed were normal. So I’ve been collecting and sharing various tips that people have used to make music reading easier.
The main idea to keep in mind is to avoid an overload of information. For example, don’t try to hit everything in sight reading all at once. Take it slow, work on short overlapping sections of music (4 notes at a time is not too short), look at the music without your instrument (the think method--yes there really is a use for it) and take breaks to process. Try to step back from the music when you are having trouble and think about what is going on. Is it a problem with learning the music that a music teacher can help with, or do you recognize the dyslexic issue from other situations (and can you use a solution from there)? And don’t hesitate to ask another player or a music teacher for ideas even if they aren’t dyslexic or haven’t (knowingly) taught dyslexics before. Their job is to teach a creative activity. Many of them get good at coming up with creative solutions.
Some of these suggestions have drawbacks in the music world. Knowing about them in advance may make it easier to work around them. I’ve noticed that the people who study dyslexia often dismiss the drawbacks to their strategies or act as if there are none. This is not helpful and can lead to some nasty confrontations, so I say think about possible issues and ways to deal in advance.
A lot of these suggestions work better if you can copy the music. Some music scores are larger than regular pieces of paper. There are often large margins that mean if you place the music just right, all the important parts will get copied. However my dyslexia sometimes keeps me from being able to tell when the top or bottom line of a staff has been cut off. Especially when the original is right there in front of me. I have resorted to asking strangers to tell me if my copy worked or not. They are usually confused, but willing to help. But it may sometimes be necessary to go to a place that will handle the copying for you and check to make sure everything worked. This can get pricey if you have to pay for the copies yourself and have a lot of music. Sometimes if you are playing in a group, they will make some copies for performers, but don’t count on this. They may very well have to pay for their copies, too. If you tell them your situation, they may be willing to make more copies than they normally would. Otherwise, you may have to toss the seat cushions for all the loose change you can find or use another solution. And keep in mind that some music is available online to print off.

1) Enlarge the music. This depends completely on having access to a copy machine that can enlarge.
2) Put matching colors at the beginning and end of lines (such as green at the end of one line and beginning of the next line, then blue, then green, etc.) to help your eye find the next line. DON’T do this on RENTED music or any music a school or other group has given you unless they said the music was yours to keep. The fees for making permanent marks on music can be horrifying. Even using colored pencils is not safe since they do not erase the way regular pencils do. If you can, copy the music THEN use colors on it.
A variation on this is to get little sticky tabs in different colors and attach them to the page at the ends and beginnings of lines. Make sure they are no stickier than post-it notes so you can remove them cleanly. The flapping/shadows of the tags could trigger dyslexic issues for some people though.
Another option is to extend the lines of the staff at the end and beginning of every other line so there are long and short staffs alternating. This is my pick.
3) Darken the middle line of the stave, and the first ledger lines above and below. This could be done with pencil fairly well if you have a steady hand for following lines. Some dyslexics do, some don’t. Using a ruler may help. If you are required to erase all marks in the music before you return it, clean up could be very tedious. The lighter you mark, the easier it will be to erase. Some dyslexics have a difficult time writing lightly but using a softer lead pencil may help. Again, copying the music and then marking is an option.
4) Rewrite the music so that all the stems go the same direction. Be aware that this can take some time whether you write it out by hand or have access to music writing software.
5) Make sure that the music is written in proportional notation (half notes occupy twice as much space as quarter notes) to help reading rhythm. Getting a version printed this way depends on the publisher and printer doing a good job or being able to use music writing software to print your own copy. And not all music writing software does this well at all. You can try, but it may not be possible.
6) Keep similar fingerings in similar passages. Within reason. There are sometimes good reasons for different fingerings. When there is a passage that needs to be fingered differently than the others, mark it.
7) Color the top and bottom line of the staff. Again, DON’T make colored MARKS in music that isn’t yours. Unless you really want to pay a fee to replace it. Copy then mark.
8) Read the music backwards. Yes, really. There are 2 ways of doing this.
One is to read the music backwards, note by note. Going through music backwards makes people process information differently and notice details that we couldn’t see before.
The other way is to work on the last measure first, by itself. Then work on the second to last measure and so on. Both of these are actually great tricks for anyone, dyslexic or not, who is learning new music.
9) Watch your hands. Don’t twist into a bad playing position though! If you can’t see your hands easily while playing, place a mirror where you won’t have to move your eyes much to see what your fingers are up to. The theory is that this closes a loop in the brain between vision, sound and physical actions which helps both with accurate playing and memory. Obviously, you won’t be able to do this in most performances, so use it as a practice technique and practice without the mirror as well so you are used to it.
10) Some people have trouble dealing with tied rhythms. Others have a tough time reading the dotted notes. If one trips you up, try re-writing the music with all the ties in dotted notation or all the dotted notes written as ties. Re-writing music can be time consuming, so this is not always an option.
11) Copy music onto light colored paper like yellow, tan, grey, light blue or lavender. The glare from white paper sometimes makes reading trickier. Pick a color that makes your eyes willing to look at the page.
12) Play by ear. A fair number of dyslexic musicians do much better when they can study music by listening to it, either in addition to or instead of reading it. This involves finding a good recording (that is, a good performance) to listen to while trying to play along and listening over and over. This is how the Suzuki method and lot of Jazz works. If you play by ear while reading music, take time to play without listening after you feel familiar with the piece as well.
13) Use shapes with letter names. For example put a circle around A, a triangle around B and so on. This works best if there are only a few note names you are having trouble with so you don’t have to come up with seven different shapes.
14) When learning new music, look at one part of it at a time. Look for the repeats and overall pattern without worrying about the notes, look at the melody separately from the rhythm, break it down anyway you can. And look at the dynamic and tempo markings on their own too.

Dyslexia can cause very specific issues like being unable to read the number 4 but having no trouble with other numbers. This means that each of us will use different methods of coping. Some of these ideas work for some people but not others, and some may even make things worse for individuals. I can’t even begin to tell you how much it upsets me to have the stems all going the same way but that trick works wonders for others. The key to dealing with dyslexia is to use what works FOR YOU. Don’t do something that doesn’t help just because an “expert” thinks it should work and don’t reject something because it didn’t work for someone else. No two dyslexics are exactly the same.
And remember, some of these ideas may help even if you only use them on SOME of your music. You may find that reading regular music is less overwhelming after using these strategies on your daily exercises and personal music (that you don’t mind marking up). I’m not saying that your dyslexia will go away or any other stupid thing like that. Just that you may be able to teach your brain how to work around some of your issues. Or you may need to use these tricks extensively your whole life. Whatever works!
This is by no means an exhaustive list, just what I've run across so far. Feel free to share other ideas in the comments.

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