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.

June 8, 2012

The Glories of Trying

I’ve never liked the quote “do or do not; there is no try”. Don’t get me wrong, in some ways this saying is very true in music but there are other ways that it is just wrong. When you hit a wrong note, there’s no two ways about it, it is wrong. But that doesn’t mean you should give up. This quote is, sadly, often used to imply that if you can't get something done right on your first try, don't bother. Which I simply can not accept. (A friend of mine points out that this is a misinterpretation of the original use of the quote, but it is a common one.) All skilled musicians got skilled by making mistakes. Lots of them. They are just like gardeners with green thumbs, who have killed more plants than most of us can imagine, learning exactly what it takes to keep the plants alive. They just tried again and with time made fewer and fewer mistakes until their mistakes were few, far between and mostly small. And the best musician to draw breath still makes mistakes every time they play even though the audience usually can’t hear it. They are human and humans are not perfect. But the magic of music, and all art, is that perfection is not required. Art is about beauty, fascination and thinking and feeling in different ways. It is meant to engage people in deep ways that are difficult to express or understand. The overall experience is rarely ruined by a mistake or three. There are books that discuss the advantage of practicing new music veerrryyyy slowly so that you will not play wrong notes and therefore not “practice making mistakes”. Now it is quite true that this is a wonderful way to practice (and this is my favorite way to wake up in the morning) but it does not mean that if you make a mistake, the practice session is a waste of time. In fact, part of this method says that if you are focusing on one aspect of the music (correct rhythm, good tone, accurate pitches etc.), mistakes in other areas don’t really count. It is about not getting stuck in the mistakes, not panicking and taking the time to correct the mistakes as best you can. Or even learning how to work around them.
An Imperfect Picture
“Do or do not” is about looking at the results afterwards and critiquing the effort. “Trying” is about the effort itself and without it, there are no results to criticize. To try is to make an honest attempt and to be willing to learn something new, even if you are not, just yet, capable of it. This is how we grow and become able to achieve fantastic, imperfect wonders.

"If I have the belief that I can do it, I shall surely acquire the capacity to do it even if I may not have it at the beginning."--Mahatma Gandhi

June 1, 2012

Of The Muses I Sing

 As with all Greek mythology, the details of the Muses’ story are a little changeable.  They seem to have started out as nymphs associated with springs and fountains that bring inspiration. Since the different regions in Greece each had their own inspiring springs, the Muses had different names and numbers in the various myths.
At times, the Muses almost exist without any family and are named for the music they make. There are three Muses named for three different types of instruments (strings, winds and percussion usually). Other times, they are named for vocal, instrumental and dance music. And I once read that one Muse was born from the movement of water, one from the movement of air and one was embodied in the human voice.

Muses were often worshipped at fountains
Tame(ish) Fountain
When the Muses' parents are Ouranos (the Sky) and Gaia (the Earth) there are usually 1 (Mnemosyne), 3 (Melete, Mneme and Aoede) or 4 (Arche, Thelxinoe, Aoede and Melete) of them.  
Mnemosyne is sometimes called the first Muse and this is the only name that appears as a solitary Muse figure. She is considered the Goddess of memory and language partly because the first thing she did was to name everything in existence so they could be sung about.
Other times, there are three Muse sisters; Melete “practicing/meditation”, Mneme “remembering” and Aoede “singing.” Under these names, they are living versions of how poets and musicians work. This set is also described as the Titan Muses, the older generation. Mnemosyne was at times considered a fourth Muse of this group.
Another group of four Muses descended from either Gaia or a Nymph named Plusia and Ouranos or Zeus use the names Arche (beginning), Thelxinoe (the heart delighting), Aoede (song), and Melete (more practicing).

When their parents are Zeus and Mnemosyne (Goddess of memory, time and prophecy) there are usually 9 sisters. They were all born at once, were addicted to song and had dancing-grounds on mountains and near fountains and wells. Artemis led them in singing hymns and circle dances. At first, Apollo played the aulos, a double-reed instrument, with the Muses but switched to the lyre after Hermes invented it. They were also companions of Dionysus, the other God of music. The Muses traveled wrapped in clouds and their voices could only be heard at night. They lived with the Graces and are the patrons of poets and musicians.

Other traditions make the three Muses the daughters of Apollo. These three are sometimes named after the lowest, middle and highest strings on the lyre or are called Kephiso "of the river Kephiso", Apollonis "daughter of Apollo" and Borysthenis "strength."
And there are Muses whose names we have lost completely. Polymatheia "much learning/knowledge" is the only surviving name from a set of 3 Muses worshiped at Sicyon.
The House of the Muses Today
Home of the Muses
The number of Muses steadily increases (the 7 Muse daughters of Pierus are Neilo, Tritone, Asopo, Heptapora, Achelois, Tipoplo, and Rhodia; for more on them see The Muse Contest) until nine is the most accepted number. Eventually, a tradition developed of assigning specific forms of poetry, and the music that went with it, to individual Muses. The precise list of who was linked with which art form changes depending on which writer you are reading.


-Kleio “the giver of fame” took charge of history poems. She played horns and trumpets. Two other Muses in this group play brass instruments.
-Euterpe “the giver of joy” played the aulos, directed all instrumental music and was in charge of lyric poetry. Euterpe is called a flute player so often, it is nearly impossible to convince people otherwise and really, I like having a Muse connected to my particular instrument. But the aulos has no relation to the flute. It was a double-reed instrument with no true modern equivalent. I consider her the Muse of woodwind instruments.
-Thaleia “the festive or blooming” led the music of comedy and comic plays.
-Melpomene “the singer” had charge of music for tragedies and elegies and played horn.
-Terpsichore “enjoys dancing” danced and played the lyre. In some lists, she is in charge of choral songs.
-Erato “awakener of desire” inspired erotic poetry, danced and wedding music. In some lists, she is in charge of mimic imitation.
-Polymnia or Polyhymnia “many hymns” sang story-telling songs. Others say she is in charge of religious hymns and/or mimic arts.
-Ourania “heavenly one” studied astronomy and played a drum or a gong to keep time.
-Kalliope “beautiful voice” was awarded epic or heroic songs and played trumpet.


In the myths, the Muses are most often referred to as the musical accompaniment at celebrations and funerals attended by the Gods. Poets generally praised them at the opening and closing of any song, partly in hopes of performing well. There are stories of false Muses (sometimes nine daughters of a king) challenging the Muses either in a song contest or by setting up their own cult. Like most Greek Gods, the Muses do not take the challenge well. When the true Muses sang, the sky, stars, sea and rivers all stood still and a fountain sprang up on Mount Helicon. They then turned the challengers into birds, either magpies or nine different songbirds. Since the Muses themselves were able to turn into birds, this leaves the question of who the true Muses were open for debate. Sometimes one of the Muses is claimed as the mother of the Sirens, another group of singing bird women. The Sirens are also said to have challenged the Muses. The Muses then stripped their feathers from their wings and wore them as crowns. Nearly every singer, musician or poet in mythology is said to be a child of one of the Muses or at least raised and taught by them. And a shocking number of them are punished by the Muses for various offenses. Blinding is one of their favorite punishments, but considering the tradition of blind poets and musicians, one has to wonder...
Forest Creek
Wild Spring
The Muses are worshiped at fountains, springs and wells. They teach the arts of healing and prophecy. They know how to lie and reveal the truth. They sing in consort, dance in rounds and whisper into our dreams. They are Goddesses of art, science and knowledge and they remember everything that has ever happened. They inspire creativity of all kinds and they bring forgetfulness of sorrows and cares. The Orphics worshiped the Muses especially and said there were two springs in the underworld that the dead could drink from, the spring of Mnemosyne “memory” and the spring of Lethe “forgetfulness”.
Reflections


Smile on my little song, Ladies of delight. Bring me foresight, sweet melodies, freedom from sorrows and a good memory.


For more info about the Muses, see my other Muse posts.