July 2, 2016

Sight Singing and Dyslexia

I recently saw a joke on the internet. There was a picture of some music with a caption asking "what's wrong with this picture?" and I found myself stumped. The time signature and the note values added up right, the key signature was written correctly, bar lines and other symbols were placed right and I could not figure out what was wrong to save my life. Then I read some other people's comments and realized the music was supposed to be the opening of Beethoven's Fifth. Without any further information, I immediately saw that the last note was wrong and the rhythm was wrong (glaringly so). And then I realized something. I hadn't been able to "see" what was wrong because I hadn't turned the visual notation into sound in my head (a skill taught in sight singing classes) until I knew it was supposed to be a specific piece. And what is more, this happened in spite of the fact I learned to sight sing years ago and even taught sight singing. All of which caused me to recognized what was happening at last; this was a dyslexia glitch I hadn't been aware of before.
One of the issues with dyslexia is that turning symbols into what they represent is tricky. Written letters and words are the most typical examples but it can happen with numbers or music notation too. Most dyslexics only have trouble with some symbols and not others. This is why some dyslexics can't spell but can handle written math and read music or have trouble with written math but no trouble with music or reading. My main dyslexic trouble is spelling not music notation. But suddenly I realized that turning written music into sound in my head is just a bit more problematic for me than anyone would expect because of my dyslexia.

Now sight singing or turning notation into sound in our heads is not something people do automatically. Most people have to learn the process and they tend to find it challenging at first. A few folks have a knack for it but generally it is something that must be taught, practiced and sweated over. Once learned, some people can't turn it off (every notation "sings" to them) but most have to make a conscious effort to sight sing music. I was in the second group. If I just look at notation, I don't just hear it right away. I must make a conscious effort to "hear" the notes and rhythms written out in front of me. This isn't really that unusual nor is it considered an issue so I hadn't ever noticed that the effort I make is just a bit more, a little longer, a smidge more complex than is typical. The fact that learning to sight sing is not easy for anyone hid the fact that I don't turn written music into sound in my head easily. It wasn't until I had trouble getting an obvious (to musicians) joke that it came out into the open.
This isn't a big problem for me (clearly since I was trusted to teach freshmen the basics of sight singing). I've worked around it for decades without even realizing it was there. What's more, once I have played a piece, it is outrageously easy for me to "hear" the music when I look at it.  That extra bit of information, the physical memory of creating the sound on my flute, kicks my sight singing skill into high gear and I can even catch tiny changes in the notation with ease. This makes a great deal of sense given my history of using finger spelling to manage to learn to spell at least a bit better. Attaching physical sensation to the visual symbols helps me process the symbols. And I can, in fact, sight sing a piece without ever having played it just fine; I just need a few extra moments to work it out. Since I'm an instrumentalist not a vocalist, this is simply not a problem. But now that I know about it, I can work with it and find the alternate ways I process the written music into sound. Like "fingering" the notes on a pencil as if it was a flute, something I used learning to sight sing.

Finally, to anyone who has struggled to learn to sight sing music, you now have a small hint of what it feels like to be dyslexic. That process of transforming notation into music entirely inside your head is quite similar to fighting to handle moving letters while learning to read.
The initial stage of learning to sight sing (according to me and my non-dyslexic friends alike) is unsettling. It seems as if there is no point of reference for what you are learning, nothing to hang on to or use as a tool. This is because you are restructuring your brain to do a brand new thing. Dyslexics often take extra time to learn to read because they must work out new methods of processing the written letters for their brains. The same thing happens when learning to sight sing music.
And remember that there is more than one way to learn to sight sing (just like learning to read or do written math). Different teachers use different methods and each person develops their own tricks. Ask others for tips if you have serious trouble and explore other approaches. Remember that it may never be automatic and that's ok. Practicing the skill at whatever level you have it will teach you how to develop it. Don't expect your sight singing to match others but use your skill your way.