November 29, 2011

The Dyslexic Musician

I am dyslexic. Except that I may not be. The label of dyslexia still covers an incredibly wide range of issues and I suspect a number of learning disabilities are still lumped in together. Some experts acknowledge that not all dyslexics have the exact same issues but others have trouble with that concept. In my case, some of the descriptions for dyslexia are very accurate and others might as well be talking about my cat rather than me. My school actively rejected the idea that I was dyslexic for nearly 3 years because (a direct quote here) "she can't be dyslexic; she's not a behavior problem." (Dyslexia does not CAUSE behavior problems but the frustration dyslexics feel, and the way they are often treated, can.) In fact, no one realized I had a learning disability until I was being tested for the gifted program. But I stopped worrying about what the exact word for me should be a long time ago. Most people are familiar with the term dyslexia even if they don’t understand it and I have been officially labeled as dyslexic at least once so it is convenient to use.
Why am I talking about this in a music blog? Well, one of the issues of dyslexia is reading symbols and being able to apply the correct meaning to them. Music notation is not exempt but it is also not quite the same as reading language. My biggest difficulty is that I can’t look at a word and see the letters that make it up without moving very slowly and deliberately from one letter to the next but if I read the word by how it is shaped I have little or no problem. In music, there aren’t nicely separated words to lump together but at the same time, the graph that the notes are laid out on helps keep the notes from mixing themselves up as badly as letters in words. I was THRILLED to realize that the letter names on the musical staff never move! They are always in the same spot vertically even when they aren’t in the same order going from left to right, something that just doesn’t happen when reading words. Another thing that seems to make a difference is that the musical notation has a very direct connection to physical actions (fingerings). It didn’t matter if I remembered the letter name of the note, all I had to do was let my fingers match up with the note I was looking at. It has been shown that a number of dyslexics can read or spell better if some kind of movement is linked to reading. Using the sign language alphabet was my saving grace on spelling tests! Still, reading one note at a time can be a very slow process for me. But there is an upside. Once I’ve played through the music a few times, I don’t have to work so hard to know what note I’m looking at partly because I have a loose memory of the piece, melody or phrase as a whole. The result is that my sight reading is only so-so but I improve by leaps and bounds each time I go through the music. My favorite kinds of auditions are when everyone is given the music and an hour or so to go over it before we play. I really shine on those.
I learned to read fairly slowly but as time passed, I eventually became not only fluent but a speed-reader (possibly a result of reading entire words rather than letters). Music was a similar experience. The more music I learned, both scores and memorized scales, the less difficulty the notes on the page gave me although I do still label the notes with ledger lines fairly frequently. There was surprisingly little that I had to do to work with my dyslexia in music but I have found that simply understanding some of what was going on in my twisted brain reduced a great deal of the strain and stress which in and of itself reduces how difficult it is to read for some dyslexics. And sometimes I could use tricks that worked on other areas in music as well.
Because of the odd mash of issues mixed in with dyslexia, it is unlikely that other dyslexic musicians will all have exactly the same experiences as me. Some learn by ear stunningly well, some never notice issues reading music at all, some have trouble when jumping down to the next line of music, some have difficulty combining the written instructions (crescendo or a tempo for example) with the musical notation until they are more familiar with the music and so on. I have talked with musicians with no learning issues who found the dyslexic tricks interesting and helpful to hear about for their own practice. Really what I hope you’ll take away from this is there is no one way to approach the world. If you see things differently, work with it. Find the advantages as well as the difficulties. Find new ways of tackling issues and try to notice things that are easier for you.