In the world of classical music, proficient sight-reading is an absolute, non-negotiable necessity, and any musician who exhibits reading deficiencies is considered damaged goods. As a person with dyslexia, I have come to realize that it is invisible and has no physical, emotional, or developmental symptoms. There is no direct diagnosis, and the medical field isn't exactly sure what goes on in the brains of dyslexic people. As a child and a young adult I was told over and over that a lack of effort and ability were the reasons why I was not a proficient reader.
What is it?
Dyslexia isn't just about flipping letters— in fact, flipping letters is not a frequent symptom. Slowness of reading and delayed word recognition are more common indications. In music, that translates into slow score reading and difficulty with anything involving sight-reading, especially at faster tempos. There are two distinct camps concerning dyslexia: those who feel dyslexia is fixable, and those who feel dyslexia is a permanent condition. While medical studies in the 1990s demonstrated clear differences in neural activity between the brains of dyslexic and non-dyslexic subjects, it remains unclear whether these neural differences are permanent—thus fueling the ongoing debate over whether dyslexia is a disability or simply a difference in cognitive abilities.
Approximately fifteen percent of the world's population exhibits varying degrees of dyslexia. The vast majority of dyslexic individuals excel in highly creative venues such as engineering, art, and the performing arts. While not every student who has a reading problem is dyslexic, you have a better-than-average chance that at least fifteen percent of your students have dyslexic issues.
What are the symptoms?
In my experience, students who have a true reading issue start out well enough in the primer and early beginner levels, then hit a slump when trying to move into late elementary and early intermediate literature. This repertoire is more complicated, demands greater technical facility and movement over the keyboard, and the score print becomes smaller and denser. Dyslexic students hit a brick wall as reading requirements become more complex and tempos increase. They begin playing their lesson materials more and more by memory despite having the music in front of them. Their eyes are on their hands or wandering around the room—looking anywhere but at the score; and, if they are looking at the score, their eye movement does not sync with what they are playing. If you stop them for some reason, it takes them longer than usual to locate where they are in the score, and they have difficulties starting anywhere but at the beginning. While their technique continues to expand and improve, the score increasingly becomes an obstacle. Traditional pedagogical thinking is that these students are not proficient readers because they have fallen into the habit of memorizing rather than reading; however, students with true reading issues continue to read below their playing abilities despite any number of sight-reading methods and approaches. This raises a number of questions:
How do I tell the difference between a student who has dyslexia and one who isn't practicing?
Unfortunately, there is no crystal ball for this. Obviously, a lack of practice results in poor reading and little or no progress. It may take weeks or months before you suspect that a reading issue exists. If I have a student who is not progressing, I will use lesson time to learn an assignment with them, showing specific practicing techniques to be repeated at home. Usually, if poor progress is due to lack of practice, they will be unable to play what we covered in the previous lesson. A student with reading issues will make progress but will memorize assignments or admit that it's easier for them to play without the music. Learning techniques include having students follow along in the score with a finger as I play through the assignment, play one hand while I play the other, and play only where the hands are together in order to learn the skeleton of the piece (adding notes as the piece becomes familiar).
What do I tell the parent if I suspect their child has a reading issue?
This is a loaded question. If I suspect that a child has a reading issue, I will broach the subject by asking the parent whether they've noticed any reading problems in school. Some parents who suspect a reading problem exists will express relief that you've noticed similar issues. Parents who cannot accept the possibility that their child might have a reading issue will deny that a problem exists. In this case, I do not pursue the matter, but I will use the same teaching techniques I utilize with students who have reading issues.
How important is it to diagnose dyslexia? Should I recommend that parents pursue a diagnosis?
I'm sitting the fence on this one. The United States defines dyslexia as a disability, and medical costs are then covered by insurance and schools must fund programs to provide special support for students who are dyslexic. But being diagnosed with a disability can lead to labeling and stereotyping, and many parents and students do not want that kind of information in school or professional records. Conversely,some personalities will use a diagnosis as an excuse for behavioral issues and lack of effort to learn. It's very easy to believe that you cannot do something if you've been told by medical professionals that you have a condition which prevents you from doing it. In my reading and research, I've learned that in both cases, diagnosed and undiagnosed, the single most important factor is parental involvement. Parents who read with their dyslexic child every day have children who show the greatest improvement in their reading skills. Remember, we are music teachers, not medical professionals. I believe that it is NOT within our expertise to recommend anything concerning diagnosis. If parents ask about it, I gently recommend they take their questions to their child's pediatrician.
What should I expect from students with poor reading skills and how can I help them improve their reading abilities?
This question touches upon the argument about whether dyslexia is a permanent condition or can be corrected. I am of the camp that believes dyslexia stems from a basic neural activity difference and therefore is not correctable, although it can be improved via compensation techniques. Dyslexic individuals think primarily with the right side and front of their brain, while non-dyslexic individuals think primarily with the left side and back of their brain. In instances where left-brain activity would normally take over, dyslexic individuals need to use rerouting techniques to achieve the same result.
These learners tend to think three-dimensionally, which presents a problem because reading utilizes two-dimensional venues. Note processing will, therefore, be slower, and the more complicated the notes and phrases become, the slower their reading will be. Dyslexic students can read advanced literature if taken slowly enough, but their note reading ability will deteriorate as tempos increase.
Allow your dyslexic students to memorize as they learn, and understand that they will play better from memory than with the score. The piano keyboard is three-dimensional and therefore something dyslexic students see very well. They will understand the three-dimensional patterns they see on the keyboard much better than the two-dimensional patterns on the score. You can also teach pieces by rote, and then use the keyboard patterns to explain the patterns in the score. Following a score with a recording or while playing the piece for students allows them to use their aural skills to help decode the score.
Does playing a musical instrument help students with dyslexia or exacerbate the problem?
Dyslexia occurs when brain activity fails to transfer from right hemisphere dominance to left hemisphere dominance, a stage of development that usually occurs between the ages of nine and twelve. Piano and reed instruments require simultaneous use of both hands, and thus simultaneous activity in both hemispheres. In my opinion, playing a musical instrument benefits individuals with dyslexic issues because of the cross-brain activity. (Incidentally, international studies have NOT found evidence of a connection between left-handed people and dyslexia, nor have studies consistently demonstrated any differences between genders.)
Should I choose repertoire based on the student's level of reading?
If you keep dyslexic students in materials at the level of their reading ability, chances are you will lose the students. Their musical abilities will far outreach their reading ability, and they will become bored and frustrated that they cannot progress beyond their reading level.
Are sight-reading assignments helpful?
For these students, sight-reading demands a great deal of concentration, effort, and brain power for a limited amount of improvement. Starting with very simple assignments, regardless of their playing level, is always a good idea. Using the same clef for both hands and playing hands in octaves represents the easiest approach to sight reading while maintaining the goal of playing hands together. However, as assignments become more complex, dyslexic students will run into more problems. At some point you must weigh the amount of work assigned with the amount of improvement achieved.
How do I tell the difference between a student with dyslexia and a student with a vision problem or eye tracking problem?
Before you think about dyslexia, make sure students with reading problems do not have an issue with their vision or eye tracking. Ask parents whether their child has had a recent eye exam, and whether there are any issues that might interfere with vision.
How important is it?
I have barely touched the surface of students with reading issues participating in a profession that considers proficient music reading as a basic tool and sight-reading as a requirement to be a worthwhile musician. It is time to question the axiom that all musicians, especially pianists, need to read at an equal level. If it is possible for a deaf person to be a world-renowned percussionist and a blind pianist to reach celebrity status, then it is possible for dyslexic musicians, despite reading challenges, to succeed in the music world.