Music and dyslexia
Instrumental music teacher Julia Kiggell suggests that understanding connections between dyslexia and mastering a musical instrument can help transform a student’s learning.
The impact of dyslexia on learning an instrument
Learning an instrument is both hugely rewarding and beneficial for intellectual development. It is important for us at Sevenoaks that this experience is positive and enjoyable for every student, whether playing for fun or considering a career in the music industry. With this in mind, we wanted to explore the learning experiences of musicians with dyslexia and understand how we can best support their musical education.
Inclusion and learning an instrument
Learning a musical instrument is a highly cognitive process: neuroscientists have discovered that playing instruments makes the brain process different information in complex, interconnected and remarkably fast ways, simultaneously using the visual, auditory and motor cortical regions. We are passionate about facilitating any type of learner who wants to embark on this impressive activity.
As many instrumental teachers will testify, no student learns in the same way: there are multiple influences which affect progress (time, practice environment, motivation, parental support, goals and natural ability). Even teaching the same technique will involve creativity, adapting to the best way for a student to grasp a concept. Having a flexible approach to teaching a dyslexic musician is vital, and most effective teachers have a range of strategies they regularly draw upon.
The challenges of dyslexia can manifest in several ways for young musicians: sight reading, rhythm work, sustaining focus and remembering theoretical facts. Following short interviews with some of our instrumental teachers, these case studies highlight some of the strategies we have developed to support students.
Case study 1: Sight reading
“One of our pupils, was extremely slow to name a note from seeing it on the page, and instead relied on following the curve of a melody. This was an early indication he had developed his own strategy to cope. We decided to get away from the page and play more by ear. Using an audio rather than a visual input during lessons seemed to work well, as did recording his piece straight onto his smartphone, which was a valuable shortcut to getting him to play the piece and begin enjoying it” A strings teacher.
Case study 2: Rhythm and coordination
“Following a steady beat and coordination between hands can be a challenge for students with dyslexia. I do a lot of work away from the keys, and practise in very small sections so that the students are always in control. To enhance coordination, we concentrate on various clapping exercises. For rhythm, we use a ball to develop movement, whilst also counting missing numbers to internalise the counting” A piano teacher.
Case study 3: Memory
“A particular student of mine just could not remember the fingering for scales. However, he had a very good ear and loved improvising. When reading the scales, I colour co-ordinated all the fingerings that were similar, for example all the first valve notes were green, first and second valve notes were yellow etc. This helped enormously, I concluded that it was more of a memory problem than a fine motor skill/coordination issue. He loved improvisation, so we used the scales as a basis for this and the patterns became more musical and natural: making a reverse connection i.e. knowing what he wanted to sound, and then playing it” A brass teacher.
“I learnt to read music from an early age, about the same time as my dyslexia was diagnosed: actually, this seemed to help with my normal reading – perhaps because it was at an age when the brain is most receptive to new ideas – like learning a second language has shown to boost problem-solving, listening skills, memory, and concentration. Instrumental performance gave me more confidence to read out loud, something which my friends with dyslexia never wanted to do. Because I have always had to work at things just a little harder due to my dyslexia, it has given me a diligent work ethic which has benefitted me throughout my education” Student A.
“Reading for me has never been the problem – it’s more that I struggle with multi-tasking, and losing concentration easily. Early on, strategies I devised to self-help just became habit, and I learnt to cope with the challenges; writing lists and being very disciplined in my organisation. I find it difficult to hold multiple pieces of information at once and find this quite stressful, so just drilling information over and over, has just become habit and repeating the information or the process, has become second nature.” Student B.
Taking things further
We have an excellent SEN Department at Sevenoaks, and a thriving Music Department with committed, passionate teachers and students. To further enhance the musical experience of our students, we are focusing on the following:
- Adapting the general advice from individual education plans (IEP) to be more specific to instrumental learning.
- Continuing to share the experiences and teaching strategies of music teachers and students.
- Encouraging involvement in musical education for dyslexic students.
- Keeping abreast of good practice and pedagogy.
- Encouraging the use of all the sensory processes with instrumental teaching.
Dyslexia can affect musical activities, but music can also affect dyslexia, in a positive way. As shown by our students, disciplined and structured practice can reinforce the analogous brain functions, and applying these skills elsewhere is notably advantageous.
I used to look at my dyslexia as a disadvantage or problem I needed to solve, now I feel it is the gift I was given to make me into the creative person I am.
Anna Devin, Irish opera singer and British Dyslexia Association Ambassador.
Julia Kiggell is Head of Vocal and Instrumental Studies at Sevenoaks School
More information on this study can be found in Innovate, the annual academic journal from the Institute for Teaching and Learning:
All images by kind permission of Sevenoaks School.