Friday, September 23, 2016

Reading Music with Dyslexia

I was recently approached by a parent and asked about her daughter’s struggles with learning to read music in her piano lessons. This mother wondered if her daughter’s difficulty had anything to do with her dyslexia. If so, she queried, what should they expect regarding her daughter’s ability to learn an instrument?

This is not the first time this topic has been brought to my attention. As a pianist, former piano teacher, and vocalist, I have some background experience with learning to read music and teaching others to read music. Like learning any new system, it certainly isn’t easy. However, we know that engaging with linguistic text (reading/writing) is more difficult for individuals with dyslexia, so we can expect learning to read music to follow a similar trajectory. But why? How is reading a book or writing a sentence essentially the same as reading a piece of music and playing a tune? They seem so different! As it turns out...they share more similarities than you might think.

For a child with dyslexia, sound-letter matching is difficult, which in turn causes effortful reading and writing. By the same token, sound-note matching will likely be difficult when reading music. Music is a "language," in a sense: it is a code system using our phonological processing areas and working memory to recall note names, and then pair each name with specific placements on the staff to create meaning. We call it "reading" music because the individual has to decode symbols and comprehend their meaning, just as you do with text. Additionally, we know that children with dyslexia have trouble with horizontal tracking across text, and reading music requires horizontal and vertical tracking. Dyslexic kids do not have strong left to right tracking skills, not because they can’t, but because they do not develop it in reading. Furthermore, music symbols look awfully similar. Often, the only difference between two notes is their vertical orientation on a staff! If a child has difficulty distinguishing between <b>, <d>, <p> and <q>, distinguishing between two half-notes that look the same but are on different lines would also be quite challenging! As you can see, dyslexia is a symbol-based disorder, and both reading and music are symbol-based processes.

If anything, pairing tones with notes is a different level of sound processing because all notes are relative to each other on a harmonic scale. By contrast, speech sounds do not change in meaning if the frequency changes (i.e. Saying “hello” in a low pitch vs. a high pitch does not change the meaning of “hello”).

It is also worth mentioning that piano is one of the more difficult instruments to play, given that it requires strong cross-talk across the right and left hemispheres of the brain, more so than other instruments. When playing the piano, the right hand and left hand (or rather, the right brain and left brain) must read two separate staves simultaneously (treble and bass clef) - this is challenging for people who don't have dyslexia, too! Most other instruments require the instrumentalist to read only one staff.

With all this in mind, we know children with dyslexia are not efficient users of their language areas (left hemisphere). They tend to use their right hemisphere for most processing. We also know that music (tones, prosody, etc.) is processed mostly in the right hemisphere. So, it is not uncommon for a child with dyslexia to still be musically-inclined. He or she might still have a good ear for music, or can accurately hit pitches when they sing - it's that stronger right brain! And that is an encouraging thought.


Monday, September 12, 2016

"When chopping onions, just chop onions"

I have been listening to the book Cooked by Michael Pollan, in which he states his challenge about chopping onions. Pollan laments that he was given a mandate to be absorbed in the moment when chopping onions and vegetables—rather than avoiding this foundational cooking task, as many of us do. Not to multi-task. Just to allow himself the satisfaction of engaging in a task and letting his mind delve into thought.

But you know—I hate chopping onions. I have a son-in-law who knows this about me, and so often offers to chop my onions for me. (I gotta admit, I love him for it!) It’s not that I hate onions. I love cooking onions. I love smelling and eating onions. But if I can find a way to avoid the eye-streaming-nose-running-results of chopping onions, I will.

It occurred to me this afternoon, while chopping onions, that my feelings about onions parallel the way some of my students feel about reading. You see, I was chopping away because I was following an onion soup recipe given to me by one of my students. He is a graduating senior, working as a cook in a local restaurant. He loves to cook and (I am sad to admit after all my years of teaching him how) he hates to read. So you see how the layers of my thoughts were peeling away to the core, much like the layers of the onions in my hands.

Here’s the thing: I had commanded myself to follow Pollan’s advice—“When chopping onions, just chop onions”—but I couldn’t bring myself to comply. Instead, I put on my blue tooth and listened to Pollan’s book while I chopped. Viola! With audio support, I actually enjoyed chopping the onions and garlic for my soup. Then, because I was enjoying listening, I continued chopping the ginger, asparagus and green onion for the next night’s stir fry.

You can probably imagine where I am going with this metaphor in relation to kids who don’t like reading. Reading for some children is as tedious and difficult as chopping onions! It can even lead to tears. But if we pair their reading time with more pleasant experiences, they might at least tolerate it. They may even enjoy it.

There are strategies to help kids endure the onions. One is the use of audio books. Letting kids listen allows them to independently read along at a level that would normally be out of their league.

In the end, we may not be able to convince them that decoding is fun, but they will discover a way to independently enrich their lives with books.