Jan. 31st, 2012

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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. 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. 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. Another thing that seems to make a difference is that the musical notation has a very direct connection to physical actions (fingerings). 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 in fact 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.
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 jumping of 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. 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. And I have talked with musicians with no learning issues who found this interesting and sometimes 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.

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Gwyneth Whistlewood the Feral Flute

October 2012

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