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Harrisonburg, Virginia, United States
Professor of Saxophone, James Madison University

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Can Dyslexia Teach Us About Learning Music?

*this article was originally published in Saxophone Today (Jan 2017)*
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Can Dyslexia Teach Us About Learning Music?

As a university saxophone professor, a large portion of my work is spent helping students to learn repertoire.  I’m also constantly working on new music, while trying to keep the old standards as fresh as possible.  This heavy emphasis on the learning process has lead to an obsession with increasingly effective methods of learning (and teaching).  We all have limits to the amount of time that we can devote to practicing, so we need to make every moment count.  I am particularly interested in what we can learn from modern technology, so when I heard Gabrielle Emanuel’s fascinating NPR report on current research to better understand dyslexia,  http://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2016/11/29/503693391/researchers-study-what-makes-dyslexic-brains-different, I was very excited about what I perceived to be obvious parallels between understanding the way humans read written words and the way we read music.  Moreover, a method for helping dyslexics to improve reading skills seems likely to have applications in music.

In the big picture, written language is a relatively new development for humans.  Evolution has hard-wired our brains for certain critical skills, like recognizing faces and learning spoken language, but reading requires a step beyond pure instinct.  Without getting too technical (and I encourage you to read Emanuel’s excellent article for slightly more detailed information), our brain likes to take pictures of things.  The first time you see an object, your brain needs to learn what the object looks like, and that means recognizing it from many angles.  Figuring something out for the first time happens in a particular part of the brain, but a different structure takes over when you can recognize an object in the abstract.  For example, if you see a car from the rear, you still easily recognize it as a car.  This skill involves a certain part of the brain called the occipitotemporal cortex.  Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) shows that this area of the brain is not only used for recognizing objects, but it also plays an important role in reading written language.

Our brains basically try to take “pictures” of words, so that we can quickly recognize those words without having to sound them out every time we see them.  This allows the brain to treat common words like symbols, seeing them as discrete objects, rather than a bunch of letters.  If you see the word “the,” your brain recognizes it quickly because it has stored an image of that word.   Words like this are known as sight words, and they are a vital component of learning to read.  Unlike cars, words are not objects that have the same meaning from different angles; think about a young child that writes some of their letters backwards, or reverses mirror-image letters like lowercase b and d.  This is unnatural for the brain, which is why we all need time and practice to learn the art of reading and writing.  [I taught myself to write with both hands, but I sometimes have trouble writing lower case q with my right hand, because I can’t remember which way the letter is oriented, but this only happens with my non-dominant hand, and only when I am tired!]  Dyslexics exhibit difficulty with sight words, and fMRI shows that their brains are less active in the involved neural structures when they are exposed to sight words, when compared to non-dyslexics.  Everyone must learn that a car, when viewed from any angle, is always a car, but letters and words are like one-way streets – direction matters!

Emanuel goes on to explain research being conducted by Guinevere Eden of Georgetown University.  In short, subjects with dyslexia were given intense training in learning to recognize words at sight, which resulted in a measured increase in activity in the appropriate structures of the brain.  Moreover, fMRI showed an increase of activity in other parts of the brain, suggesting that the brain can compensate for problems in some areas by recruiting other structures.  This can also be seen in patients with brains damaged by injury.  With disciplined practice, the brain forges new neural pathways.

In many ways, reading music is identical to reading language.  When we first learn to read music, we count the lines and spaces on the staff and use a mnemonic device (like “Every Good Boy Does Fine”) to determine the note names.   With practice, our brains will memorize an image of the staff, and then quickly identify note names by their positions in the staff.  I find it particularly interesting that an inexperienced music reader might confuse B with D, for example, because the two notes form a similar image, especially if one temporarily loses the visual center line of the staff.  From a more advanced perspective, scale passages are quickly recognized at sight, and the same holds true for triads and chordal structures.  A similar process happens when reading rhythms, where we go from having to count out the individual components to seeing a group of notes as an image that is a symbol for a certain cliché.  Young readers can easily execute quarter notes in a row, but syncopated figures are like little riddles that must be solved (sounded out?) before they can become grouped into images that can be recognized at sight.

 All this had me thinking about a method of practicing that I use, and how this method could be refined to take advantage of the brain’s strong tendency to organize components into meaningful image-symbols.  I tried working on some long, complex lines of music using the following method:

1.     Divide the line into clear visual groupings of notes.
2.     Play each group slowly with a pause between each group.
3.     Gradually increase the tempo within each group, but maintain a pause between groups.
4.     Play the line very slowly with no pauses, but still try to see each group as a separate unit within the longer line.
5.     Play in time, as written, increasing to the desired tempo.

In my own practice, this method worked very well.  In a relatively short amount of time, I was able to see each group as a “chunk,” and my eyes were free to move ahead to the next grouping while I was still playing the notes of the previous group.  I tried it with some of my students who came to their lessons with trouble spots in their prepared etudes.  While none of this was done in a scientific manner, I can say that the anecdotal evidence of taking the student through these five steps resulted in a rapid improvement, and the desired outcome was reached with seemingly far less repetitions than is required by the common method of repeating the line slowly and very gradually increasing tempo.

There are many well-known approaches to “note grouping” as a method for learning and interpreting music, so this is not really anything new.  With that said, fMRI is providing us with profound insights into the way that our brains work, and this information is bound to have broad applications for enhancing the way that we teach and learn.  While we might not ever be able to download talent directly into our minds like in The Matrix movies, we can definitely supercharge our practice by knowing how to quickly stimulate the parts of the brain that are involved in the acquisition of certain skills.  I will be following up on this article when I have a chance to do some of my own research.  Good luck, and practice well!