Making Music Accessible

… especially to those with dyslexia and other learning difficulties

Guest Post by Karen Marshall

I have been teaching students with specific learning difficulties (especially dyslexia) for twenty years now.  It’s been a real journey which has been packed with lots of learning, creativity, patience, joy, challenge but most of all reward.

Reward in being able to share in music making with students who can find music learning has challenges.

It is important to remember that no two students are the same – and especially no two dyslexic or students with special needs. The solutions may need adapting for individual students, or strategies specially selected for them. And also remember that some students with learning difficulties don’t have any problems with music learning at all. One size does not fit all!

The topic is vast. In this post I identify four of the main Guiding Principles for working with students with special needs.

These principles work well across all my teaching – good teaching is, I believe, good teaching! And I am sure many teachers reading this post will do much of what I describe anyway.

1: Creating a belief in your student

This is perhaps one of the most foundational things.

A student who may be struggling needs to know that you believe they can succeed in their music learning.

Personally, I try to instil a belief in my student that we will try every which way we need, for success.  I stress that ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day’, and we may need to break a task into smaller steps, try a new approach, leave something and come back to it, until eventually that musical task is mastered.

I think it also helps if the student feels I am happy to see them every week. That I’m genuinely interested in them as a person. That I  recognise their success and celebrate it with them. I try to help them feel I believe in them, so they can believe in themselves. I also try to give  positive specific praise where-ever possible.

2: Multi-sensory teaching

Multi-sensory teaching is just as it sounds: teaching by using a number of different senses in order to learn.

My own daughter has learnt to read words by a multi-sensory method. She has been shown pictures of the letters (visual), listened to how the letters are pronounced (auditory), and drawn the letters in a tray of sand (kinaesthetic).

The dyslexic student greatly benefits from multi-sensory teaching, because learning is reinforced.  I try to focus on three questions with a student:

  • What do you hear?
  • What do you see?
  • What do you feel? 

No one learning style is focussed on. Rather ALL are explored.

It may be simple to read about what multi-sensory teaching (MST) is, but it can be difficult to think of ways to teach principles in this way. Here are some useful tools and teaching methods which are great resources for MST teaching.

•Dalcroze (Eurhythmics: Art and Education, 1930) is a great way to teach rhythm. Using balls, bean bags and the whole body (amongst other things) to develop pulse and rhythm skills. Various courses are available to learn about this –  See the Dalcroze website for details.

•Kodály – The Kodály method is a systematic way of teaching music notation using the voice. Working from the easy to the difficult (in very small steps) it is very accessible to the dyslexic student. From stick notation and sol fa hand signs, clapping games and cannon singing – musicianship is successfully developed.

Jolly Music by Cyrilla Rowsell and David Vinden provides the Kodály method for any practitioner to use. Kodály courses can be found on the British Kodály Academy website.  Rhythm can be taught very systematically using flashcards available on the BKA website.  Rhythm patterns are gradually built up moving gradually from the ‘known to the un-known.’

•Using a stave on the floor – put a life size stave on the floor and develop various games for the student to do.  This could be simply singing the note names as they step on the note placements. For instrumentalists, they can play the notes on their instrument which relate to the space on the stave.

Other things that can be useful include –

  • Pattern (what are the repeated patterns in the music?),
  • Colour (colour coding notation)
  • Listening to music recordings whilst following the notation score with the finger (seeing, hearing and feeling the shape of the music at the same time).

3: The need for a systematic approach

When teaching a dyslexic student to read, they need to be given a systematic approach using multi-sensory teaching.

The steps are very gradual, built up, and a thorough understanding of what is involved is required to read. It can’t be presumed that a child will just absorb information and understand it. Starting with the alphabet, taught in small letter groups, focusing on the appropriate name and sound. Checking the letters can be identified and written in the correct form.

The student can then move onto the vowels and so on. Each stage is carefully taught and re-enforced.

A similar approach can be very successfully done when teaching a beginner piece of music.

A systematic, multi-sensory approach to teaching a beginner piece of music including just crotchets, quavers and notes within the octave:

  1. First of all get the student to identify the pulse as they listen to you playing the piece.
  2. Can they split the pulse – turning the crotchets into quavers.
  3. Combine the pulse with the split pulse and an easy example of a rhythm is created.  Try Walking (for crotchets) and running (for quavers).
  4. Listen again to the music and invite the student to move around the room hitting the floor with a plastic bottle when the first beat of the bar occurs.
  5. Provide flash cards of all the different rhythms in the piece and get the student to play them with body percussion – clapping / tapping the knee / patting the head.  Whatever the student chooses.
  6. Listening to the melody line and walking forwards and backwards when the music moves higher then lower.
  7. Sing the letters of the melody line or use the Kodaly sol fa names.
  8. Use a scarf to paint the phrase shapes in the air.
  9. Make a copy of the piece of music. Provide the student with a set of colours pencils.  Invite them to colour over the bars in different colours whilst listening to you perform the piece. This helps with dynamics and communicating the mood of the piece.

4: Re-enforced, embedded learning

(using personal association or whacky memory joggers)

Students with specific learning difficulties can have problems with their working and short term memories. The long term memory isn’t affected.

Doing the same thing over and over does make a real difference. Chanting scales,  singing scales, drawing scales on a keyboard, playing the scale over and over again until it sticks. If a student can’t remember the order of the sharps and flats get them to come up with their own rhyme to help – the more whacky the better. In my experience students don’t forget rhymes including Funky Chickens or Bogies being Eaten (disgusting I know but very useful when playing a B flat major scale!)

For further information about this topic visit the British Dyslexia Association‘s Music and Dyslexia pages found here.

Other useful resources

More information on teaching students with learning difficulties are included in this book:

Karen Marshall & Penny Stirling: How to Teach Instrumental and Singing Lessons – 100 Ideas (Collins Music, 2017). More information here.

Other books with useful information:

  • Daunt, S. (ed.) (2012), Music, other Performing Arts and Dyslexia. Bracknell: B.D.A.
  • Oglethorpe, S. (2002), Instrumental music for dyslexics, a teaching handbook. (2nd ed.) London: Whurr Publishers Ltd.
  • Miles, T.R. & Westcombe, J. (eds.) (2001), Music and Dyslexia: Opening New Doors. London: Whurr Publishers Ltd.
  • Miles, T.R., Westcombe, J. & Ditchfield, D. (eds.) (2008), Music and Dyslexia – A Positive Approach. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons Ltd.

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Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a pianist, writer and teacher based in Milton Keynes UK, where he runs Keyquest Music - his successful independent music education business, private teaching practice and creative outlet.

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