Dyslexia and the Music Student

It all started with a student who could play beautifully and read music well. Yet even though her ability was grade four and her sight -reading excellent, she played badly in front of others. Her frustration was very distressing to me as a teacher. Endless support and encouragement helped but did not improve her performing consistently. Over the next few months I noticed a pattern in her sudden loss of ability. They happened when she was a little under the weather, had masses of homework or perhaps had an upset with a friend or family member.

She played it beautifully

A comment from a friend led me to see if there was any problem with her possibly being dyslexic. I ordered some colored overlays and waited rather sceptically for her next lesson. It was a bad day, concentration was low and she had had a row with her mother over some school shoes. We struggled through a bit of sight-reading practice and then I tried out the colored overlays one color at a time. Some made it worse and some made it a little easier. Then I put the yellow one over the music. She played it beautifully! We tried several more pieces and to the astonishment of both of us the improvement was without a doubt obvious.

Ages range from eight to seventy two

Since this success I have tried colored overlays with all my students who stumble and are frustrated by their lack of progress and I am amazed by the results. Over one third of my students have improved enormously with the sheets for both piano and sight singing. Their ages range from eight to seventy two. It has also improved the reading of several students including three of the “over sixties” who had previously blamed their opticians for wrongly prescribed reading glasses for when they read through an overlay they have no problem at all.

Colored overlays have been a godsend

These colored overlays have been a godsend for many of my students who have felt, in their own words “discouraged, stupid, useless and moronic”. They have turned several into excellent sight—readers who previously went into a panic at the mention of “sight-reading”. Somehow the colors soothe the eyes and help to calm the student. Even the experts on dyslexia cannot explain how they work. I can only say that they do work and do so very dramatically. The colour of the sheet is not the same for every student. Some are better with green, others with red or blue. I’ve found the most popular color is yellow but the student knows straight away. “lt’s like your headache just went away” is a common comment.

Self worth

A student’s self worth is enormously important. If we want emotional performances from them they need to be self assured and happy with themselves. These sheets have given back to several students that great spark of enthusiasm for music and even more importantly for singers the gift of “1 can look at myself in a mirror".

Incidentally the theory office of the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music is also very supportive of dyslexic candidates. They are happy to provide candidates with papers printed on A3 paper and to print on pastel shades or to allow candidates to use overlays during examinations.

Why as teachers should we go to the expense and bother? Their schools don’t. But the rewards are great. To watch a student change from a head down slouch to an upright confident strut says it all! 
Lynn Cocup

(Published 2009 in the journal of the Association of Teachers of Singing)

Additional note. This article is published as it was written, by a non-specialist who made the common association between Irlen syndrome and Dyslexia. Although the two are often co-occurring, they are distinct and separate conditions. Not all dyslexics have Irlen Syndrome, and therefore would not benefit from using a colored overlay; and not everyone who benefits from a colored overlay is dyslexic. (Bob Hext)