Supporting music and other performing arts students at HE

ADSHE conference: June 21st 2012

Paula Bishop-Liebleris anadditional support tutor and assessor supporting students at the Royal Academy of Music, Guildhall School of Music and Drama, Royal College of Music and Dyslexia Teaching Centre and assessing for various HEIs.She is currently completing doctoral research in music and dyslexia within HE.

Sally Dauntis asupport tutor at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts and has worked at the Royal Northern College of Music and other HEIs. She has a background in music teaching at secondary and FE levels. Please feel free to contact her:

Both are members of the British Dyslexia Association Music Committee – as far as we know, the only one of its kind in the world!

Organisational skills

A good first check point: if a student isn’t organised then nothing will work properly. Also, if they’re not organised then they will not be able to take up performing opportunities that may arise.

Organisation for performing artists is even more complex than for non-arts students

  • The ‘constant’ of practice/rehearsal needs to be balanced with academic work
  • Rehearsals/individual lessons change from day to day/week to week
  • Need to remember to take the right equipment – music, strings, reeds, scripts, clothing…
  • The need to timetable in private practice
  • How to organise private practice


  • Create a year table (academic and practical together); a working document that will need to be revised regularly – keep it on the computer. There is no such thing as a normal week for performing artists
  • Create small targets – break down each task with the student
  • Have an observation week – ask them to write down everything that they do in their practice and rehearsals
  • Construct a practice routine – a log or plan: weekly or daily

Written work

Common denominators: essay work. On the whole, whatever the subject matter, support approaches are similar.

Differences occur in:

(a) The giving of examples/analysing music

(b) The use of evaluative techniques for performances

(a)The need to put in musical examples as illustrations of points – is like finding examples from text for almost all students, this involves (i) reading and (ii) memory – the 2 areas that are a common area of weakness for most dyslexic students.

It’s important that students listen to the music and work out how to analyse. Support tutors can help.

Analysing scores requires specific music knowledge but also the learning of rules, similar to learning formulas in science or maths

(b) Evaluation of performance in music, acting or dance is frequently required. Not easy.

Evaluating Dicken’s portrayal of women with special reference to Esther in Bleak House isn’t quite the same. Both require an analysis, but in the evaluation of personal performance, there is a different and difficult element

Personal evaluation

Self-analysis involves

  • Sequencing the series of events (in memory)
  • Finding the right words
  • Not describing but evaluating (all students find this hard)
  • Having to analyse/evaluate in real time – difficult to decide what to look at or note down.


  • Develop a template with the student to fill out in a performance (concert, play etc)
  • Read other critics to understand the kind of things to look for
  • Practice writing an overview then details
  • Get permission to video the event if you can

The notation of text and the notation of music

Difficulties in accessing text are well known, but people don’t think about similar difficulties in accessing music.

Are they similar?

What is the difference between text and music?

Surface similarities between language and music are relatively well established; they both combine “small elements, (phonemes, notes) according to rules (grammars) that allow the generation of unlimited numbers of phrases or utterances that are meaningful’ (Anvari, 2002, p. 112) and it is suggested that, at a behavioural level, they require similar skills (Lamb and Gregory, 1993

However, it is also well documented that music and language are perceptually different (Patel, 2011).

In terms of reading music notation, again there aresurface similarities between music notation and letters. There are also surface similarities between the difficulties that our students have reading text and music; however research is ongoing to understand if there are clear cognitive and neurological links between reading musical notation and text.

In terms of support, what is important is to develop ways to aid our students in overcoming their difficulties with processing.

In terms of the processing needed, music can be more complex than spoken/written language indeed,

‘music performance is [thought to be] … one of the most complex and demanding cognitive challenges that the human mind can undertake’ (Zatorre, Chen and Penhune, 2007).

Relationship between music and text

Some ideas from a presentation by James Hitchins the Disability Coordinator at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance.

His presentation The Problem with Musicis available as a pdf. To access this, contact him

He has created a wonderful image of a piece of text written as if it was a piece of music.

He took the phrase “My name’s James and I’m dyslexic” and applied the following from music

  1. It must be read aloud
  2. It has to be read at a specified time; can’t slow down and pause to gather one’s thoughts; must carry on regardless of mistakes
  3. May have to read many letters at the same time (notes – if you’re a pianist, for ex)
  4. In music a note on a line isn’t constant – it can be flat, sharp or natural (see key sig) so in text might = changing a letter to the one ‘lower’ for flat, so with key sig of 4b ‘M’ will = ‘L’(!)
  5. There are signs telling you to speak loudly or quietly and you need to read these while reading everything else
  6. There are signs giving instructions relating to the emotion you need to use; also need to be read at the same time (so in a text example these might be instructions to touch your eye, chin, nose or head…)
  7. If reading from 2 staves, the bottom stave’s notes are not in the same place as the top stave (treble = B; bass = D); sound quite different
  8. Your audience will often have heard your ‘piece’ lots of times before – and performed really well!

The end result: look at this for 7 seconds (the time it would take to play the piece) and see if you can speak it! It’s a lot to take in!


  • Music can involve (at least) 3 languages at once: the language of musical notation; a language that has to be sung (Latin, Italian, French, German, Russian etc and instructions being given simultaneously in Italian and/or French or German…!!!
  • Written music is full of lines (bar lines; beams) which can exacerbate visual stress (Meares-Irlen) and can cause cogwheeling.

As with best practice in presentation of visual material/text with most dyslexic students, you can consider photocopying on to off-white or coloured paper (this can be legal for teaching purposes, but check).

In the professional (classical) world, musicians (instrumentalists and/or singers) are expected (especially in the UK) to (be able to) sight read a great deal of material; perhaps perform a previously unseen orchestral piece with only 1 or 2 3-hour rehearsals.

Actors also need to sight read text (auditions etc). See on.

So – if students have problems with reading, how does this impact the reading of music with its much greater complexity?

There are many strategies (particularly multi-sensory) that can be adopted with pupils at a relatively early stage in music– see Sheila Oglethorpe’s book, Instrumental Music for Dyslexics and theTeacher Guide to Music and Dyslexia(see reference list) but in HE?

Someone very keen on music & with good ear can go down the non-reading route  popular music etc. But for those who need the skill…

Supporting music students in the reading of music

  • There is a difference between sight reading and reading a piece of music to learn it: different demands and expectations and different strategies. Sight reading is the main difficulty for dyslexic musicians (and actors).
  • Split strategies into 2:

(1)Maximise what you can do today

(2)Integrate the long term development of skills into daily practice

  • Ask the student what their priorities are: i.e. is reading music an important aspect of their work and is sight reading something that they feel is important to focus on?
  • Ask the student what they find difficult about reading music – e.g. integrating everything together quickly enough; rhythm goes when I try to play at speed; my fingers won’t play fast enough…
  • The specialist music support tutor could thencreate a set of strategies for the student based upon breaking down the areas of difficulty such as maintaining a pulse, recognising rhythmic and melodic patterns etc.

For those working with music students without specialist musicknowledge this is probably a good time to see if coordination with their instrumental teacher is possible. A questionnaire can help the instrumental teacher to discuss possible strategies, including questions such as the following questions relating to timing:

Do you have difficulty

Maintaining a pulse

Changing tempo

Reading rhythms

Reading rests

Recognising rhythmic patterns?

(Others can be created covering different musical areas)

Strategies include:

  • Visual – colour the middle line of music to give an anchor for visual processing
  • Use two colours (chosen by the student) for the tonic and dominant in a tonal piece
  • Visually mark the rhythms either with lines or colour for the main beats
  • Suggest that the student look through the piece before they start rather than just starting at the beginning and then getting a shock half way through
  • Long term practice
  • Good sight readers chunk information – practice aspects in isolation (e.g. rhythms, melodic patterns); practice recognising them and being able to play them as patterns.
  • Rhythm fluency and memory practice
  • Sight singing is different in some aspects to instrumental sight reading as there is no fixed key to press etc.

Reasonable adjustments in sight reading

Discuss the possibility of not having to sight-read much in classes until you have improved in private practice and with your teacher. Get the music in advance.

Rhythm is most important - when you do have to sight read try only playing the strong beats in the bar; that way you will be in time which is the most important aspect of sight reading.

Supporting music students in aural work: problems and strategies

  • Short-term memory often difficult
  • Aural dictation
  • Clapping and singing simultaneously – allow time to prepare
  • Mapping between aural and written
  • Responding quickly in written form (similar to analysing performance)

Strategies for how you are going to maximise your efforts in aural tests

Break down the tasks – practice how you are going to approach each task so you don’t panic

e.g. Dictation – split into aspects – e.g. rhythm then melody, practice singing first two bars whilst the music continues, try to isolate two bar phrases.

Long term practice

  • Do work on the piano if you have to do aural work with harmony – learn to recognise harmonic patterns and be able to write them down
  • Kodaly training
  • Lots of listening to music in an active way, make notes and write up short paragraphs about the piece
  • Make a timeline of the main musical features of composers/periods
  • Lots of practice
  • Use of Auralia software
  • Use of websites to support aural (there are many available – use a search engine)

Reasonable adjustments in aural test

  • Extra playings (25% extra playing)
  • Extra time between playings
  • Inclusive assessment protocol – e.g. allow all students to prepare rhythm and singing exercises.

Other areas of difficulty for musicians

  • Co-ordination in playing instruments (violin…) can be difficult but – motivation is key
  • L/R confusion “Play A harmonic minor LH alone…”.So the teacher couldpoint, rather than saying (this can apply in public examinations)
  • Concepts of up and down – ‘up’ on a keyboard is to the R…; higher notes on a cello may require going down the fingerboard…; keyboard music – top = R, bottom = L. So – point and/or use a cardboard keyboard and turn it vertically to demonstrate
  • Beating time (practice!)
  • Playing or singing with a conductor involves looking up and back to the music constantly. Keep you finger/thumb on the page if you’re singing. Otherwise, it’s practice.

Reasonable adjustments in (external) exams

(Music and acting)

Key points

  1. Proof of dyslexia must be obtained well in advance of entry for any examination proof of dyslexia must be obtained; this will usually be a report from an Educational Psychologist, a Specialist Teacher, a SENCO and so on and must be less than 3 years old.
  2. Examiners are informed about the needs of candidates with SpLDs and will make efforts to help.

Music exams

  • Consider different exam boards – which is most suitable?
  • Explore alternatives such as Practical Musicianship.
  • London College of Music popular music theory doesn’t require knowledge of Italian terms.
  • Trinity Guildhall and Rock School exams do not require a music theory qualification for progression to any grade.

The different exam boards differ slightly in their adjustments.

See each board for specific details.

Common features include:

  • Extra time for sight reading
  • Large or modified notation for sight reading, aural or music theory tests
  • Use of tinted paper or use of candidates’ own tinted overlays
  • Replays of scales allowed
  • Allowance for hesitation in responses
  • Additional attempts at aural tests
  • Flexibility over the order of different parts of a practical exam
  • Examiners are asked to speak clearly and not too fast and to repeat information if necessary
  • The use of an amanuensis or scribe in written exams and the use of a separate room

Contact information for different boards

The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music

There are links to information specific to dyslexia.Also contact the Board’s Access Coordinator directly at .

London College of Music

Go to ‘Policies and forms’. You will need to look at the ‘Equality of Opportunity, Reasonable Adjustments and SpecialConsideration’, particularly Section 2.24 for dyslexic and dyspraxic candidates.


See the Reasonable Adjustment and Special Consideration Policy. This policy is available to download from the Rockschool website via and then the Policy.


Also ring: 0845 460 4747.

Trinity Guildhall

Go to Information and Regulations Booklet, then p.7, ‘Requests for Provision for Special Educational Needs’. Also email

Acting exams

Cases are generally considered on an individual basis.

Modified or enlarged print sight reading and written tests

Use of tinted paper

London College of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA)

Trinity College

ContactOlivia Howlett on 020 7820 6165 or email

Further and Higher Education (music and drama)

It is important to check with individual institutions.

There aren'tgenerally any acting 'exams' in the BA/MAs for that discipline. Students are marked on their end of year performances and sometime receive a process mark for the year. There may be a small piece of written work which shows research or something like a reflective journal.

Reasonable adjustments in music usually include

  • Extra time - usually 25% extra, but can be more. Also extra time to prepare for sight reading.
  • Extra playings in aural exams.
  • Other adjustments are usually discussed on a case by case basis.


See forthcoming book to be published by the BDAon music, the performing arts and dyslexia. This includes a chapter on sight reading for actors by Deborah Leveroy, who has contributed the information below.

  • Often only 20 minutes preparation available
  • Important to understand the text
  • Directors aren’t looking for a ‘word perfect’ reading but want to see the choices the actor has made concerning character


  • Get the script as early as possible
  • If you only have (e.g.) 20 mins – find a quiet place (the toilet if necessary!) – particularly somewhere where you can concentrate and read out loud
  • Connect to your breath – breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth
  • Flick through the pages – get an overall picture: how many characters? Dense prose or short dialogue? Don’t focus on individual words
  • Look for clues as to what it’s about – title etc
  • Do you know any other plays by the same author?
  • Are there long sentences – if so you’ll need to think about where to breather
  • What kind of punctuation? This may give clues – e.g. lots of ?or !
  • What can you use of yourself to inform the situation? Make bold choices and stick to them.
  • Mark up ‘gear changes’ (of emotion) in the passage
  • Read it out loud. Don’t get stuck on individual words. Better to guess the meaning or pronunciation and be brave!
  • Memorise the first 3 words of key sections
  • “Hold the script parallel with the floor out in front of you” so that your face can be seen
  • Remember to breathe. Be aware of your body – 2 feet on the floor
  • Use your thumb as a marker so that you don’t lose your place
  • Communicate the sense of the words; don’t say words without thoughts
  • Don’t be afraid to create pauses (but fill them with your character’s thoughts and inner images)
  • If you stumble, don’t apologise; don’t go back and correct
  • In a dialogue – pay attention to the other person’s lines
  • Sell the text
  • Practice all these techniques at home

Other issues for actors include:reading, memory, organisation, concentration and coordination

Learning lines:

See YouTube extract from TV about Kara TointonDon’t Call Me Stupid

Here you see KT working with Claire Salter using her weak area (writing out lines endlessly) – so use metacognition & tutor can help to discern student’s best learning style; try different approaches – have the courage to ditch things (as Kara did).