Suggestions for help with reading

January 19, 2019, 12:26 PM · My 9yo has the hardest time with music reading. She is currently late Suzuki Book 6 but she can barely read at a Book 1 level, and it is not for lack of trying as she has been working on reading every single day since Book 1. She still struggles to differentiate the lines from each other and often ends up playing a third up or down.

She has a great ear and thus far has used that to get her through, but now she is Principal 2nd in her orchestra and no longer playing the melody most of the time. We are spending hours learning her music, which I would say is only at a Book 3 level, so nowhere near her technical limits. She just can't read it, and so every single time it is like she is seeing it for the first time unless she literally memorizes it phrase by phrase.

She is in tears basically every single day trying to learn it and only has about half of it down. I just don't know how to help her. I have her listen to the recordings and follow along. I have her play it slowly. I play it with her. She plays with the recordings slowed down.

Any suggestions? It's just miserable for her and she is struggling so much.

Replies (23)

January 19, 2019, 12:57 PM · Oh poor thing! I really feel for her - I also really struggled with sight reading, beyond the "normal" kind of struggling. I started piano at age 6, and somehow managed to always get someone to play the piece I needed to learn for me (or get a recording from the library). When I was 14, my piano teacher, mother, and I all discovered that I couldn't read a note! I remember a LOT of tears and hopelessness and confusion as to why it was so hard.

I have thought a lot about this, and will share some of my thoughts in hope that something will be helpful to you and your daughter.

First of all, a clue for myself: I didn't have any trouble reading languages - could read at a very early age, and was always beyond my grade level, so no one ever suspected there was any problem. However, I think this was because I memorized every word I saw, so to speak. Whenever I encountered a word I had NEVER seen before, my brain wouldn't know what to do with it! I would be completely stumped. I think the same was true in music - but in music, the "words" are always changing, the "letters" (notes) were always in different orders. This helped explain to me why it was so difficult.

I also memorized incredibly fast, so I didn't really have to work on my reading skills until much later. Does your daughter memorize quickly? It takes a little longer when it's a harmony part, but I always found that my memory skills kicked in at some point - perhaps have her sing the part? That way it separates the task from the violin, and then, If she plays mostly by ear, she will probably be able to easily play it. Listening to the piece with the score in front really helped, too - it connected sound to written notes. I found it most helpful to listen to a small chunk with the score, and then stop the recording and immediately play it. Otherwise, the sound/sight connection wouldn't be fresh enough.

Finally - I was eventually able to embrace that I have funny ways of thinking about things, things that sound weird to other people or that no one had ever suggested. I figured out how to use those things to my advantage. For example, I have synesthesia, so consciously connecting color or a feeling to sound to written note helped me. (I would think "note on staff (say a d on the a string), third finger, pink...and eventually that connection stuck around and became reliable.)

Ask her if her week or year is a shape in her head, or if she imagines shapes for abstract concepts. I do, and eventually realized I could use this to my advantage. I came to have this grid shape in my head that helped me quickly think "note on page - grid - what position am I in - this finger". This took a while to develop, and I am always trying to add information to this tool in my head. I don't know if that makes sense - I know it's kind of quirky.

But often I see that, when people struggle with one aspect of learning something, it is usually true that they have profound strengths in other ways! And just have to learn how to use those strengths to get by in a world where, for example, we read music from paper.

I hope she can get over this hurdle, and that she can learn ways to help it not be so much of a struggle! I am rooting for her!

January 19, 2019, 1:08 PM · It's not that uncommon! I use these two book series' with my students who are having trouble reading music:

It might help to figure out exactly which part is the disconnect for her- is she not able to identify the note on the staff, or connect it with the note on the violin, or is the rhythm notation throwing her? Or is it just a matter of not being able to do it quickly enough to keep time with the music?

January 19, 2019, 2:52 PM · Anita Kaul -- a lot of what you said resonates. She has an exceptional memory and always tests as gifted, so I don't think there are any learning deficits. However, she has never been able to sound out words well -- I always attributed this to the fact she has a slight speech impediment but perhaps it is because her brain thinks in chunks. She is also a very visual child who draws exceptionally well, so I am guessing her brain works very different than mine.

The one thing we do know is she's slightly nearsighted. It's not enough for glasses according to the doc, but I think it does make it hard for her to see, especially at music stand distance. She also always complains about her eyes watering when she tries to read music.

Julie, she's gone through the I Can Read Music series, as well as all three books of the Adventures in Music Reading Books. She does reasonably well with these, but the first time through is always very slow. She knows which pitch is which on the violin once she figures out which line/space the note is on -- her issue is not being able to distinguish the lines without looking really hard. This slows her down a ton. I think she has perfect pitch or close to it since once she knows which note it is, she knows where it is and if it is right. She just can't tell which line/space it is on very quickly.

She actually does quite well with large print like in I Can Read Music. She also did really well with the large print Avsharian books. But in the "real world" where music is small, she struggles.

January 19, 2019, 3:06 PM · Hmmm.. For practice at home purposes, can you enlarge the music? Then over time, reduce the size until it's standard size? Or possibly some kind of color coding? Either breaking up the sections or highlighting all the Ds pink and the Fs blue?
Edited: January 19, 2019, 3:16 PM · Your description suggests a vision problem and not a note-reading problem. I would strongly consider having her tested for vision convergence issues, which can affect both reading words as well as reading music. (A convergence test is not part of a standard eye exam.)

I would also suggest working with her on getting used to reading patterns / intervals, rather than reading individual notes. For instance, if she sees a scale, her fingers should automatically go to the scale, rather than counting spaces or lines for the individual notes.

Does her reading acuity get better if you use a stand light, especially a stand light with full coverage of the page and a high number of lumens? (I suggest a high-end Aria or Lotus light.)

And would you consider getting her music-reading glasses that she would wear only for playing, that would correct the mild nearsightedness?

Finally, the platinum solution: Scan music, save as PDF, import into ForScore on a large iPad (especially the biggest iPad Pro), turn sideways so the music is at maximum size, use foot pedal to scroll.

January 19, 2019, 3:23 PM · Why not just have the music always copied larger for her? (Well, and what Lydia suggested re. vision convergence tests and glasses and light, etc. :)

The real world does often have to make exceptions for people - and having larger music on a stand during orchestra rehearsals and concerts doesn't feel like a terribly inconvenient one for anyone involved.

January 19, 2019, 3:32 PM · I recommend having her vision tested.
January 19, 2019, 3:51 PM · I would not be surprised if the problem is entirely her vision, as I have significant visual deficits myself (congenital cataracts, esotropia, amblyopia, no binocular vision, no depth perception, can't drive). Because of my issues, she's been seeing the university hospital eye doctor every other year her whole life (with annual dilation and acuity check every single year). But other than her testing around 20/30, they have not picked up anything. I believe they did do a wider range of tests due to my condition. I will say, though, that the root cause of my issues (the congenital cataracts) was not picked up until my 20s, so it is possible she has the same and they have just not progressed to the point they can be seen easily.

I will try some more enlarging and see if that helps. Good light and standing with her face literally next to the stand help too.

The patterning that Lydia referred to also does really help her a lot. I think with second violin harmony parts you get less of the patterning than you would in a melody so that may be contributing to the increased difficulty with the 2nd parts.

January 19, 2019, 5:33 PM · You might also want to consider enlarging her music. Some of the elderly folks I've played with enlarge their music onto big sheets of paper, so it's easier to read.
January 19, 2019, 6:18 PM · It may help to put a small red dot or short line on the center line at its beginning and end to help with tracking. Also writing in more fingerings.
January 19, 2019, 10:29 PM · I definitely agree on enlarging the music, at least for now. This practice is used by many people, including senoirs (as Lydia pointed out), and those with low vision.
January 20, 2019, 1:09 AM · Also, in addition to what Julie suggested about highlighting, do you think it could be helpful to highlight one line to give her some visual guidance?
January 20, 2019, 3:38 AM · Based on what Susan has described so far, i'd agree with Timothy and Katarina; it's worthwhile to try highlighting the centre line to give her some reference.

If this and enlarging sheet music do not help instantly, there is probably more underlying reading issue than Susan realised.

January 20, 2019, 4:08 AM · I would definitely consider vision testing. My son had some odd vision problems which affected his reading - they were sorted out with eye exercises and reading glasses. In the UK the specialists are known as behavioral optometrists - they do tests over and above those done by conventional opticians.
Could she also be dyslexic? I'm not sure how that affects reading music. There may be an overlap with vision problems, so I would probably start with the vision.
January 20, 2019, 10:43 AM · I'm pretty sure she's not dyslexic -- she reads words just fine, though she reads in huge fonts on her Kindle!

I tried her music at 140% and it went a little bit better -- she could actually distinguish between a # and a natural and she only played one note a third off (A instead of F#). I think it is probably at this point a combination between a little bit of visual deficit and her now feeling emotionally overwhelmed and anxious with reading. I'm going to try the highlighting tomorrow and see if that helps at all.

January 20, 2019, 1:07 PM · poor child! "feeling emotionally overwhelmed"?? No wonder- try to make your job to comfort her and give her positive support towards a solvable problem, and she should calm down. It's easier to learn anything when not overwhelmed, because the part of the brain that needs to learn is not in the 'fight or flight' mode. It's also impossible to learn when emotionally overwhelmed, since that overrides the musical part of the brain. No matter what her problem is, and I suspect it's a combination of vision with a large dose of stress, she still has to begin where she is and take all the steps needed. She's not going to get a pair of glasses and skip over what takes a few years to develop. She still has to start where she is and go forward from there at a comfortable pace. Her brain will want to stay in its comfort zone of ear learning, so it will have to be coaxed patiently until the new skill becomes a comfort zone...and the atmosphere around her is perceived by her as being patient, supportive, and non-judgmental.

Once I had a teacher who asked me to buy all the simplest duet books I could find, very basic, and then I wasn't to look at any of them at home. Then at each lesson, he'd play on of the easy duets with me just for the practice sight reading. I wasn't to worry about mistakes, tone, or anything- just do the best I could sight reading it. After each one, we never did it again- as it wouldn't be sight-reading. That really helped both sight-reading and ensemble playing a lot.

January 20, 2019, 7:24 PM · She was OK with it until she started orchestra this year -- I think she gets embarrassed because she struggles so much in the first few rehearsals, even when she practices a ton. Then she tries to practice more at home and makes herself even more anxious.
Edited: January 20, 2019, 7:43 PM · All good suggestions so far. I'm going to take a 90-degree turn here.

Do you have a piano? If so, let her learn to read music THERE whilst teaching herself to play the piano. The mild challenge of learning the piano will buffer the reading challenge. And the reading will not be a source of stress directly on the violin. Seriously -- it would be a secondary instrument that is low-stress, low-expectations, no practice time enforced. What to try playing? I suggest the piano accompaniment book for Violin Suzuki Book 1. She knows all the pieces and can correct herself when she misses a note. When she gets to the point where the melody is no longer in the piano part (start of Book 3) you can move her to some "easy piano" books of pop tunes, Christmas songs, etc. Bonus will be that she learns bass clef too. When you can read piano music (which is polyphonic! and two clefs at once!) at a low level, that will translate to reading violin music (which is mostly not polyphonic) at a higher level.

January 20, 2019, 10:00 PM · My daughter couldn't read music until she started piano so it's worth a try.

Edited: January 21, 2019, 12:37 AM · Both of my suggestions are listed here, but I will add my drop.

Don't worry, almost everything has its solution.

First, the eye test can be good. I remember wearing very bad glasses for years. Many doctors gave me stupid levels of lenses, many times I paid too much for special which did not fit my eyes. Until one great person gave me complete test and revealed my problems with cylindrical deformation (I don't know proper disease names) and my astigmatic problems, it was just little to not be seen by standard check, but big enough to make me trouble. Really good made glasses fixed so many troubles.

The second thing is synesthesia. I am a synesthetic person (greetings Anita :-)). Not classical colour-sound bonding. I have emotions and numbers connected with letters. This is a problem that so many people cannot realize because of the lack of personal experience. We are just a few and it is so specific. My synesthetic recognition gave me problems with math. I see letters and melodies instead of numbers, floating around, I was unable to grasp them. I was working on them, trying to understand the relationships and after all, it helps me to understand deeply and so much. It is great to use it as an advantage. Now I can use it for remembering and I can also quickly find dividers and modulos (the rest after division) from very large numbers and other advantages there is no space to explain here.

I also know a girl, pianist. She can see tones and scales in colours, it is amazing, she hears the music. Sees colours before her eyes and she can write almost everything into notes just by first hearing of the piece. She can also improvise and alter her playing due to this sensation.

You can hardly believe she had the same problem as your daughter 6 years ago.

I think the best way is to try to find her way to interact with music not trying to do mechanical work on it. I think that the piano can help too. And try to think how she can grasp the tones and intervals between them, how she sees them, let her explain. It is more about feelings than normal mechanical reading.

And don't worry. Even when it is not these things, reading notes is hard, for some is very hard, but there are almost zero people, who did not learn if they tried.

A lot of people around think that people with synesthesia have some kind of advantage, it helps us with success or art etc. But it is unfortunately connected with a lot of troubles until you learn to use to sense the world differently from others. The world is not primarily made for us. I almost failed my studies until I find that due to my synesthesia I can be better than others. I am Unix system programmer and I use my skills every day. It helps me find the best solutions very quickly and see the problems (software architecture and models etc) more deeply and from different angles.

January 21, 2019, 8:01 AM · Martin I really enjoyed your post. It is commonly assumed that people with synesthesia will direct their careers to some kind of artistic work. You've reminded the readers here what many scientists also understand, that even "cold" subjects like computer science really have a warm interior that is fertile soil for creativity and different modes of human thought.

None of us can diagnose Susan's daughter. Not even close. My only suggestion is that if she is considering some of these less-common explanations for her daughter's struggles, that she choose her medical specialists with great care and get second opinions. If psychiatrist, for example, then it should be psychiatrist with experience treating patients who are musical, etc.

Susan it sounds like you really love your children tremendously. That doesn't solve every problem but it will likely still be a compelling factor in whatever solution you do find.

January 23, 2019, 1:18 AM · Thank You, Paul. Everything has its own soul and we have to find it. I love all my life doing, my job and my music playing and painting.
January 23, 2019, 9:38 AM · Okay Martin, so I have to ask, do you listen to music while you paint, and is that consideration influenced by your particular flavor of synesthesia? Sorry if that's too personal!

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