Piano Lessons and Learning Difficulties

This article is not purely about ‘learning difficulties’ in the way the label is commonly applied (i.e. to people categorised as having an actual disability or disorder): I am extending its application to more general difficulties in learning.

My experience of teaching children with identifiable ‘learning difficulties’ is very limited and I certainly don’t claim to be an ‘expert’ in assessing how any specific physical or mental problems can affect a student’s ability to learn piano.

I have taught two pupils with Irlen Syndrome (which is not actually categorised as a ‘learning difficulty’ – although one of these children also has a form of dyslexia which is) one child with Asperger’s and – more recently – one with either dyspraxia or autism (the parents have been told she may have either or both of these conditions).

The other difficulties which I’ve experienced – and which I’m going to write about here – are more general hindrances which can affect any pupil of any age.

Irlen Syndrome

The first boy I taught with Irlen Syndrome had been identified as having the condition at a relatively young age and within two or three months of starting piano lessons. His mother explained it to me as, although I had heard of Irlen’s, I had never taught anyone known to have it.

Irlen Syndrome – which affects 12-15% of the population – is the name give to problems caused by the way the brain interprets visual information. The child had been having difficulties reading at school so had been given various tests and it was discovered that he read better when a blue filter was placed over the text. He subsequently brought a blue overlay to place in front of his music and said this helped him to follow the notes. As I had not been teaching him for long – and because we were still at the very early stages where children often struggle in any case – I was unable to perceive much difference when he started using the overlay – although he did seem happier and was gaining confidence.

With another child, the situation was very different. I taught this girl – who I’ll call Golden Girl (the reason for this name will become apparent soon) – from the age of seven. Just before her first lesson, her mother took me aside and explained that her daughter’s school was concerned that Golden Girl was very behind in her literacy lessons. Her mother was understandably anxious to defend her child and assured me that she was not lacking in intelligence.

Alphabet Struggle

After the first lesson, I was happily able to confirm this. Golden Girl seemed a very bright, communicative girl and I was hopeful that she’d pick up piano skills without too much difficulty. However, it became apparent fairly early on that Golden Girl was struggling with her alphabet.

The first thing I noticed was that she confused bs and ds’. This is actually a relatively common mistake at that age – the advice given is to imagine the word ‘bed’ which, when written out, has straight ‘edges’ giving the appearance of the object it refers to … obviously if the letters were reversed or drawn back to front this would not work. Similarly, with the letters ‘c’ and ‘d’ when pupils are confused as to their alphabetical order or order on the piano keyboard, I suggest they think of a ‘cd player’ and imagine the letters written out reading correctly from left to right on the keys … some take this further and actually write on their keyboards which I strongly discourage.

Golden Girl was also unable to name notes going down the scale (i.e. backwards in the alphabet) and found it very difficult to pick out notes on the piano. It’s surprising how many learners struggle when I say: ‘play me a high E’ or ‘show me a low B’ and in some cases can only manage to do so by counting forwards or backwards from C. Unfortunately, for Golden Girl even this was not really an option.


After about 18 months, her mother mentioned that Golden Girl was slightly dyslexic – whether or not this had actually been confirmed by the school or by an independent assessor I don’t know. In any case, I wasn’t particularly surprised.

A few years later, when Golden Girl was nearly 13, she told me she’d been given a grey overlay in school to help her reading but said this actually made matters worse. It was another four months before she was finally given thorough tests which identified her as suffering from mild dyslexia along with Irlen’s Syndrome which could be helped by the use of a gold filter (hence the name I’ve given her). In addition to the overlay given, her mother also ordered glasses with gold filtered lenses which are another, probably more practical, solution to the problem.

It was around this time that Golden Girl was due to take her Grade 3 ABRSM exam. She had succeeded with grades 1 and 2 – although with a great deal of nail-biting (from both herself and her teacher). The advantage now was that I was able to inform the examination board of her condition and special measures were taken.

I found the ABRSM very helpful in guiding me through this. I described Golden Girl’s problems and was advised to send a letter to the exam board, along with supporting documents from a doctor and/or educational professional and to enter code ‘N’ when I filled in my entry form. (This code denotes an extra time allowance as well as the use of large notation for the sight-reading exercise). Golden Girl’s Grade 3 result was significantly higher than results for the previous two exams.

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