Composing with Dyslexia: Part I

Updated: Dec 7, 2020

How can dyslexia have long-term effects on creative thinking patterns and mental health?

For many years, I have wrestled with the challenges of studying in the competitive environment of high school and university. I constantly felt the necessity of putting more than the average amount of effort in to school and university work – just to keep up with the progression of my class/course mates. I produced mountains of notes in the desperate attempt to record as much information as possible, as my thought process was too slow to fully comprehend what I was being taught verbally. I would go over these notes and reformulate them in a million different ways until I felt more or less confident that I’d understood them. When preparing for my flute grade examinations I relied heavily on motor memory, which helped me to conceal my slow reading skills and comprehension of musical grammar (this did not help with sight reading of course).

In fact, I have, over the years inadvertently developed coping mechanisms to avoid the laborious process of reading and writing altogether - finding new ways to record my ideas. Some of these methods included the use of colours, shapes, sketches or diagrams.

Fig. 1 Sketch mapping the development of my latest composition 'Rainy Thoughts'

Fig 2. Using golden proportions to map out the tonal plan of my composition 'Rainy Thoughts'

In the planning process the visual abstracitification of musical principles is an effective way of recording ideas for future reference. Nevertheless, a large amount of confusion may arise from this habit if used as a 'short hand' notation of concrete musical concepts. It can become an obstacle in the communication of ideas, making it difficult to seek help when needed. In addition, the ambiguous notation of the musical narrative can get in the way of them reaching a true state of realisation.

Fig. 3 From 'Rainy Thoughts'; using letters and figures to represent change over time.

Frequently, I would return to my notes with little or no understanding of my original thought process. After a fruitless struggle to make sense of the nebulous map of ideas that I’d written in one of my impulsive bursts of inspiration, I would then start from scratch, finding new ways to record my ideas and starting the vicious cycle over again.

When performed, the music I’d composed would often take on a life of its’ own, contorting in to a chaotic amalgamation of misconstrued interpretations. Considering my abstract mode of presentation, this should not have come as a surprise to me, and it is only understandable that the work I submitted was often dismissed as unfocused or ill-defined.

At the time, I could not understand how this was the case. Everything had seemed so clear to me. Possessed by a multitude of musical metaphors, I assumed that the work I'd so carefully devised in my head would translate on to my manuscript and unfold as the externalised portrayal of my thoughts. I soon came to realise how wrong I was!

Fig. 4. Sketches of ‘August’; a reed quintet which explores the interaction and layering of different timbres.

Repeatedly, I experienced a sense of failure when submitting work that was so considerably lower than the standard of presentation expected from Masters students. It became clear to me that the principles I explored in the world of colour and shape quite simply do not serve to convey concrete ideas when entirely divorced of conventional methods of communication.

Over the years, I developed a number of coping mechanisms that helped me to stay motivated. I've learnt to work around learning difficulties I’d always attributed to my own inferior intelligence and it wasn’t until I completed a dyslexia test at university that I discovered the root of the problem. My diagnosis was very mild. Nevertheless, looking back on my studies, I came to realise how profoundly this condition has affected my life.

Most significantly, I developed very low self- esteem. I lost confidence in my ability to express the challenges I faced, and I struggled to identify what was troubling me in the first place. The pressure I felt to follow the explanation of those who tried to help me would make it impossible for me to concentrate.

On these occasions, I felt ashamed and was too embarrassed to admit that I had not understood. I soon learnt to avoid asking technical questions which would reveal my inability to grasp concepts at the normal rate of comprehension. The pressure to get things right, to conceal my incompetence in understanding what people were telling me, or to keep up with what was going on around me has built up over the years, eventually bringing on long periods of insomnia and recurring panic attacks.