Daniel Davenport plays clarinet during a break at Gordon Head middle school. Every note he plays is colour-coded into a unique style of sheet music by music teacher Andrea Blair

Playing with colours: Band teacher re-thinks sheet music

Gordon Head teacher creates special sheet music so band is accessible to all

They say music is a universal language. But processing the visual clutter of sheet music can be too daunting for some.

For 14-year-old Daniel Davenport, it’s nearly undoable. And yet, he’s been playing the clarinet for three years at Gordon Head middle school and is currently piping out notes to the Lord of the Rings movie theme, and trilling away to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera.

It’s all pretty typical for a Grade 8 student, except that Daniel has dyslexia and dysgraphia, meaning he can’t read or write. Not music, and not the English language.

“(Dyslexia) … makes it so (the brain) can’t compute music off a sheet with the (traditional notation),” he says. “The brain just refuses to do anything, like it’s saying, ‘Error, does not compute.’”

Luckily, when Daniel arrived at Gordon Head middle school as a Grade 6 student he was greeted by music teacher Andrea Blair, who was willing to find a solution.

Blair created a new system of sheet music, adhering specifically to Daniel’s needs. And thanks to Blair’s clever work and perseverance, Daniel has had an almost-typical experience as a member of the school band.

“When Daniel wanted to play the clarinet (as a Grade 6 student) and his mom contacted me to say he had learning disabilities, I said ‘We’ll find a way,’” Blair explained.

It took some doing, but Blair eventually found a way.

At first she worked with Daniel to colour-code each of the 12 notes on a chromatic scale, including sharps and flats. It was successful and carried him into his second year of band, but, as the music grew more complicated, Daniel found the colourized notes on the traditional notation was something he just couldn’t process. That’s when, he decided it would be easier to simply do away with the traditional notation and go with colour only.

“When I would play a note, I wouldn’t see it’s position on the staff as the key to knowing which note to play, I’d see the colour,” Daniel said. “I don’t have time to think about the position of each note on the staff. The colour tells me where to put my fingers. When I was able to communicate that to Mrs. Blair, we got to where we are today.”

As a thank you for her dedication to her son, Daniel’s mother, Lesley, has nominated Blair for several awards, including the national canadianfamily.ca Teacher Award (for which she currently sits fourth in voting), and the Black Press Great Teachers award.

“Not only does she (code) the music on her own time, on top of running a band program with over 200 kids, she also meets with Daniel every Wednesday morning for 45 minutes before school to go over things one-on-one,”  Lesley said. “It’s taken years on her part of trying to find a way, of not giving up, to find something his brain can process. And now they have it down.”

There’s still a few things that could be worked out, but for the most part the system is in place, Blair says. The biggest problem is the time it takes to do the colour-coding by hand.

“The next step is to build software that can do this for us, and that others could use,” Blair said.

Knowing Daniel has dyslexia can be deceiving: his articulation is extremely accelerated, as he speaks with the vocabulary of a dedicated graduate student. Thanks to dictation software, he’s a straight A student, a child of the modern technology era.

Still, it was with trepidation when Lesley originally signed Daniel into the band at Gordon Head, as per his request.

“He was set on the clarinet. I was not too sure what to expect. When he was five years old we put him in piano and after two years of being in a great class, and having a great time, he still couldn’t play Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. So we just stopped,” Lesley said.

Now Daniel is an important member of the school band. The other kids notice the sheet music on his stand is different but it’s no big deal.

“And all of this is just to make music an option in his life. (Blair) was willing to make that effort just for one kid she didn’t even know,” Lesley said.

In September Daniel will attend Lambrick Park secondary school where he will continue with band. Blair has already committed to continue colour-coding music for Daniel as long as he’s in band.

reporter@saanichnews.com