My patient piano teacher, the distinguished international pianist Patrick Hemmerle, thinks that my own problems with learning have helped me professionally. I'm sure he's right. My difficulties, first with handwriting and later with geometry, which involved making hard work of things that are very simple if you understand them, helped me to see both the frustrations of people who find reading and writing difficult, and the need for clear explanation and practice on points that can be taken for granted by people to whom learning comes easily.
Reading and spelling in alphabetic writing systems are based on a correspondence between sounds and letters, beginning with one letter corresponding to one sound, as in cat, red, etc. On the piano, a basic C scale is played with one finger at a time on adjacent notes - with the left hand, you play the first five notes in a row, beginning with your little finger. Play a wrong note, and you lose the harmonic links in the sequence. Play a note with the wrong finger, and you risk not having a finger free to play the next note. In both cases, you lose the music.
Returning to the Gilbert and Sullivan tune I posted on over Christmas, I found that the beginning depended on my playing an D below an F, not with the third finger, that falls naturally, but with the fourth, which involves a slight stretch. Make the stretch, and the introduction flows pleasantly. Use the natural finger, and you don't have a finger free to play one of the notes later on. The score is marked with the figure 4 below the note, but it doesn't say "Make sure you play the note with this finger, otherwise you won't be able to complete the run". It just says, 4, and we should be grateful even for that. Professional orchestral musicians, to whom these variations are second nature, have told me they find it annoying when other players have put pencil markings on scores, as it interferes with their thinking as they play.
My 13 year old pupil yesterday morning had missed a lesson on severe weather. I asked him to write this down, and he wrote sevire wether. In the first word, he had used the wrong group of letters - ire rather than ere - perhaps thinking of the i in machine - and in the second, he needed to use an extra letter to make the voice or vowel group, ea. The word as he has written it is phonically regular and accurate, and indeed a word in its own right (it is a castrated sheep). To spell both words, he needs to know the variation on the straight sound-letter correspondence that he must use in their context - severe, for example, does not use the same group as auctioneer. In music, the correct finger most of the time becomes the wrong finger for Sullivan's tune. Play a Bflat in stead of a B, or indeed a B where you need a Bflat, and you have a similar problem with discord.
In both music and spelling, fluency depends on automatic recognition of variations from the original pattern, which become instinctive with practice. If you have to stop to work them out each time, it takes attention away from saying what you mean, or from playing the tune. On balance, it seems the music is more dificult, as far fewer people manage to do it. The underlying mental processes are, though, very similar, and my pupil is not being helped at school as he is not doing enough writing to give him the practice he needs. This is a national problem. Writing is avoided because pupils find it difficult - and so many never learn to write.