Guitarists: Maximize your Sight-Reading Skills
By Eric Lemieux
A Step-by-Step Guide to Sight-Reading for Students
Where do you actually place your primary focus when you read? On the top, middle or bass parts?
My suggestion is to give more attention to the bass or middle parts, as the melody typically stands out naturally, but this is not an absolute rule. It may depend on the texture of a piece, but if the music is polyphonic, I think it is important to be precise about your main point of focus. There are a few interesting examples in which you need to concentrate on the bass part first. Here, in a short excerpt from the piece,
Canarios, by Gaspar Sanz, we have some fast runs in the upper register, accompanied by open strings in the bass. These runs are easier than they seem at first glance to learn almost by heart, but if I perform them in a reading situation without focusing on the bass, I am flirting with catastrophe. In a case like this, where I have to jump between the bass strings, and even play the third string with the thumb, it is essential that I place my primary focus on the bass, as strange as this may seem.
When reading chords, I advise students to get in the habit of reading the bottom and top voices first, then figuring out the middle parts going from bottom to top. There are often many possible solutions and fingerings for a given chord configuration, and you must do your best to find a workable solution quickly in a given context. Note, in the example above from an Arrangement of a Scottish Air, by David Russell, there is a series of chords in the opening of the piece that I would approach as described above when sight-reading.
A Step-by-Step Guide for Students
Before playing anything, I ask my students to make sure they carefully look at the tempo and time signature and find out the tonality of the piece. If in the music is tonal music, I ask them to look for the scale that fits the key signature and look for melodic patterns that corresponds to that scale. In a second step, I ask them to look rapidly at the rhythmic figures they will encounter on the sheet. Are they simple to understand or very complex? If the complexity of the rhythmic figures is challenging to them, I ask them to concentrate on the rhythm (and only the rhythm) to begin with. Then, when they have worked out the rhythm, we can start the first sight-reading, including the notes in addition to the rhythm. I also ask them to find the basic pulse of the piece (or page) they’re about to read. Sometimes, it’s the quarter note, but at other times, the eighth notes, or another figure, defines the basic pulse of the music. This is particularly relevant in modern or contemporary music. Finding the pulse is essential, and I advise doing so before playing a single note on the instrument. I also strongly recommend to all students that they work on a rhythmic solfège method, separately from the reading of scores, to develop a sense of timing and meter. There is an excellent rhythmic training method listed in the Useful References section at the end of this article.
A Guided Sight-Reading Session
The very first reading should be dedicated to figuring everything out slowly, playing the score from beginning to end for a global first encounter with the piece. This is a time to be receptive and to try to get the general feeling and colour of the music. Also, it is a good time to identify difficult passages.
The second reading is when fingerings may be written in if needed. I advise adding fingerings only when strictly necessary at the particular spots where they are essential to ensuring a flawless performance. Fingerings should be clearly written near the heads of the notes. The goal is for these fingerings to help the performance as much as possible. Avoid at all costs unclear notation or an excessive number of unusual fingerings. If fingerings for a sheet of music are clearly noted in this way, readers will be able to come back to the same sheet of music years later and find their way through the written-in fingerings immediately. If the information added is unclear, it will not be helpful. Instead, I suggest focusing on clarity and precision for a stumble-free performance.
The third reading should be devoted to figuring out remaining details, such as articulations, dynamics and improvements to one’s understanding of the overall structure of the piece, harmonically, melodically and rhythmically.
On the fourth reading, if everything goes smoothly, you will indeed be able to perform the complete piece of music with a measure of fluidity and to attain a very good understanding of the piece, even if you may still need further practice to reach technical perfection. It is up to you to decide if additional readings are needed. If the piece is of a very advanced technical level, it certainly is a good idea to plan for additional readings. If the piece is very easy or at a moderate difficulty level, additional readings may not be necessary. This decision will also depend on the skill-level of the performer; at any rate, as I see it, after four or five initial readings, we’re no longer in the realm of "pure" sight-reading. Too much memory is now involved in the process, and we have entered the second phase, which is the process of practicing a piece of music.
It’s a question of balance. If the piece is really too easy for the performer, only one read-through may be sufficient, but I suggest four readings to work out a piece of music as a general rule. This way, students can work through a lot of material, decide which music they want to add to their repertoire and possibly come back to the piece at hand at a later date.
In summary: the benefits of good sight-reading abilities are enormous. You can learn music faster and play a much broader repertoire. In my case, improved sight-reading abilities have increased my repertoire tenfold. Finally, there is one significant additional effect of good sight-reading ability: performers can develop much better execution of known repertoire by following along with the sheet music. It takes a little bit of practice every day, but the results are very satisfying and well worth the effort. So I encourage you all to devote some time to sight-reading regularly. You’ll be glad you did!
Shearer, Aaron, Classic Guitar Technique, Vol. 1, Warner Bros. Publications, 1959.
Noad, Frederick, The Renaissance Guitar, (The Frederick Noad Guitar Anthology), Ariel Publications, 1974.
Noad , Frederick, The Baroque Guitar (The Frederick Noad Guitar Anthology), Music Sales America, 2000.
Bream, Julian, The Julian Bream Guitar Library Vol.2 The Classical Era. Faber Music Limited, 1981.
Smith Brindle. Reginald, Guitarcosmos 2: Progressive pieces for guitar, Schott & Co. Ltd., London, 1979.
Brouwer, Leo, Oeuvres pour guitare, Eschig, 2006.
Stareer, Robert, Rhythmic Training, MCA Music Publishing, 1969.