Guitarists: Maximize your Sight-Reading Skills
By Eric Lemieux
Let’s face it: the guitar is not an easy instrument when it comes to mastering sight-reading. If we compare the reading abilities of guitarists to those of other instrumentalists, such as violinists or keyboardists, guitarists are, generally speaking, poor readers.
This is simply a fact. There are many reasons for this: one of them is that there are so many different positions on the neck where we can play the same notes, and there is no clear reading position or tradition established as is the case for the violin family. In addition, we need to keep in mind that the guitar is a transposed instrument. Notes sound an octave lower than written, causing some great reading difficulties in the upper register of the instrument because we have to add so many ledger lines on top of the staff. No wonder there has always been a parallel tradition of writing in tablatures for this instrument. However, despite everything, I believe there are ways we can improve our reading abilities on the guitar and become better-trained musicians.
A while ago, I returned to the discipline of doing a little bit of plain sight-reading every day with some fresh new scores. After only a few days of this practice, I noticed a positive change in the way I read scores that I have been performing for years when I actually read the notes. All I did was to add five to ten minutes of pure sight-reading to my regular practice session. Five minutes at the beginning of the session and five minutes at the end. By "pure" sight-reading, I mean reading an absolutely fresh, new score that I never have read before. After the mental effort of reading the sheet of music, I am better prepared to cope with a score that is already familiar to me, and I sense that my reading is more accurate. I remember that in my very best years of practice, I spent up to an hour a day doing this sort of pure sight-reading. But in recent years, due to lack of time and perhaps a little laziness, I have not devoted as much practice time purely to sight-reading.
As a result, my brain grew somewhat lazy. I now acknowledge this. By returning to this discipline to some extent, I am gaining more awareness, quicker response and more precision in my execution of the musical score. Also, I have realized that it is not enough just to read scores as part of lessons with students or when practicing existing repertoire. It is essential to read at least a small amount of new material that takes you to the edge of your abilities every single day in order to maintain very effective reading capability.
Reading, like playing, is a skill. The best exercise, I find, is to read music that contains a variety of unusual chords and fingering positions that are high on the neck. I read these pieces very slowly, taking the time to work everything out in detail. In subsequent parts of this article, it will be my pleasure to give readers the very best tips for reading, according to what I have discovered in my practice over the years.
Sight-Reading tips I give to my students
-Position the score so that it is easily readable.
I tell my students to place the stand on the same side as the neck, at a height that allows them to look to the neck without turning their head. In a concert situation, the stand may be placed in a lower position so that the audience is able to see the performer.
- Practice Tai Chi for the eyes.
I suggest developing a discipline of the eyes whereby the eyes are in motion more than the head. The eyes have to regain their ability to be in movement and to reach the notes at any angle needed without turning the head. I call this Tai Chi for the eyes.
-The principle of a 90:10 ratio.
I advise my students to keep a ratio of 90:10. By this I mean that 90% of their attention should be on the score and 10% on the guitar’s neck. Let’s face it, as guitarists, we have to look at the neck at some point for precision of playing and clear articulation. However, I stress with my students that they should look at the neck for only the briefest instant, then return to the score as quickly as possible. I also tell them to train their eyes to jump back to the exact spot where they left the score. This practice will help them to develop good habits and the ability to stay focused, so they are less likely to completely lose track of where they are on a sheet during a performance. I have realized that it is important to teach this aspect of reading at the beginner’s level to avoid developing poor reading habits that can dog players for life if left unchecked.
- The imaginary pencil.
Here’s a good exercise for children. I point to notes with a pencil as they read, following the music as they go along. Then I ask them to imagine the pencil as they read when I’m no longer there. This works 100% of the time, and the results are tremendous and immediate.
- Vary the levels of difficulty and style.
I also suggest to my students to vary the style and difficulty levels of their reading materials. A practice reading session should include a little bit of music from every level, from easy to intermediate to advanced. This will broaden their spectrum and provide maximum benefit.
- Always read with a fresh mind.
When students have worked on reading a piece until it can be played almost (but not quite) by heart, my advice to them is to continue to approach the music as if they were reading it for the first time. I advise students to always read with the same awareness and attentiveness that they brought to their very first sight-reading of a piece. This is why I find it so important to read a few new scores every day. It trains students to maintain that fresh attitude of discovery with scores that have become quite familiar to them (but that cannot yet be performed by heart). With time, their sight-reading abilities will develop and, with greater ability, the acquisition of new repertoire will be easier and faster. When students have a piece at their fingertips (which, let it be said, is a big step beyond knowing it by heart), then and only then is it time to let go of the score entirely. In my view, the worst-case scenario for an instrumentalist approaching a performance is to be on the borderline between reading the piece and playing it from memory. In a moment of uncertainty, performers can lose their sense of where they are in the score altogether, with catastrophic results on the performance. This is why it is so important to be able to clearly identify when we are able to play a piece from memory and when we must rely on the score, and to develop good reading habits from the very beginning. For my part, I always know exactly which piece I am going to play by memory and which I will perform using sheet music—from beginning to end—during a performance.
- Read ahead.
Over the years, and with experience, readers may develop the ability to look ahead a few notes, or even a full measure, as they read, giving them much more freedom, control and mastery of expression as they perform the written score.
Another advantage of good sight-reading proficiency is that it broadens the repertoire of performable materials considerably. In my experience, there is a limited amount of music I can perform by heart. In fact, I maintain the same ratio of 90:10 regarding the percentage of music I play by reading a score and the percentage of music I have at my fingertips. I read the score during a performance on 90% of the music I perform and play only 10% by heart. In this way I am able to draw on a much wider repertoire.
End of part 1