Sight reading is an important skill that should be developed from an early stage. In level 1, we are beginners, and so we will approach sight reading with a realistic set of goals, and aim to build some good fundamentals.
Sight reading on the classical guitar has a bit of a fear factor. People seem to think that it is rather impossible, or at least more difficult that other instruments. These misconceptions are completely untrue, and I should know because I wrote my doctoral dissertation on the subject! The main issue with guitarists and sight reading is that we don’t do it enough. If you put in a consistent effort and give yourself realistic goals, you will find that sight reading is not only possible but quite fun and incredibly useful.
At level 1 you want to be thinking about playing in time, and hitting the right notes as much as you can. The rhythm of a piece is far, far more important than the pitches, so I want you to train from the very start to keep going along with the pulse and forgetting about any mistakes that may have been made. Why is the rhythm so important? Well, if you are playing with other people, a wrong pitch will sound bad for a moment, but getting out of time will mean that the entire piece is off.
Here are some points that you need to focus on before you start reading through a passage.
- What key is the piece in?
- What is the time signature?
- What is the tempo marking, and what is a good tempo to sight read the piece?
- Who is the composer, and what style is this piece in?
- Are there any repeat signs or markings? If so map out where you need to go.
These basic points might seem obvious to you right now, but I can tell you from experience that under pressure, simple things like checking the key signature go out the window and you might end up playing several wrong notes just because you forgot this fundamental aspect.
After you have checked these basics now start looking at the music itself. Here are some secondary check points:
- What position is the music in? Does it change, and are there any shifts that come up?
- Identify any complex harmony or rhythm and take a moment to figure it out.
- Look at any expression markings. Dynamics, accents, phrase marks and slurs.
One of the most important factors that will make or break your reading is the tempo. The most accomplished reader cannot read complex works at a fast pace, and the most basic reader can probably tackle big works if it is slowed down to a snails pace. So, decide on a slow, realistic tempo that will allow you to read through the piece without stopping. The best way to find this slow tempo is to identify perhaps the most difficult passage in the piece and see how slow you will have to play to read that passage with relative ease. Start counting in your head, or out loud to feel the tempo and sing through some of the notes just to get an idea of the sound.
This all might sound laborious to start off with, but remember that you are building up fundamentals for a very important skill. Over time you will get faster and more confident.
The point of sight reading
This is another thing that seems to make people stumble. The point of sight reading is not to be able to read a concerto in the first sitting. It is not to play a piece as if it were concert ready, that takes weeks, months, and years of work. Rather, the point of sight reading is to get a good approximation of what the work sounds like. It might be in an ensemble setting with other musicians, or trying out new music, or even in a lesson when your teacher asks you to read an exercise. Good sight reading will enhance your overall experience with music, and it is worth putting in a sustained effort to develop the skill.
Materials to improve your reading.
- A great place to start is violin or flute music. It is often just one line and doesn’t have any guitar fingerings.
- Simple guitar pieces
- Ensemble works. Duos trios and quartets.
- Try the Kuffner duets I have on this site for free!
In summary, be realistic about your sight reading goals at this stage, and try to tackle tasks that are within your reach. Small, incremental achievements are often the best, as they create a solid foundation and keep us feeling satisfied with progress. Good luck!
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Read a detailed overview about sight reading