“Reading facility is not simply a useful additional skill for a musician to have. It is, in sense, necessary for full membership to the musical community.”

Sight reading has a new found significance for guitarists in the twenty-first century. The expansion of the chamber music repertory, and the inclusion of guitar in tertiary level chamber music courses, has engendered a new level of participation from guitarists in chamber music performance. The tendency of guitarists to be solitary figures has permitted poor sight reading skills to go largely unnoticed; however, with the increasing amount of guitarists participating in chamber music, sight reading deficiencies have become ever more apparent.  The memorization of works plays a large role in the life of a guitarist and the use of memorization can supplant the need to have adequate reading skills on any level, let alone at sight.  The dependency on memorization for solo repertoire can yield many benefits for performers, however, in a chamber music setting memorization prior to rehearsal can render a guitarist inflexible and unresponsive to the type of communication that is inherent in chamber music. The necessity of a well-formed sight-reading skill becomes more apparent as technique and performance standards rise to levels comparable to those of other musicians.  And, as Sloboda argues, development of the sight-reading skill is one of the final steps towards integrating guitarists into the musical community.

Despite the dramatic improvement in most areas of guitar pedagogy there are still several areas that remain undeveloped and desperately in need of attention. Sight reading skills possessed by tertiary level students are at an inadequate level to cope with professional level engagements.  It is a deficiency that affects a guitarist’s life and the instrument’s reputation and there is no reason for the level of sight-reading to remain as low as it currently is.

Sight-reading draws on many subsets of skills that can be grouped under the broad term of musicianship.  Rhythmic knowledge, harmonic analysis, stylistic knowledge, score reading, solfège and aural skills are all utilized in the process of sight reading.

The Harvard Dictionary of Music defines sight reading as:

The performance of a piece of music on seeing it for the first time.  Performing at sight on an instrument requires the ability to grasp the relevant technical skills for execution; this should be accompanied by the skills of the ear as well.  The ability to perform efficiently at sight and the ability to give finished performances of distinction do not necessarily go together, and both sought be among the goals of musical instruction.[2]

It is important to make a distinction between sight-reading and reading music with the intent of learning the work for performance.  The goal of sight-reading can vary, but for the most part, a coherent and approximate reading will serve the purposes of initial rehearsals or obtaining an overview of a piece. Rarely is the goal to reproduce the notated music exactly upon the first reading. These situations do exist, in recording sessions for example, but they are the exception rather than the rule. Contrary to this reality is the desire of many guitarists to play exactly what is notated on the page. This can be one of the biggest hindrances to good sight reading as the resulting process of error-correction disturbs the flow and coherency of the music.  Alternatively, when sight-reading is understood to be a rough approximation of the music, the reader is no longer burdened by trying to create an exact realization of the music.  Within this freedom of musical approximation the reader can remove notes, add notes, manipulate rhythms and vary the music as much as needed in order to create a musical rendition that has fluency, coherence, and intelligibility. In a chamber music setting this approach enhances the ability to play with fluency and continuity, and it allows a group to rehearse and study pieces with efficiency and ease.

Reading music for purposes of performance repertoire has a distinctly different goal than that of sight-reading and is more focused on a far more in-depth study of the printed page with the final goal of a polished and informed interpretation.  The pressure of reading while playing is removed in this situation and more time can be taken to decide on interpretive details, resolving technical issues and analyzing musical elements.

Yet there is a point at which sight reading and reading to learn become very similar.  Several aspects of each activity share similar skill sets and both have goals of a rendition of the music albeit in a different time span. For example, interpreting rhythms, pitches, markings and phrasing are common to both, however, with the memorization process the printed page is used more as a visual guide than explicit instruction.

Why does the problem exist?

Difficulties of the instrument

“To be objective about it, I would say the guitar is more difficult than other instruments because there are more alternatives. So I think one has to face that, it’s not an excuse, it’s a fact. With piano, of course, there is only one place that each note can be played. … I think, on the guitar, first of all, even for individual notes you’ve got alternatives on different strings and you compound that by a factor of two to three to four, any time you’ve got to combine that with other notes. If you have a B and an E on open strings, how many different ways could you play those notes together? … It is more difficult than other instruments, but unfortunately it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it, it is even more reason to do more of it!” – John Williams[3] 

John Williams Quote on Classical Guitar

 

The guitar makes chordal and polyphonic demands comparable to the piano, albeit on a smaller scale. Unlike the piano, however, it does not have a linear arrangement of pitches and there are often multiple places on the fingerboard to play one pitch.  The ability to play one pitch in multiple places makes the process of sight reading on the guitar difficult.  This difficulty provides a convenient excuse for most guitarists not to develop their reading abilities and it has developed into a commonly accepted yet completely unfounded notion that sight reading on guitar is virtually impossible to execute on a comparable level to other instruments.  This ignorance holds back guitarists from an essential skill that can greatly enhance many aspects of their musicianship and is attainable, to a considerable extent, by all.

Lack of involvement with other musicians

The combination of a limited chamber repertoire, an isolationist attitude among guitarists and a poor level of musicianship all point toward the fact that guitarists are rarely forced to sight read in group situations and therefore never develop their skills in the area.  The overwhelming majority of guitarists learn solo repertoire, and only solo repertoire, which encourages the practice of music memorization and therefore reduces the amount of experience reading printed music. An upgrading of the standing of guitarists in the musical community requires a greater expectation of a guitar student to learn repertoire with more efficiency and speed.  Sight-reading abilities enhance many learning processes in music and will promote the continued improvement of classical guitarists’ abilities and the reputation of the instrument itself.

Over-fingering of the repertoire

Both John Williams and Jerry Willard expressed frustration at the amount of over-fingering that occurs in the majority of classical guitar music. Williams is adamant that the over-fingering of scores has led to the poor sight-reading ability of most guitarists.

“The problem with sight reading is we keep on having editions for guitar with too much fingering and if you are seriously studying in college with an idea to becoming professional you have got to get used to reading the music without the fingering. I have been on about guitar fingerings as long as I can remember, about thirty or forty years. Every now and then people say ‘you don’t put enough fingerings in your music’ and I am sorry but it’s already too much, it’s a compromise. … It’s ridiculous and it’s only because we have the framework of everything we do on the so-called ‘classical guitar’ from the nineteenth century. People forget that all those early editions of Sor and Giuliani and Beethoven editions for piano, they were published for amateurs, which is great, the more the better of course, but when we are talking about professional students, at colleges, they have got to learn how to do the business properly”. [4]

Similarly, Willard believes that most guitarists will follow the fingerings in guitar music rather than reading the actual notes.

“You have to get through a sea of fingerings to get through to the notes in guitar music and people will tend to read the fingerings over the notes. They will see a ‘4’ and try to do that fingering rather than just seeing the note and putting it in the most comfortable spot.”

Starting age

Many classical guitarists will have played guitar in a different style before becoming dedicated to the classical style.  Guitar, being one of the most popular instruments in the world, has a kaleidoscope of styles of which very few use standard notation. Because of the lack of standard notation, many skills, such as improvisation and playing by ear, can be highly developed. An interesting parallel that occurs with other instrumentalists is found in Suzuki Method students. With little or no use of notated music, many Suzuki students find difficulty in reading music without having experienced the process in early stages of development. Eventually, these young musicians have to learn to read in order to partake in orchestral and chamber music, which undoubtedly acts as a strong impetus to develop the skill. This integral education that is provided by communal music making is, to a large extent, unavailable to guitarists; they are unable to participate and learn in these settings partly because of the repertoire and partly because the guitarists have not obtained the reading skills to partake.  By the time a guitarist is admitted to a tertiary institution, she/he has not benefited from these important learning experiences and therefore enters with a range of underdeveloped skills.

Education

Poor education is both a cause and a result of the sight reading deficiency in guitar pedagogy. The low expectations of current method books and conservatory courses perpetuates the poor abilities of guitarists to sight-read.  As a result of this education there are few teachers who possess sufficient sight-reading skills to teach others how to read.  This dangerous self-perpetuating circularity has been allowed to exist in universities for far too long and a substantial method and curricular reform is overdue to be incorporated into the conservatory training of a guitarist.  Partly to blame for this gaping oversight in guitar education is the lessened expectation from other musicians i.e. because there are lower expectations from guitarists and other musicians alike, in terms of musicianship, there has been no apparent need to address the blatant reading issue that is particular to guitarists.

Benefits of Good Sight Reading on Classical Guitar

The benefits of good sight-reading

The guitar community has survived, even flourished, in the last decades, and it has done so without a good level of sight reading.  Why, then, is it important to usher in a new level of sight reading in the guitar community?  In fact, due to the dominance of solo repertoire there is seldom a need for sight reading in the professional life of a guitarist so why should it assume an importance equivalent to the practice of technique or repertoire?  These questions are valid, but they are posed with a narrow view of sight reading and its possible functions; the fact that sight-reading is underdeveloped means that guitarists have little choice but to remain in a soloistic mindset.  The inability to read well prohibits quality interaction and participation in an ensemble setting or at the very lest makes the process difficult and drawn out.

Sight-reading has a very helpful effect on a wide range of musical activities; the most obvious being in a first rehearsal or initial reading of a work.  Ensemble rehearsals, studio playing, orchestral rehearsals and accompanying all incorporate the skill of sight-reading. There are, however, numerous benefits that are not as obvious but have as much importance and impact on the musical life of a guitarist.

Teaching

The educational process is enhanced by good sight-reading on the part of both the teacher and the student.  The ability of the teacher to demonstrate a musical passage is dependant on either prior knowledge of the work or the ability to read a passage fluently.  Without an adequate level of reading the teacher loses the vital tool of teaching by example and will have to be more dependant on verbal instruction.  Similarly the student will benefit greatly by being able to play from any point in the score to work on a specific element. All too often in a masterclass setting, a student will be required to play a short passage, and the flow of the lesson is interrupted by the student fumbling through a passage as if it were a completely new piece of music. Williams related his experience in an interview: “Its staggering, I have done classes, summer classes or the odd visiting class that I do and I say ‘play me g# on the fifth string [‘A’ string, 11th fret] and I have got to wait four seconds for them to find it!”[5] If both the teacher and the student attained an adequate level of reading, there would be a more efficient form of communication and therefore a more productive educational experience.

Rehearsing chamber music

“If you can’t sight-read well you are not listening well to the other players in your ensemble. Because you are so busy with what’s on the page you can’t go to the next level, which is listening to what the others are playing.  … and if, if your chamber music partners can tell you are not listening to them, they are going to think poorly of you and probably of guitarists in general. Why? Because they don’t get that many opportunities to play with guitarists so when they do, they are going to make a judgment about all guitarists.” – David Leisner[6]

“When guitarists play chamber music, like the Boccherini quintet, they learn their part from memory and they go along pre-practiced with the kind of fingering they have been practicing at home and their whole attitude is inflexible because they have been practicing like that. They are not used to picking up the notes and the fingering that fit into the sounds that they are listening to.” – John Williams[7]

What David Leisner , Professor of guitar at the Manhattan School of Music, and Williams are referring to here is the degree of inflexibility that guitarists display in a chamber music setting. They lack a sense of spontaneity and the ability to listen to the other musicians, which is a crucial element of ensemble music. To prepare for a rehearsal the guitarist will often learn their part to a point of memorization that renders them unable to react to the spontaneous creation of music that occurs in an ensemble setting. With a more developed sight-reading ability, guitarists would be better equipped to enter chamber groups and work on pieces as an ensemble rather than as an individual.

Learning repertoire

The process of learning new repertoire is made more efficient and facile through good sight reading.  The ability to contextualize phrasing, understand musical meaning and identify stylistic characteristics means that more time can be devoted to musical aspects of the work rather than simply figuring out where the notes lie. Without an adequate level of reading a student is forced to piece together a work slowly, focusing predominantly on playing the correct notes in the correct rhythm. This piecing together of musical units neglects phrasing and large formal structures in favor of an additive note-by-note process. One of the drawbacks of this approach is that the student does not consider the overall musical form or expression of the work and is forced to make interpretive decisions only once the work has become coherent. Far from being efficient, this process neglects musical considerations early on and can lead to mechanical renditions that are devoid of thoughtful interpretation. An adequate level of sight-reading would enable the student to attain an initial overview of the work from which a logical and considered approach to study can be undertaken. With the ability to make musical and interpretive decisions from the onset of a work, the guitarist is likely to produce a more musically aware result.

The definition of sight-reading versus reading to learn becomes blurred in the case of learning repertoire because at a certain point musical memory begins to affect the reading process. In the initial stages of learning, however, and also when isolating passages that lie in the middle of phrases (or other common musical structures) sight reading plays a definitive role in the learning process.

Access to a wider repertoire

“I play a whole lot of Scarlatti sonatas. At some stage I wrote 1 or 2 of them out but for the most part, and this includes a lot of other piano music harpsichord violin, I have never written them out at all. I work it out form the piano score, the violin score, remember it and I am happy to read it again when I need to. I can read through a lot of things very quickly and find out if they are suitable. I can tell at a glance, a couple of pages.” – John Williams[8]

With a large portion of the guitar repertoire being unrecorded and unperformed the only way to explore new areas of the repertoire is to read through them.  With a developed sight reading skill a musician can get an overview of the music and make a decision on whether or not he/she wants to invest time in learning the work.  More often than not new works are disregarded simply because they are unfamiliar and the investment of several hours simply to find out what a piece might sound like is too much of a risk compared to the same time being spent learning familiar repertoire.  Repertoire from other instruments is also made readily available through the skill of sight reading.  The guitar has a long tradition of arranging works intended for other instruments and the arranging process, both in selection of works and the process of transferring to the guitar, is expedited by good reading.  Solving technical problems, finding fingerings and deciding on chord voicings are all directly impacted by the skill of sight reading.


[1] John Sloboda. Exploring the Musical Mind: cognition, emotion, ability, function. Oxford, 2005, Oxford University Press. p5.

[2] The Harvard Dictionary of Music. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press; 4th edition (November 28, 2003

[3] Taken from a phone interview with John Williams, January 29, 2010

[4] Williams interview, Jan 29,2010

[5] Williams interview, Jan 29, 2010

[6] Interview with David Leisner, New York, October 10, 2009

[7] Williams interview, Jan 29, 2010

[8] Williams interview, Jan 29, 2010