Sight Reading on the Classical Guitar

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Sight Reading on the Classical Guitar

 

“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

2016-10-24T00:20:04+00:00 15 Comments

15 Comments

  1. David Schramm May 31, 2014 at 8:35 pm - Reply

    Congrats Dr. Powis!
    Great article. Sight reading is one of the biggest challenges I have teaching my community college students. I’m currently writting a sight reading method for guitar. When I was working on my B.M. and M.A. degrees I would often read through the complete works of Sor, Giuliani, Bach, etc to improve my sight reading. Most guitar students now days don’t want to take the time and force them selves to read. The experience above, by reading through anthologies or complete works, was hard but worth the effort. Now I love to challenge my self by reading everything and anything I can. My teacher, Dr. Ron Purcell, used to tell us stories of how Vahdah Olcott Bickford used to sight read orchestral scores! Now that’s sight reading ! LOL

  2. Adam Fairfax June 18, 2014 at 2:04 am - Reply

    Here Ye, Here Ye,

    I am a new student to guitar (but and ultra enthusiastic one) at the tender age of 40. As a child, I played the organ and trombone and learned to sight read on both instruments with a reasonable level of efficiency. Having said that, I have not played for about 20 years, so am very rusty on reading music.

    I have recently acquired a nice classical guitar (Takamine) and commenced lessons in Sydney with someone who is regarded as a good and well experienced ‘guitar teacher – 30 yrs teaching experience’ however when asking “so when do we start with reading music lessons” the reponse was, “We can do that, but using TAB is so much better, and even the Beatles etc etc did not read music”. I do however want to learn, and recognise that whilst i’m unlikely to play at the Opera House, the nutritional value (my term) of playing guitar music, I believe would be so materially enhanced by proper sight reading that I do find myself somewhat feeling short changed at this important part of my journey.

    My simple questions to Simon, or others reading this post are: 1) can you recommend a classical Guitar teacher in Sydney that teaches using sight reading as a principal method (or an excellent classical coach in their own right), and 2) is there a specific book / source that I should read to learn myself? I have just ordered two great books on-line, one ‘The Everything Reading Music Book; A Step by Step Intriduciton to Understanding Music Notation and Theory’ – Marc Schonbrun, and ‘Music Theory for Guitarists; Everything You Ever Wanted to Know, But Were Afraid to Ask” – Tom Kolb however.

    Any advise / help on these topics would be greatly appareciated, and I am sure be of greaet value to others reading this blog.

    Thanks for a great site too, its excellent.

    Adam
    Sydney

    • Stuart August 23, 2014 at 10:24 pm - Reply

      Adam i want to start learning how to site read can you please give me some recommendation as i do not know where to start
      Stuart

  3. Profile photo of tsedwards43@gmail.com

    I just got started on your level 1 video course, and I’ve been wondering, how in depth will you go to teach sight reading? I’ve been glancing at chords written in sheet music, and even thinking about where to start with those things is overwhelming. Do you have a way to tackle those methodically and incrementally?

  4. Dale February 11, 2015 at 1:39 pm - Reply

    Thanks for a great article. I too, would love to hear more about your sight reading book.

    I have studied guitar on my own on and off for 30 years (more off than on) but have always worked on sight reading. My first guitar book, back in 1978 (I was already 23 then) was a Mel Bay book so I started with the idea that learning guitar meant learning to read music for the guitar.

    I’ve seen many instructors and online sites downplay the importance of sight reading because of what seems to be more political expediency than anything else. They know better but talking about sight reading can get you flamed. I’ve had guitarists flame me in forums, Amazon reviews, etc. when I complain about how hard it is to find practice and educational material today that is not cluttered with tablature.

  5. David Wallace March 6, 2015 at 1:54 am - Reply

    Simon, I have been using your level one course and Allegro Workbook and am enjoying both greatly. However, I have not yet received the invoice for these items.I felt I shold let you know.
    Warm regards,
    David Wallace

  6. Profile photo of OldRuth
    OldRuth March 24, 2015 at 2:29 pm - Reply

    OK reading your articele and these comments I am beginning to differentiate between reading music and sigt reading and I am trying to do multiple things at once from the play along sessions. interestingly my teachers have always corrected me when I make a mistake ‘go back to the beginning,’ so I have not thought about sight reading as it is defined above — more to learn. Clearly I am going to have to do your new course – next month!

    • Profile photo of Simon
      Simon March 26, 2015 at 2:48 am - Reply

      Hey Ruth, it is difficult to change our mindset from “stop and go back to fix the mistake” to “keep on truckin'” but I think it is actually kind of liberating to not worry about mistakes and simply join back in when you can.

  7. Marilynn Stark March 31, 2015 at 10:18 am - Reply

    The concepts so nicely cited in this article by the holder of a PhD whose thesis was on sight reading cause the contemplation of the question of the importance and utiltiy of sight reading to be that much more deeply considered; at least my respect for someone to finally take the bull by the horns as Simon Powis has done and simply corner sight reading on the classical guitar at a high academic level is unabounding even in my relative ignorance. I am only a student of sight reading, and so far I have not been consistent at it across a great period of time. However, I do know how I leaped into the abstract field of music at a higher level with only a small amount of experience in sight reading here at Classicalguitarcorner — the Kuffner duets enlightened me.
    Perhaps I can extrapolate from my personal experience by relating it here so that others may become inspired to pursue sight reading studies — not to mention that the author of this remarkable website has devoted an entire and total effort to making sight reading a more fluid possibility for guitarists, defending an entire thesis for Yale’s PhD program on the topic. That may seem esoteric to a beginner. However, to this beginner, sight reading here at CGC became a rewarding foundation that lent courage to enter into a piece over my head as to technical requirements. I tackled the theory of the notes as they worked throughout the piece, understanding them minutely before I pretended to be able to play them. Notes had become familiar to me through the sight reading; they were now about to fuse with me also in a piece that I loved by Bach. Notes on the score had lost their distance or their seeming mystique somehow, and thus I regarded them as the holders of the key to making music as never before. And there were no tabs in that first piece.
    If one magnifies this example I cursorily offer herein, one can imagine and suppose. Indeed, one can see how a deeper understanding of the instrument, the guitar, is formed when one can sight read music. When one sight reads, one confronts the abstract value of notes on a page as they relate not only to one another in the unified piece being read as fluently as possible, but then also in the bigger picture DYNAMICALLY of what music is like in the practical realm as one is capable of playing it by simply eyeballing its notation. Is this not the fusing of abstract and practical factors that together make the music happen when one sight reads? For if it is, then this is actually how one becomes a musician who is versatile and knowledgeable. One can actually evolve into a more talented musician from a simple supposition that the barrier to being able to play music is conquerable; now imagine the most ultimate level of that reduction of barriers to playing music into joining an ensemble and being capable of working from a page, a score, and combining the notes in front of the eyes with the communal sounds of others such that one fuses into a keel of extemporizing that is yet within the specifics of a pre-fabricated piece being instantaneously translated from the language, the symbolism of music, that all regard or cognize together, in unison,.
    This experience must truly be something to live for. I have experienced the power of being buoyed up as if by the law of mass action the first time I played along with a MusicMinusOne orchestration of a Vivaldi concerto — but I had memorized the piece first. Now if I were to become more and more and even more and way beyond more conversant in the language of music as per sight reading, I can only imagine how soulful the expression of music would become to me — mine and others together whereby the language would be the guiding force and held also in common by the timing at hand.
    From this experience I relate to you, I can interpret what Simon is saying about the power and necessity of learning sight reading for growth as a musician in classical guitar just as other instruments invite that same ability to sight read in those who play them.
    To break open that idea that seems to baffle one who is gifted in sight reading — that is, why in the world do so many guitarists simply ignore the responsibility to learn how to sight read — I have a little window perhaps as well. I have talked with many people who are passionate about playing the guitar although most of them are not classical guitarists, playing acoustic poplular songs or electric metal styles. They have widely related to me that most guitarists do not bother with anything but tabs because tabs work, and the rest is up to the ear. It seems that the facility with tabulature is a huge factor in not working to understanding an actual music score; indeed, it seems to them to be unnecessary and maybe pedagogic. Some few confess that they had once wanted to learn sight reading, but they found that the poplular vernacular is overpoweringly the use of tabs instead, with some saying that the best guitarists use the ear mainly. They do not even concentrate on tabs — they get the gist of the music, play it, and work from a memoriized matrix of a mode or whatever, and just play “from the soul.” I can certainly relate to this. I am most familiar with the typical mindset for NOT regarding musical notation as even important. And if one looks into the history of tabulature even at a glance, one can see also that tabulature is a working world of music unto itself that is held in high regard by many guitarists who play in public in bands, in popular settings as ensembles known as bands.
    I think the difficulty of classical music itself is a vital factor to consider in the matter of setting one’s mind to becoming a guitarist who can sight read. Classical music holds a special quality for its more refined and sophisticated elements, its careful structure. This greater refinement means greater subtleties come into play and place greater demands on the classical guitarist; then over and above that factor and even outside the consideration of being able to share at will by reading a page of music in a dynamically moving sound context — that of an orchestra or chamber group of some size — there lies the almost mysterious knowledge of music that deepens with sight reading. The sight reader simply has a new domain at hand; I know from being on the spot at a musical competition for singing, and out of the clear blue I was required to sight read. I was graded with an A, the highest mark. That experience seemed to develop my inner musician self.
    From the foregoing account, I have offered what I have seen personally in the power of sight reading. However, recently I came back to this discipline from a long study of hallowed pieces in process through memorization. I found that when I had not sight read for months, and I tried a simple measure, I was baffled at how much I had lost. I cannot balance that sense of loss without forgiving my ignorance for the moment as I reset my goals back to sight reading; in fact, because I have gone the route of leaping into active works from having delved into it for a time, I already owe a great deal of growth and realization as a musician to what sight reading I have done. It also comes back quickly if any of you are concerned that you have lost time and have wandered outside the domain of sensible, structured approach to learning as I have. We are ambitious as a genre of players: after all, how many guitarists leave the popular music venue and come over to the beautiful side of ornate classical guitar? More and more do; I grant you that since I have read that fact and believe it to be true. Many would prefer classical, but they are afraid of its difficulty. To shed the fears and to see that pure sound has a source that is order-given allows a player to play from memory and produce awesome works of musicianship. However, there is a difference between driving a car and knowing, say, how to build or work on a car so that it performs well. Similarly, there is a difference between knowing how to play a piece from memory only and knowing how to see a piece perfectly well through symbols — sheer notation on a page like John Williams can — and then learning how to play it. The message, the knowledge, the sheer ways of the music are filled with light to begin with for a sight reader since the language of music as represented on a piece of paper is so minutely interpreted and understood by the knower of sight reading. This kind of proficiency is a mountain, a mountainous goal for one aspiring to become a finer and more refined musician. It is all in the art of music. As music becomes more and more uplifted in a culture, so the soul of the entire culture will shine ever more gloriously forth. Regard an individual classical guitarist who sets an example as the model of perfection to be emulated; then there will be a receptive mind for learning the depths of music that are available if one only surrenders to the sheer possibility.
    I am not the perfect example of one who has unilaterally surrendered to the goal of learning high level sight reading at this point in time; however, I want to be that one still. Each one has an individual path to a common goal — to achieve deeper and deeper realization through and in music. In that sense, I really never let go of the respect for and the goal of sight reading. Saying this here takes a special use of the sword of truth since I feel so humbled unto this study.
    Sing praises for Simon Powis, the educator who set out long ago on a path so new to many if not most of us here; in fact, we learn from him as we do because he reached his goal of becoming a fine, enlightened classical guitarist. That is something to admire and contemplate daily just as one practices daily. As music represents perfection to the ear as it sounds, so should the musician who aspires to play music honor its greatest wealth of perfection such that it could be both heard and understood dynamically in a context of performance upon first acquaintance by sight alone. Does it not seem that such a plane of musicianship would be the highest plane somehow? To achieve that answer from first-hand knowledge is indeed something to which one should aspire. Yet those who extemporize in music only defy reasoning, tearing apart all constructs then again through the power of perfection, trumping the written page and reducing these foregoing words to a challenge once again. This might be simply the reflection of how powerfully pleasing the sound of music no matter its mode of impart: through extemporizing out of nothingness or through studied recognition of the language symbolically represented on paper. This becomes my personal quest: to bridge that gap just described and be at peace with the unchartered source as well as the chartered one, the written page as source and for easy recognition and impart. I have found myself here at Classcialguitarcorner accordingly. Forgive the long-windedness, but this is a matter of dire concern for me — this very topic is central to my contemplations as it is to yours.
    Marilynn

  8. Jack Cotton June 18, 2015 at 2:34 pm - Reply

    Dearest Maestro!

    Thank you so very much for your publishing this article on sight reading. I have always wanted to learn to sight read, and yes, I’ve tried learning the skill many times. But I haven’t been very successful. In fact, I don’t even read the written word very well, so much more difficult is all the notes and lines on the printed page!

    You see, I began playing the guitar in 1973, when I was 8 years old. My parents were very poor and so they couldn’t afford much in the way of an instrument or instructions. My very first guitar was a little nylon-string student guitar that most likely cost less than $20 (to be honest, I have no idea what they paid for it, but can’t imagine it was more than that since they were so poor, and I was the oldest of 5 children; they weren’t going to spend everything on me and let my brothers and sister be left behind with nothing).

    My first lessons were taught to me by grade school teacher who also taught the very basic of acoustic guitar. From her I learned the basic Open chords and some strumming techniques, but no more. To be honest, I don’t even remember how long I “trained” with her, but I do recall that she taught no scales, no arpeggios, no music notation reading, nothing… just a few chords and some strumming.

    Nonetheless, I did practice a lot. More often than not, while other school children were out playing ball in the playground, after school I’d rush home and practice my little guitar. So much so, that many evenings, I would actually fall asleep holding my guitar! I rented some books on sight reading from the local public library, but didn’t get very far.

    Well, I can fast forward a bit. I do recall that after graduating from grade school, I began to study the guitar on my own, without a teacher (although I did have one semester of “classical” guitar during my sophomore year in high school, but again, it was very basic, with practically no sight reading being taught). I went through the usual music maze that most American boys go through—I discovered rock-n-roll and started a band. I played in various rock-n-roll bands through my high school years, and even into my 20’s and 30’s.

    Oh, my musical tastes seemed to change with the passing of the years. From rock-n-roll, I discovered punk rock, then heavy metal… but then I began to “mellow” with age; I discovered country music, then jazz and swing, reggae, the blues, etc., etc. I ran the entire gamut of musical genres! And loved them all. And then, the unspeakable happened!

    About 10 years ago I had a very bad accident and severely damaged my left hand (even to this day the fingers of my left hand are numb from the nerve damage from that accident)! Yes, as you can imagine, this affected my guitar playing in the worst way. To make a long story short, I fell into a deep, dark depression because of not being able to play my guitar. This resulted in losing my job, losing my home, losing my wife, losing my car—and even my dog died! My world was ruined and I didn’t know what to do.

    I eventually sold all of my guitars because having them around was just too painful since I couldn’t play them anymore. My whole life of music was over.

    The depression was very bad. While I never actually attempted suicide, I thought about it constantly. I just wanted to crawl inside a hole and die. And to be completely honest with you, I still feel that way at times.

    However, after 10 years of not playing the guitar, and dealing with this injury, something in me clicked. I can’t really explain it. You see, I’ll turn 50 years old next month (on July 15th); and even though my entire musical life seemed to be over, and all those years wasted, I still have a deep desire to play the guitar—and over this past dark decade of misery, the only thing that kept me going was Nietzsche’s old saying, “That which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” It wasn’t religion, it wasn’t prayer, it wasn’t a belief in anything other than my own intestinal fortitude to continue on and keep going! And so that’s where I’m at right now.

    I’m hoping that the 2nd half of my life will be better than the 1st half, although who can say, right? All I can do is try!

    So yes, I’m on a quest to take back my life, re-invent myself, and re-learn the guitar; but this time around, I want to do it right (ie: by finding a competent teacher and learn sight reading, as well as building up the dexterity in my left hand). Oh, at my age, I lack the interest in “young people’s music” anymore. I don’t even listen to rock-n-roll or country music these days—and haven’t for years. And I even thought to myself more than once, “Well, I do love the blues, so if my left hand won’t cooperate, I can always just pick up a bottleneck and play slide blues!”

    And so I began to browse the internet for free guitar lessons in various musical genres (which is how I found you and your wonderful website). The problem with online studies is that there’s SO much information out there—not all of it good—it’s overwhelming! And I realized right from the start that I needed an actual goal, not just,“Oh, I want to play the guitar again.” My goal had to be not only attainable, but tangible. And so I contemplated on WHICH genre of music I wanted to concentrate on, and why.

    Yes, I have been very honest with myself; I know my limitations. Not only my injured left hand, but my other shortcomings as well. Say, for instance, as I’ve already said, in all my years of playing the guitar, I never learned how to read music notation properly. I know the basics of notation (ie: what a staff is, the names of the lines and spaces, the treble clef, the note time values, sharps and flats, etc), but I can’t really sight-read. I don’t know which notes on the staff correspond to the actual notes on the fret board, etc.

    And so, as I began my journey with brushing up on learning musical notation—as well as trying to decide on a musical genre in which to train, I found a number of classical guitar websites, one of which was yours. Delving back into musical notation, I believe, has led me to contemplating taking up classical guitar studies, albeit much more serious this time around. I do love Mozart and Bach and Beethoven and all of the other legends!

    So here I am, at your doorstep, eager to at least try to learn what I can absorb from your bottomless well of musical talent and wisdom. I do not know how far I can go in my studies, since my hand is as healed as it is going to get (remember, the accident was 10 years ago), and even to this day, my typing has been limited to less than 40 words per minute, when I used to type more 80 words per minute before my accident. So I have no idea how my guitar playing will go. But I am willing to give it my best shot!

    My simple plan is to work through all of your free exercises as best as I can, and then do a self evaluation in about 6 months (and then maybe another self evaluation in a year, if my progress is slow). If, by then, I feel I’ve made good progress, I will sign up to be a paying student (since I can’t afford to throw money away until I am 100% positive that my hand and fingers can do what they’re supposed to do). I hope you understand.

    Perhaps I will merely end up just playing for my own enjoyment, and live out the remainder of my life in hidden seclusion. But then again, if everything falls into place, who can know? If you can work miracles with me (after such an accident and at my advanced age and without playing the guitar for 10 years), maybe I can be an inspiration to others who have experienced such a devastating accident; maybe I can become a professional musician once again? There are so many possibilities in the music industry these days! We’re only limited by our imagination and creativity. I would be quite happy to even be able to obtain an American Musician’s Union card and get a job performing Classical music at local restaurants, or even weddings and such. But that is a long way off, if ever.

    For right now, I’m putting my faith in you, Maestro! Thank you for giving me back my life.

    Musically yours with the utmost respect,
    JC

  9. Roger MORTIMER September 5, 2015 at 2:29 pm - Reply

    Fascinating to read all the comments. I bought my first guitar in Singapore in 1964 when I was 23!! Over the past year I have decided it is about time to do something about this guitar business and began to study the theory of music and the fretboard. I was intruiged to discover that Pythagorus and some other notable Greeks worked out the mathematics of sound and scales 2000 years ago. I began to study the “Maths” of the fretboard and it is surprising, to me, how logical it is; although difficult to use without looking.
    I watched Pedro Soler play a week ago in France when only 10 feet away from him; so now I am hooked on the classical element; and have been for some time.
    Good luck to all……

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