Mention the word “sight-reading” to almost any guitarist and there’s often a knee-jerk reaction of apprehension. It’s not that every guitarist can’t read music, of course (although I’m sure a fair number can’t, though they may be amazing players), it’s that the ones who do, in fact, read standard sheet notation aren’t really known for that particular skill.
And it is a skill.
It’s also part of the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM) exam syllabus.
ABRSM, based in London, England, is the exam body for four schools: the Royal Academy of Music, the Royal College of Music, the Royal Northern College of Music, and the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. And the ABRSM also has set worldwide standards in music. Founded in 1889, its core activity is graded exams, assessments, and diplomas. Since WWII, the number of overseas exam applications (outside of the UK) has grown so much that every year over 650,000 candidates take exams in more than 90 countries.
Where I live, in the Caribbean nation of Trinidad, theory exams occur twice annually, and there’s a practical exam once every year, usually between March and April. An examiner is sent from England for the practical—every year a new person, mostly qualified pianists, violin players, cellists, and the odd guitarist.
The practical exam for the early guitar student grades (1–8) consists of four sections: a recital in which the student must play three pieces from a recommended list and a number of selected scales and arpeggios, from which the examiner will ask for just a few. There’s sight-reading, where you’ve got 30 seconds to look over the piece and then attempt it—usually around 12–24 bars of new music. And, lastly, there’s an aural section, divided into melodic memory, identifying particular cadences, singing the upper and lower parts of a two- or three-part harmony, and finally discussing a period piece. The student has the option to do the pieces, scales, or sight-reading section first. For practical exams, grades 6 and up, a pass in grade 5 theory must also be attained. The exam is usually completed in 20 minutes.
The advanced levels (for aspiring professional musicians)—DipABRSM (the equivalent of a higher-learning certificate), LRSM (BA in music), and FRSM (master’s)—are, not surprisingly, even more intense, with the recitals being 35, 40, and 60 minutes, respectively. Pieces must be chosen from at least two periods: Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and Modern. There are no scales and arpeggios and no aural section. However, there is an essay that must be written about all the pieces chosen—why you chose them, who were the composers, and distinct features of each piece. And then there’s the “Quick Study” (sight-reading section)—a full page, approximately 24–36 bars of never-before-seen music. You get five minutes to prepare, and away you go. Play.
The only way to get better at sight-reading is to practice it constantly, like everything else.
In Trinidad, the exams are usually held at various schools or at the University of West Indies North Campus (Faculty of Creative and Festive Arts). I’ve been taking the boards’ practical exams since 2010. My guitar teacher, Graham Newling (Associate of the Royal College of Music), has been instrumental (pun intended) in helping me improve my technique and getting me up to scratch for the exams. But whereas scales, arpeggios, pieces, and even the aural section were eventually mastered, what eluded me for years was the sight-reading.
His advice is always this: The only way to get better at sight-reading is to practice it constantly, like everything else. Any first viewing of an unfamiliar piece was good sight-reading practice. Of course, it’s understood that the student already has a good sense of rhythm and timing, can read music fairly proficiently, and has a good working knowledge of the fretboard.
Graham is right, and in all honesty, sight-reading is something I have avoided. In my own rehearsal space, I would leave sight-reading for last, a couple days a week for about ten minutes at a time. It was a mental block mostly, because I already knew how to read music and my knowledge of the fretboard was improving, but when a new piece of music was put in front of me I would freeze.
For grades 6–8 in years past, I failed the sight-reading section miserably, but I passed the overall exam because I mastered all the scales, arpeggios, and the three required pieces for the recital, and I also got good marks in the aural section. So I breathed a sigh of relief every time. This sort of blind, foolish luck would eventually run out on me.
Here I was preparing for my DipABRSM exam in April 2014. I had spent so much time working on all of the ten pieces for the exam and writing the essay that I neglected sight-reading terribly. The day of the exam, I stuttered like an old car trying to get over an insurmountable hill when it came to the Quick Study. I panicked, even though I attempted to play the piece in the five minutes given for preparation. Before I knew it, time was up, I hadn’t played through the entire sheet of music, and I had to begin. I vaguely remember starting and stopping a number of times. I made many fingering errors and most of the chords were wrong.
I left the exam embarrassed.
The examiner tried to give a sympathetic nod afterwards—I didn’t even shake his hand. Whereas I had gotten over my nervousness during the recital, and I spoke with a fair amount of confidence regarding my essay, I made a complete disaster of the Quick Study section. “Well,” I thought, “maybe it wasn’t that bad.”
At least I hoped.
I left and waited till July, when the results came out. What I didn’t know was that all three sections of these higher grades must be passed. It turned out I failed that section of the exam, thereby failing the entire diploma. Two years spent preparing, and the one thing I overlooked was the thing that got me.
British guitarist Gary Ryan demonstrates one of the current Grade 8 pieces:
I would have to wait an entire year to re-take the exam. However, I was given the option to just take the Quick Study portion again, and that’s what I did. I spent almost a year sight-reading every chance I got, sometimes twice a day, two to three hours at a time. I got a much better understanding of time signatures, key signatures, and various rhythmic patterns. I bought any book I could get my hands on—of particular help was Guitar Sight-Reading 2, by John Kember and Martin Beech. I read pieces by famous composers and was getting better.
Still, I found that I was taking too long to get a piece sounding coherent, sometimes well over ten minutes, and in the exam I would only have five minutes to give it my best shot, so I really needed to improve my ability to read quickly. I was still stumbling and stuttering on certain bars during my own lessons. It wasn’t until the final class before the exam that I realized what I was doing wrong.
Being well-prepared and practicing sight-reading daily helps, but this must be combined with the right technique to immediately get focused and begin the piece for Quick Study.
So on the day of the exam this year—April 22—I applied these few tips:
Breathed slowly, trying to calm my nervousness and settled down to the task at hand
Immediately determined the key and time signature
Scanned the piece for any particular rhythmic patterns and unusual phrases
Tried various positions on the neck to see what made sense
Didn’t focus too much on any particular bar, but attempted the piece as quickly as possible. It is imperative to “read ahead” till the end of the piece.
In no time at all I was practicing the piece, even ran through it twice before the exam officially started. At this higher-grade level, everything is digitally recorded and deliberated by a jury panel back in England. The examiner makes his own observations and notes, but the final result is decided by all the adjudicators.
The only unfortunate thing was that I made a few silly mistakes when I performed the piece—mistakes I had not made during my practice attempts—but I didn’t stop or try to fix my errors, I just kept playing.
The exam piece was allegretto, A major, in cut time (2/2)—mainly harmonic intervals interspersed with single-note passages, quarter notes, and eighth notes. I’m not sure if it was a piece by a recognized composer or if it was written specifically for the exam. It might’ve been a little bit easier than last year’s piece, but what definitely helped was being better prepared and having a concrete plan of action that I followed.
At this writing, I am waiting again for the results.
Hopefully I’ve passed the Quick Study and in so doing, I’ll attain my DipABRSM. [Editor’s note: He passed!]
What’s next? LRSM, of course. I’ve already started sourcing pieces for the recital. Bach, Sor, Villa-Lobos, and Dowland.
You see, when it comes to sight-reading, you will never catch the entire gist of the piece all at once. The trick is to make it through to the end and start again. It’s only through conscious repetition that things start to make sense as a whole. I believe the brain sort of catches up to speed after a while, but if you start/stop/restart, constantly second guess yourself, and try to figure out every bar, then you’re only making things harder, and you’ll be wasting precious time. And in this exam, time is a precious commodity.
Sight-reading is not a test of endurance, but a test of speed—mental speed to understand a new piece as quickly as possible. It’s not a marathon, but a sprint to the finish. And to do that sprint properly, you’ve got to read all the way to the finish line.
So, my fellow guitarist, when it comes to sight-reading, glance at your new piece quickly, and go. Begin!
Francesco Emmanuel is a classically trained guitarist and teacher who also loves the electric guitar. When he’s not composing for film and TV in Trinidad, he’s touring with the Canadian world-beat group Kobo Town.
This article was originally published in the Fall 2015 issue of Classical Guitar magazine.
The issue also features Roland Dyens, Manuel Molina, a special focus on guitar education, news, reviews (CDs, sheet music, and live concerts), and much more.