The Absolute Beginner Guitarist’s Guide to Sight-Reading
By Simon Wynberg
Sight-reading music is a skill unto itself. There are fine guitar players who are appalling readers, and mediocre players who are exceptional readers. The primary aim of sight-reading is to enable musicians to familiarise themselves with a piece of music, without actually having to learn it. To use a visual analogy, it is a polaroid picture rather than a considered portrait. It is a useful skill and, for most practising musicians, an indispensable one.
Just as a prose reader takes in words and sentences, musical sight-reading requires the player to absorb more than one or two notes at a time. The eye should be scanning ahead rather than proceeding at the same rate as the fingers. A clarinetist I knew could take in an entire line of complex music at a glance (eight to ten bars). While he was playing line one he would be scanning line two. He had time to reflect on the phrasing, articulation and dynamics he would use as well as to identify any musical or rhythmic problems. It is important that one is conscious of these two processes: the physical (playing) process and the mental (reading) process. It matters not if in the beginning the two are running practically simultaneously. It is important that the musician knows they have to be prized apart. Take a look at Ex. 1.
Here, on the third beat of the second bar the repeated C changes to an A. More experienced readers will have noticed that change as they began to play the example. They would probably have taken in the changes in bar three as well. Less experienced readers would notice the changes later: the first change to the A perhaps one note before they played it, the rhythmic change in bar three, perhaps only as they arrived at it. The essential principle in all sight-reading involves mental preparation ahead of the physical act; allowing oneself time to prepare for change, be it a simple change, as in the above example (from C to A), or a complicated six note chordal shift from one end of the fretboard to the other. The principle remains the same.
In Ex. 2, bar two is identical to bar one. Realising this even as late as bar two will give you more time to think about and process bar three. You will have gained a few crucial seconds.
So far, I have only dealt with very straightforward sight-reading examples. But before I proceed to the more complex variety, remember that it is not necessary to practise sight-reading with the guitar. After all, sight-reading involves two main elements: rhythm and pitch. Recognising rhythmic groups and cells can be done away from the instrument, on a bus, in the pub, anywhere. Take a piece of music with you and tap out the rhythms to yourself; try to write out rhythms when you hear them.
Ex. 3 is more difficult to absorb. Some guitarists will find it less of a challenge than others, some may find it no challenge at all. I am using it merely to demonstrate how reading a difficult passage need not be an act of “do or die.” The scenario is as follows: you are accompanying a very experienced sight-reader, a flautist for argument’s sake, and are reading through repertoire perhaps with the aim of finding some pieces to learn. A bar like the above crops up and you know you are going to have difficulty with it. The worst solution is to stop and apologise. Another solution is to bumble through as best you can and try to avoid playing too many wrong notes or skipping any beats.
But the best approach (failing a note-perfect rendering) is to have a plan for altering the text so that it is playable. One way to do this is to play the first note of each group (the circled notes) or even the first and third note of each group (both the circled and the squared notes). Whichever of the two solutions you choose, keep the pulse constant in your heads so you don’t get lost. This is the practical solution to a sight-reading problem. It may not sound ideal, but it does maintain a musical and reading flow and that is crucial.
It is the overview of the piece that is important at this stage. You may be ignorant of the meaning of a few words when you read a novel but it is still possible to enjoy and understand it. The unknown words, like the problem musical passage, can always be investigated later. Similarly, when you are sight-reading a problematic passage there is often little or no time to make subtle decisions about right- and left-hand fingering.
A similar method can be used for sight-reading chords. In Ex. 4 the bass remains an A, save for the penultimate chord. If you find the chords are just too intimidating to tackle at sight, then you always have the option of restricting yourself to the bass line. However, if you are bolder you may want to try adding the top line. It may sound thin but you are already (with only two parts) providing a pretty good hint as to the actual harmony. If you are even bolder you may want to add the second line as well.
The same principle can also be applied to sections of music that you find rhythmically difficult. Once again, it is better to leave out a tricky rhythmic figure or even an entire bar than to jeopardise the proceedings by trying and failing. Practising this principle when you read through solo guitar music is as beneficial. Decide before you start whether you are going to permit yourself to stop in order to work out the tricky sections, or whether you will try to read through the piece keeping strict time.
This article originally appeared in the January 1991 issue of Classical Guitar.