From the Fall 2017 issue of Classical Guitar | BY ALAN RINEHART
Are you a good musical sight reader? By what standard? Ideally, a guitarist should be a confident enough reader to play chamber music comfortably, happily explore new repertoire and—especially for teachers—assess fingering at sight and be able to make changes to assist your students.
One of the most fundamental aspects of life is competition. Whether for food, a mate, or territory (the source of food and mates), competition drives activity. Humans also have the added capacity to compare with other humans and make improvements to better their competitive chances. Tightening the focus to the playing of a musical instrument, particularly the classical guitar, we have objective means for comparison: accuracy of playing of the notes and rhythms, speed of playing the same, academic understanding (historical or compositional practice), and subjective means: artistic quality, tone, dynamics, and the subject of this piece—musical literacy.
Judging sight-reading ability is problematic. What are the criteria? “Cold-reading” skill (essential for studio work, ensemble playing, or tests in school exams)? Comfortably playing a piece from beginning to end for enjoyment or research, as one would read a book? Improving sight-reading starts with the confidence developed by seeing clear advancement.
Guitarists are generally thought of as poor readers, either by themselves or by other instrumentalists. Reading notation on the guitar is a complex process, with the reader having to think and process music vertically (harmony) and horizontally (melody), as well as dealing with many situations where a note occurs in multiple places on the fingerboard. The obvious solution to this is reading as much music you can, but that does not necessarily lead to having confidence in your reading ability. I’ve known many fine guitarists who read well but don’t consider themselves good sight-readers. This is likely a result of reading practice where there is no gauge of progress.
With other aspects of playing, we have measures by which we can clearly see improvement. A metronome will help us maintain tempo, gain rhythmic accuracy, and achieve a goal, such as the required speed of technical tests. Written fingerings can guide us in following a method/style of playing (guide fingers, glissandos, arpeggio patterns etc.).
Score reading, however, is usually done out of some sort of necessity, such as learning a new piece for your repertoire or at the instruction of a teacher (often undertaken reluctantly), being presented with a part in an ensemble (“I hope I can keep up and not make a fool of myself”), or a sight-reading example in a test. The result of such reading may be successful, but it does not help give the reader a sense of improvement in reading skill.
The simple method described below will help you gauge your progress, sharpen your reading at any level, and open the door to the joy of exploring new music and playing with other musicians with greater confidence.
My experience with reading scores was not unusual. I was attracted to the classical guitar by hearing music played by someone—in my case Narciso Yepes playing Fantasia 10 by Spanish Renaissance composer Alonso Mudarra. Trying to learn Fantasia by ear led to finding a score and stumbling through the painful process of finding notes in strange places on the guitar. That led to listening to more music, being attracted to pieces, finding the score, etc. Curiosity led to acquiring a large stack of various scores that I then chopped and hacked my way through until the reading felt more comfortable. Many lessons, concerts, master classes, and chamber music sessions later, I felt that I had a pretty good handle on reading.
Then, after enrolling in an intensive lute study course in London, I was faced with learning to read German lute tablature in a very short time. I had already become fairly proficient with Italian tab, and was also pretty fluent with French/English tab, but I had almost totally avoided German tab, which is as close as we get to musical notation in a completely different system. Without going into detail, the fact that a blind organist developed it may give you an idea of the task. Out of necessity, I used a version of the method described below to gain a basic German tab reading skill—with success!
Moving forward five years, I faced a similar dilemma. I was hired to help develop a guitar performance program at the University of British Columbia and I was introduced to an incoming student who had a problem: He was a proficient guitarist in other styles, had passed his audition playing from memory, and his general reading skills were sufficient to do the written-theory entrance exams. However, it became quickly apparent that his actual reading skill on the guitar was very elementary—at best! How was he going to cope with the demands of a four-year intensive study program? I adapted my German tab experience and found that the same approach worked beautifully to help my student gain the confidence and skill to finish his studies with much less stress.
Improving your sight-reading needs a few things to make it work.
- A maximum of 10–15 minutes of sight-reading practice day. This is essential: True sight-reading—the reading of totally new music for the first time—is arguably the most mentally taxing and tiring activity. You need to be totally focussed, present, and alert. As with technical practice, short, attentive, and intense work bears great fruit. If you wish to browse scores later, that’s fine—this practice is about sharpening your sight-reading skill and developing a way to gauge progress.
- A supply of reading material that is not overly advanced for your current comfortable reading skill, and ideally a mixture of music from different periods in different keys. The Bridges graded repertoire series from the Royal Conservatory of Music is an excellent example. You need enough music that it takes at least several days to read through.
- A determination to be a better, relaxed music reader!
Though it seems a bit rigid at first, this is not a performance! It is not about learning new pieces. This is a focussed, disciplined practice aimed at seeing clear improvement of a specific skill.
- Set a time limit for the exercise: 5/10/15 minutes. Stay aware of time and don’t go over!
- Have a collection of 20-plus pieces ready. For example, you could use the Grade 2 Bridges book, which contains 56 pieces.
- Start with the first piece in the book. Look it over before starting, then count yourself in and begin. Avoid looking at your hands as you play. If you stall completely, stop, breathe, regroup, and pick up where you left off.
- Do not repeat notes or passages to “get it right.” It is very important to keep your eyes and awareness moving—if you can only play half the notes correctly, you are 50 percent correct! (Be patient!)
- If there is a repeat sign or da capo in the music, feel free to do it; otherwise, when you finish a piece, go to the next piece.
- Continue until the 5/10/15 minutes are over—remember, don’t exceed your time limit.
- At the next session, start where you left off, wherever that was. As soon as you see the time is over, stop. That is where you start the next session and continue until you reach the end of the book—you should have done at least 20 pieces; that way, when you return to the first piece, it is almost like a completely new piece.
- Go through the entire book again, noticing anything that seems more familiar or comfortable (you may get 75 percent of the notes instead of 50 percent). You should start to see patterns and positions that you may have missed on the first pass through the book.
- After reading through the book twice, go to a new book and repeat the process.
IMPORTANT THINGS TO REMEMBER
- Speed is not a factor. Continuity and smoothness are the goals. Keep your eyes moving!
- Counting rhythm is an important part of this process. Try to keep your rhythm as accurate as possible, especially with slow notes—count and hold them for their full value.
- Comfortable score-reading, including performance details, and regular consulting of the score leads to a much more reliable and flexible memorization of a work.
Here are some variations on the method that can be done anywhere and that become useful practice and teaching tools:
Primary Practice rhythm only; pitch only; harmony only; single voices in a more complex texture
Secondary Practice dynamics; articulation (including slurs); fingering (left alone, right alone, together)
Pattern recognition Work on seeing arpeggios, chords, and sequences as “words,” instead of seeing individual notes as “letters”
Some strengths and weakness of tablature
- By nature, tablature reflects fingering for the left hand and can contain right-hand fingering as well.
- Tablature is not pitch-related. Using tablature makes transposing and learning to read new tunings (i.e. DADGAD, or open chord) unnecessary.
- Used traditionally, tablature was simpler and cheaper to print (numbers or letters rather than more abstract symbols) and takes up much less space on the page than pitch notation, as there is no need for ledger lines or the rhythmic spacing needed to make pitch notation more readable; a real consideration when paper was expensive. This is the complete opposite of modern books that are printed in pitch notation with tab underneath. These books are very cumbersome, with far too many page turns for even short pieces, and they discourage use of the pitch notation.
- Tablature does not reflect voice leading, an essential element in contrapuntal music—that is left to the understanding of the player.
- Other instruments do not use tablature—a player showing up to a chamber rehearsal or studio recording who has to depend on tablature is inviting scorn from the other musicians.
- Tablature has its place, but is not a substitute for musical literacy.
Many hours, a large stack of scores, a natural curiosity, and the needs of a roster of students can eventually lead one to have a reasonable musical literacy, but very few people can say they have unlimited time to spend pursuing the development of a skill. Helping a student to use time effectively and economically is a key element of good teaching. It is my sincere wish that this controlled approach to sight reading development will be an efficient tool in helping anyone to be a better, more relaxed, and confident musician, happily exploring the wonderfully large and varied literature of our instrument.
Alan Rinehart helped develop the guitar performance program at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, where he was a faculty member from 1983 to 2003. He is a founding member of the Vancouver Guitar Quartet. His latest recording, Verdi’s Guitar, will be released on the Ravello label in September. More information about his musical work can be found at alanrinehart.com. This is an adaptation of an August 2016 lecture given as part of the Classical GuitarFest West at Mount Royal University in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. For more, go to his website.
Below, Alan Rinehart plays John Smith’s Alman by John Dowland: