Here’s a subject I’m asked about quite a lot. Everybody would like to be at least a little better at sight-reading – for learning new pieces more quickly, reading duos with friends for fun, and overcoming the bad rap on guitarists as readers! Also, many music schools now require some reading as part of entrance auditions.

So while I don’t really have a comprehensive system worked out for improving SR in every way, there are a few pointers that I’d like to run by you.

Practice it!

Make it a regular and separate part of your practice. As with most things that need improvement, a few minutes daily is better than an occasional 3-hour blow-out.

Pick the right material.

If you have trouble counting rhythms, don’t try reading the 2nd movement of the Aranjuez or Carter’s “Changes”. Go for stuff which you have a decent chance of being able to get through without having to stop every few beats to figure out some chord with a lot of accidentals in 8th position. I like to use big collections of easy pieces by the 19th century boys, Carulli, Sor et al. Also good, especially if you’re having trouble with multi-part music, are flute or violin methods; fake books or other collections of music with vocal parts (Beatles songbooks, “Christmas with Ozzie Osborne”, etc.) or one of my favorites, collections of Appalachian or Celtic tunes for fiddle or mandolin. Just look through the “Bargains” section in your music shop and find what you can – the main thing is Quantity.

Scan, man!

Be sure to give the piece a once-over before diving in. Key/time sig, unusual rhythms (dotted notes, triplets), accidentals, positions shifts – take it all in before you begin so you don’t get caught by surprise. Some quick and basic analysis can help too – look for recurring melodic or rhythmic patterns, repeats of phrases, cadences and key changes.

Go slow, don’t stop.

This is real important: try to get in the habit of playing through without stopping. This will of course mean that you’ve got to pick a tempo that works. After scanning the piece, decide on a tempo, try it, if its not working slow down but do not stop altogether. If you have to stop often the piece is probably too hard at this time. Using a metronome can be helpful to not only push you through the tricky bits but also to keep you from speeding up when things get easy and then having to stop when the going gets rough.

Read it and move on.

It’s important to keep getting fresh images of unfamiliar material passing in front of your eyes. Usually after reading something through the first time, you gain some familiarity with it so on subsequent re-reads you’re starting to employ a tiny bit of memorization. Better to get something fresh to look at and recognize abstractly. However, if you read through a few pages of short pieces and come back to look at the same pieces the next day, that probably counts as new material. So you can recycle this stuff to a certain extent.

Use your eyes more effectively.

It’s like driving a car – you’re taught to look further down the road, not at the road directly in front of you. And when reading music, most of us have a habit of looking at what we’re playing rather than looking ahead to see what’s coming up. I use a simple exercise in my lessons to show people how this works: Start with something very easy: some single-line melodic stuff from the ensemble pieces at the back of Noad’s “Solo Guitar Playing”; some easy 2-part pieces by Sor or similar material. After taking a quick scan of the piece, noting meter, tempo, key etc., I’ll count off a measure for free and just before the student begins playing, I’ll hold a piece of paper – an index card works well – over the first measure. Hopefully the student has already taken in the first few notes, so they begin playing and as they continue through the piece, I keep sliding the card along the page covering up the measure they’re actually playing, forcing their eyes to move ahead to the next measure to gather in new info. It usually takes a few tries to get used to this but most people begin to adapt pretty quickly and comfortably and I can begin to move the card ahead of them even further. It’s really a great technique – if you can find someone to move the card for you. Otherwise, try it without the card – forcing your eyes to move at least one measure ahead.

Practice in upper positions.

Take some of those easy melodies that fit so nicely in 1st position and try them in 5th or higher positions.

There are also a number of books/methods out there that deal with SR specifically. If anyone has a favorite book or another technique they’ve had success with, I’d love to hear about it. Post it to the FingerTips section of the GSI Forum.

Till next time.

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