Sight Reading on the Classical Guitar – Part 1

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.”[1]

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.

[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

You may also like...


1 Response

  1. DanS says:

    Nice article, Simon. I’m going to share the link with others. Dan

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Loading Facebook Comments ...