Sight Reading on the Classical Guitar – Part 3

Sight Reading on the Classical Guitar

by Simon Powis

Part 3

The benefits of good sight-reading

The guitar community has survived, even flourished, in the last decades, and it has done so without a good level of sight reading.  Why, then, is it important to usher in a new level of sight reading in the guitar community?  In fact, due to the dominance of solo repertoire there is seldom a need for sight reading in the professional life of a guitarist so why should it assume an importance equivalent to the practice of technique or repertoire?  These questions are valid, but they are posed with a narrow view of sight reading and its possible functions; the fact that sight-reading is underdeveloped means that guitarists have little choice but to remain in a soloistic mindset.  The inability to read well prohibits quality interaction and participation in an ensemble setting or at the very lest makes the process difficult and drawn out.

Sight-reading has a very helpful effect on a wide range of musical activities; the most obvious being in a first rehearsal or initial reading of a work.  Ensemble rehearsals, studio playing, orchestral rehearsals and accompanying all incorporate the skill of sight-reading. There are, however, numerous benefits that are not as obvious but have as much importance and impact on the musical life of a guitarist.


The educational process is enhanced by good sight-reading on the part of both the teacher and the student.  The ability of the teacher to demonstrate a musical passage is dependant on either prior knowledge of the work or the ability to read a passage fluently.  Without an adequate level of reading the teacher loses the vital tool of teaching by example and will have to be more dependant on verbal instruction.  Similarly the student will benefit greatly by being able to play from any point in the score to work on a specific element. All too often in a masterclass setting, a student will be required to play a short passage, and the flow of the lesson is interrupted by the student fumbling through a passage as if it were a completely new piece of music. Williams related his experience in an interview: “Its staggering, I have done classes, summer classes or the odd visiting class that I do and I say ‘play me g# on the fifth string [‘A’ string, 11th fret] and I have got to wait four seconds for them to find it!”[1] If both the teacher and the student attained an adequate level of reading, there would be a more efficient form of communication and therefore a more productive educational experience.

Rehearsing chamber music

“If you can’t sight-read well you are not listening well to the other players in your ensemble. Because you are so busy with what’s on the page you can’t go to the next level, which is listening to what the others are playing.  … and if, if your chamber music partners can tell you are not listening to them, they are going to think poorly of you and probably of guitarists in general. Why? Because they don’t get that many opportunities to play with guitarists so when they do, they are going to make a judgment about all guitarists.” – David Leisner[2]

“When guitarists play chamber music, like the Boccherini quintet, they learn their part from memory and they go along pre-practiced with the kind of fingering they have been practicing at home and their whole attitude is inflexible because they have been practicing like that. They are not used to picking up the notes and the fingering that fit into the sounds that they are listening to.” – John Williams[3]

What David Leisner , Professor of guitar at the Manhattan School of Music, and Williams are referring to here is the degree of inflexibility that guitarists display in a chamber music setting. They lack a sense of spontaneity and the ability to listen to the other musicians, which is a crucial element of ensemble music. To prepare for a rehearsal the guitarist will often learn their part to a point of memorization that renders them unable to react to the spontaneous creation of music that occurs in an ensemble setting. With a more developed sight-reading ability, guitarists would be better equipped to enter chamber groups and work on pieces as an ensemble rather than as an individual.

Learning repertoire

The process of learning new repertoire is made more efficient and facile through good sight reading.  The ability to contextualize phrasing, understand musical meaning and identify stylistic characteristics means that more time can be devoted to musical aspects of the work rather than simply figuring out where the notes lie. Without an adequate level of reading a student is forced to piece together a work slowly, focusing predominantly on playing the correct notes in the correct rhythm. This piecing together of musical units neglects phrasing and large formal structures in favor of an additive note-by-note process. One of the drawbacks of this approach is that the student does not consider the overall musical form or expression of the work and is forced to make interpretive decisions only once the work has become coherent. Far from being efficient, this process neglects musical considerations early on and can lead to mechanical renditions that are devoid of thoughtful interpretation. An adequate level of sight-reading would enable the student to attain an initial overview of the work from which a logical and considered approach to study can be undertaken. With the ability to make musical and interpretive decisions from the onset of a work, the guitarist is likely to produce a more musically aware result.

The definition of sight-reading versus reading to learn becomes blurred in the case of learning repertoire because at a certain point musical memory begins to affect the reading process. In the initial stages of learning, however, and also when isolating passages that lie in the middle of phrases (or other common musical structures) sight reading plays a definitive role in the learning process.

Access to a wider repertoire

“I play a whole lot of Scarlatti sonatas. At some stage I wrote 1 or 2 of them out but for the most part, and this includes a lot of other piano music harpsichord violin, I have never written them out at all. I work it out form the piano score, the violin score, remember it and I am happy to read it again when I need to. I can read through a lot of things very quickly and find out if they are suitable. I can tell at a glance, a couple of pages.” – John Williams[4]

With a large portion of the guitar repertoire being unrecorded and unperformed the only way to explore new areas of the repertoire is to read through them.  With a developed sight reading skill a musician can get an overview of the music and make a decision on whether or not he/she wants to invest time in learning the work.  More often than not new works are disregarded simply because they are unfamiliar and the investment of several hours simply to find out what a piece might sound like is too much of a risk compared to the same time being spent learning familiar repertoire.  Repertoire from other instruments is also made readily available through the skill of sight reading.  The guitar has a long tradition of arranging works intended for other instruments and the arranging process, both in selection of works and the process of transferring to the guitar, is expedited by good reading.  Solving technical problems, finding fingerings and deciding on chord voicings are all directly impacted by the skill of sight reading.

[1] Williams interview, Jan 29, 2010

[2] Interview with David Leisner, New York, October 10, 2009

[3] Williams interview, Jan 29, 2010

[4] Williams interview, Jan 29, 2010

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1 Response

  1. Stephen Bonner says:

    Excellent article, sorry to say that I see myself!

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