The art of sight reading

Sight reading. Striking fear into the hearts of classical guitarists the length and breadth of the country, nay the world, since time immemorial. Which is a little bit silly really. They’re just notes after all. I’ll bet you won’t go up in flames if you, dare I say it, play a wrong note!

Why do we sight read?

Well, it’s an extremely useful skill to have if playing with others – sometimes we may be called on to read through a brand new piece or part. Being able to do that without saying something along the lines of “errrr, well, I, errrrr…… Sugar” or words to that effect is a very useful thing. Your fellow musicians will probably appreciate it too!

Sight reading is a useful skills in itself to practice and cultivate as it tests your fingerboard geography, tests your ability to think and play on your feet and strengthens your recognition of scale and chord patterns. All of these mean that, even if you hardly ever, or never, find yourself in a position playing with others or being called upon to play something at short notice, the skill of sight reading makes learning a brand new piece much quicker and easier.

It’s also a very useful skills for would-be teachers out there…..You’ve got to be able to play and demonstrate something your students are learning, right?

How do we sight read?

So rationally we know that they’re only notes on a page and we know that nothing bad is going to happen to us. So why does it bother some guitarists so?

There are a number of reasons for this and all are highly variable person to person. The reasons could be:

* Insecurity and lack of confidence in your own abilities

* Worrying that you’ll play a wrong note or five

* Worrying what your teacher or others listening will think

* Worrying that you’re not good enough

The list could probably go on, but those are usually the main culprits.

I’m sure it comes as no surprise to you when I say that worrying never did anyone any good, especially when it comes to playing music, sight reading or otherwise. If you focus on “problem” and “difficulty” and “I’m no good at this” then what are you likely to be getting for yourself? Problem, difficulty and being “no good”?

What if, when sight reading, you could relinquish that need to be perfect (of which there is no such thing anyway…..) and play to your strengths (pun absolutely intended)? What might happen then?

My top ten tips for sight reading are:

  1. Take your time – don’t just dive in to the music straight away. Breathe. Look over the music first.
  2. Take note of time signature and any changes.
  3. Take note of key signature, any modulations and accidentals.
  4. Take note of starting position and any movements around the fretboard.
  5. Take note of the intended pace of the music and play as slowly as may be appropriately acceptable for the style and comfortable for you.
  6. When reading music that has been edited with fingering, if the fingering is potentially confusing to you on a first sight read through go with the notes rather where the editing might be directing to play a note.
  7. When you start playing DON’T STOP! No “oops”, no going back to “fix” a wrong note, no stopping to check if that was really supposed to be a B flat or whatever.
  8. Rhythmic pulse is the same as the heartbeat of the music – without it it’s dead! Keep the sense of the pulse and the music flowing along wrong notes or not.
  9. After pulse, maintain the sense of the rhythm, so take time to tap out the rhythm before you start playing to make sure you’re comfortable with what it is. Notice if there are any unusual rhythms in the music and tap those out first too.
  10. It’s a skill and like any other skill the more you practice it, the easier it becomes.

Don’t be afraid. They’re only notes đŸ™‚


7 thoughts on “The art of sight reading

  1. I enjoyed reading this post a lot. I’m actually experimenting with breaking down the sight reading process into it’s most basic parts so that I can put it back together in a more functional manner. I plan on writing a series of posts about it as I go along. As I’m coming from the perspective of a pianist, perhaps I can run my ideas by you to see how they work from the perspective of classical guitar?

  2. Dear Nicole,
    I enjoyed your post, very useful.
    I also wanted to add, I am not sure if you are aware about the “SightRead4Guitar” app for iPad which is for classical guitarists.
    Together with the daily practice following the tips you mentioned, this app helps students to train their eyes to move only forward and never go back which is essential when sight reading.

    Perhaps you could have a look at the following website for more details:

    If you could let me know your thoughts on this method it will be very much appreciated.


    1. Thanks for reading the blog Anne and I’m glad that you enjoyed the post on sight reading.
      SightRead4Guitar sounds like a very interesting concept – I will check it out and let you know my thoughts.


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