The Secret To Super Sight Reading

I was personally reminded this week of one of the keys reasons of the importance of learning and getting really familiar with your scales and arpeggios on the guitar – sight-reading.

As regular readers may know I play in a guitar orchestra here in Melbourne, and at our last rehearsal last week it was decided to play through a new piece of music (that had been given out to us at the previous rehearsal, but I’d failed to look it – naughty me!). Enter supreme powers of concentration and super sigh-reading skill! Hah hah! Well, normally that might be close to the case, but I was feeling less than sparkling at rehearsal, just a bit tired and really not feeling mentally that sharp. This should be interesting, I thought.

And actually it was interesting. Almost without me thinking my hands seemingly took over in terms of playing the phrases and runs. After a couple of minutes of getting into the groove of the piece I wasn’t thinking too hard about the rhythm either. Let’s be clear here though, I’m not saying I was playing everything note perfectly or rhythmically perfectly as was written on the page (I’m sure there were a few “funky” notes in there for good measure!), but for a first play through it served pretty well.

John Price Guitar

I guess the interesting thing is that given I knew the key we were playing in, and that I could recognise the chord progressions as we moved through them, all that learning and practice of scales, arpeggios, and theoretical knowledge came into its own really without me thinking too much about it. Thank goodness! It wasn’t 100% perfect, but was enough to potentially be convincing or at least sounded like it could have been written in that way! All that drilled practice has provided me with a pretty strong foundation that my normally attentive and “active” concentration sits upon. Stripping that back on the weekend to the “passive” level of playing allowed me to see, feel and experience that foundation. It’s something I don’t normally experience, usually being switched on and active in playing. I was secretly (or not so now!) quite chuffed with myself.

And that foundation stone of my playing is not something that I built at one time and left. Far from it. It’s something that was started many years ago and gets built upon, added to and reinforced on a very regular basis. Pretty much every time I sit down with the guitar I undertake some kind of technical exercise. And usually at least I will run through a two or three octave scale for each and every major and minor diatonic key. The Segovia scales are definitely a cornerstone of the foundation. If I’ve been away from the guitar for a period, like last week for example when I was away travelling with work, the first things I played when I got to the guitar on the weekend was a full set of scales. You can get some really good exercises from simply playing your scales and arpeggios – right hand touch exercises, right hand finger return exercises, speed exercises, shaping and phrasing exercises, free stroke and rest stroke exercises, multiple right hand finger exercises, fretboard geography, improving and reinforcing knowledge of your keys and their relationships, left hand movement exercises, legato and staccato playing….. the list goes on!

So, the moral of the story is don’t forget about your humble scales and arpeggios – they will serve you well!

Scaling The Heights-Why Play Scales?

Scales. Oh my goodness. Soooo boring and tedious and dull and unexciting, right? And, like, what’s the point? Why can’t we just get on with playing the pieces, the fun bit?

This is what I used to say to myself in my younger years, growing up first playing piano and tasked with scales, then clarinet and then guitar.

Anyway, in my formative years I struggled to see the point of practicing ones scales. At best, I thought it probably a half decent way of warming up the hands and fingers ready to play. At worst, I thought them a bloody wste of time, a complete drag and just getting in the way of the fun stuff.

In the wisdom of advancing towards my middle age (eeeek!), or let’s say taking stock of the the experiences of my (mis-spent?!) youth, I can now see the error of my previous thinking.  I have a relatively new-found and growing appreciation for those eight little notes we put together and call a scale.

So then. Scales are boring and tedious and dull and unexciting?

Nope. Wrong! As with many things, it’s all about your attitude and your approach to them.

We’re musicians right? And we make music? Playing a scale is no different to playing any music. The bare bones of the notes are there for us to shape and phrase, following the contours, playing in different timbres or tone colours, crescendo, decrescendo, legato, staccato and so on. The choices are almost limitless as to how to make music from scales, as with any other musical passages. And then we have consideration of our tone quality to add into the the mix too.

And so what’s the point of all of this?

Well, aside from practicing making music from notes on the page or in our heads there are a number of significant benefits that can really only be derived from regular playing and practice (which means a little every day – better a little every day than a whole lot once or twice a week) of scales.

In a nutshell, these benefits are:

  • Finger dexterity
  • Left and right hand coordination
  • Touch control and sensitivity for the left hand – i.e. programming in that you don’t have to press harder to get a louder volume from the guitar
  • Touch control and sensitivity for the right hand – developing your free and rest strokes
  • Developing a good quality of sound and tone production
  • Securing your knowledge of the fretboard/ fretboard geography
  • Generally facilitating an ease of playing, with things falling much easier under the fingers when you come to play your pieces without you really having to think about it
  • This is in turn means that sight reading becomes a relative doddle

And if that didn’t convince you, a quote from Andres Segovia sums up the point of scales very nicely:

“The student who wishes to acquire a firm technique on the guitar should not neglect the patient study of scales…..he will correct faulty hand positions, gradually increase the strength of the fingers and prepare the joints for later speed studies. Thanks to the independence and elasticity which the fingers develop through the study of scales, the student will acquire a quality which is difficult to gain later: physical beauty of sound…”