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!

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Classical Guitar Exam Preparation Part Five: Practice and things to focus on 8-12 weeks out from the exam

Today’s post is the next in the series I’ve been writing on preparing for an exam on the classical guitar. If you missed the first four parts, or want to recap, here are the links:

Classical Guitar Exam Preparation Part One – Deciding When The Time Is Right

Classical Guitar Exam Preparation Part Two – Picking Your Repertoire

Classical Guitar Exam Preparation Part Three – Working On The Technical Elements

Classical Guitar Exam Preparation Part Four – Aural and General Knowledge Elements

The intention of this post is not to give you an absolutely prescriptive outline of precisely what you should be doing in the 8-12 week period before your exam as we all have our different strengths and weaknesses (and so things that we need to focus on over other things) and the requirements for different syllabi and different grades within those syllabi. The intention of this post is to give you a bit of a guideline as to how to you may consider going about your practice in this phase.

OK, so about two or three months out from your exam date or proposed exam session if you don’t have a precise date yet, you probably want to have your pieces picked out by now. If not, you’d better get cracking! Hopefully you’ve got a nice selection of pieces (well, at least two) from each of the required lists, so if you’ve not decided yet about three months out is probably the latest you’d want to leave it to get choosing your favourites from each of the lists.

How often: if you’re practicing regularly and consistently at this stage you need to start doing this now. A good aim is for some good quality practice on at least 5 days out of 7, with 1 day of complete rest away from the guitar.

How long for: well, this really all depends on your grade level and the time you have available in your day too. The bare minimum that you may want to be looking at is around 30 minutes for the lower grades and 45-60 minutes for the higher grades. Of course, I’m talking about purely good quality, focussed practice – fluffing around not included! Hah hah! If you can spend longer then that’s absolutely fantastic, just make sure it’s (yes, I’m beginning to sound a lot like a parrot) focussed and useful practice and make sufficient time for brain breaks and to move around and get the blood moving.

Technical work:  you should definitely be doing some kind of technical work on each day you’re practicing. You don’t have to go through everything, every scale, every possible fingering, every exercise each and every time, but at this stage you should be starting to incorporate all the required exercises and so on across the whole week so everything is getting a look in on a regular basis. You’ll then start to understand which exercises perhaps require more attention than others.

Repertoire: again, you don’t have to play each and every single piece all the way through every single time you practice – that’s a sure fire way to get tired of all of your pieces very quickly and probably also not really address the knots that need unpicking in a piece! I’d recommend, at this stage, perhaps looking at two pieces in depth in a week, with perhaps just keeping in touch with your other pieces with quick play throughs (and noting where the challenging spots are still). When I say looking at pieces in depth I really mean really getting down to the heart of those tricky spots straight away, addressing those before slotting them back into context and playing a phrase, section or the whole piece in its entirety.

Sight-reading: this is something that you start doing on a regular basis at this stage too. If you can start looking at some sight reading, just for 5 or 10 minutes, 3 or 4 times per week that will stand you in good stead. Of course, if you can manage this more frequently then that’s fantastic!

Aural: this aspect doesn’t need to be as difficult to practice on your own as you may suspect. There are plenty of audio and audio and book packages on the market to help you build up, practice and test your aural skills – listening, singing back, chord and interval identification and so on. Again if you can start to fit this in for around 5 or 10 minutes, 2 or 3 times per week that will stand you in good stead.

General knowledge: last but not least, don’t forget this important aspect! Whilst you’re away from the guitar or on your rest days you can be genning up on the titles of pieces, their composers, any unknown words, directions or symbols in the music, the style, musical forms.