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How to Practice Sight-Reading on Guitar

Sight-reading on guitar is one of those skills that is widely known to make learning and playing music easier and quicker.

However, it’s also one the “non-urgent” practice options that frequently gets pushed to the back burner, or simply ignored.

One of the reasons it may be so common to neglect practicing sight-reading is that you may not know specifically what to do in your practice to improve the sight-reading skill.

In this article, we’ll examine the goals of practicing sight-reading on guitar, and you’ll discover some options of how to practice so that you can keep your practice fresh, fun, and consistent.  You’ll also be able to download some tools to organize and track your practice.

But first….

What is Sight-Reading?

In short, “sight-reading” is seeing a note and playing it. It’s seeing a note on page of music, and being able to render it as musical sound.

The best sight-readers are able to play expressively, at the given tempo (speed), with compelling rhythm, with all the little inflections , “attitudes”, swells and fades. And all this from music they’ve only just seen for the first time.

Why Practice Sight-Reading on Guitar?

Guitarists are famous for being terrible sightreaders. And for good reason: it’s simply difficult to read well on the guitar.

There are, on average, 2.8 places to play each note on the instrument. In addition to reading the music, we also have to constantly make decisions as to where on the neck we’ll play the notes. Tricky!

So very few guitarists become good at sight-reading without a conscious effort to do so.

But the ones that do enjoy the many benefits that come with the territory.
Benefits such as:

  1. Learning music more quickly
  2. Being able to play with others
  3. Being able to “sample” more music
  4. Easier memorization of pieces
  5. Better hand/eye coordination
  6. Ability to recognize common musical elements and patterns

Sight-reading makes many, many aspects of playing classical guitar easier and more enjoyable. So it’s well worth dedicating a few minutes each practice session to building this skill.

Constructing Your Sight-reading Practice

To get the most out of your time, it’s helpful to be deliberate about your practice.

A haphazard approach, if consistent, will still be worth the time. You will get better.

But if you want to really get the most from your time and work, it’s best to have a gameplan and track it.

The Ingredients of Effective Practice

To actually improve from your practice time, a few elements need to be in place.  In his book “Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise“, Anders Ericsson suggests:

  1. A specific, defined goal: Decide beforehand what exactly you’re doing and why.
  2. Challenging, but not TOO challenging: Too easy will let your mind wander, too hard will frustrate and demotivate you. Think Goldilocks.
  3. Immediate feedback: Be able to know how you’re doing, and adjust as needed.

The Goals of Sight-reading Practice

It’s helpful to keep in mind what the goals are for your practice time. Here are some of the main goals, followed by others that are NOT the goal. Keeping your eye on the right balls will speed your learning.

1. Keep Going, Keep Your Eyes Moving Forward

One of the main habits that effective sight-reading practice develops is the ability to keep going, even if you miss notes.

There is no “going back to get the missed ones”. If you miss a note, it’s gone. Keep going!

Expert sight-readers’ eyes are actually several bars or lines ahead of their playing, looking for potential problems and planning their next moves.

2. Aim for 60–80%

In effective practice, you should be getting somewhere around 60–80% of the notes right, in the correct rhythm.

If you’re getting fewer notes correct, or missing more than this percentage (and rhythm counts), then slow down a bit.

If you’re getting more than 80% correct, you should either speed up the metronome, or choose more difficult music.

What is NOT the Goal of Sight-reading Practice

Avoid allowing yourself to get trapped into striving for the following:

1. Perfection

It’s perfectly natural to want to get all the notes right, and to want to go back and re-play missed notes.

But this is a habit we’re trying to break. Sight-reading is not about perfection (though of course we do our best).

And sight-reading practice is specifically designed to train the eyes to keep moving ahead, even if (and especially if) something goes wrong.

2. Accurate Fingerings

Classical guitar sheet music often has copious information on the page, concerning what fingers to use in each hand, as well as roman numerals for fret suggestions and bar chords.

When sight-reading, use these if you can, but sacrifice the perfect connection of two notes or the ideal positioning in favor of just barking out the notes and keeping the train moving forward.

3. Comfort

If you’re comfortable and at ease in your sight-reading practice, you’re probably not challenging yourself enough.

You should be on the edge of your seat, and the edge of your abilities. As said above, the sweet spot is: challenging, but not too challenging.

Beware of comfort.

Sight-reading Practice Tips

Here are a few tips for your sight-reading practice.

1. Use a metronome

Always. Just get into the habit. Set it for a slow tempo and play with it.

If you have a hard time using a metronome, you may just not know how to go about it yet.

If you have trouble reading rhythms, work on that skill in isolation. More on this later.

2. Use single-line music

Even though classical guitar plays many notes at once, use single-line music for your sight-reading practice.

This allows you to keep moving and keep your eyes moving forward.

As your skills develop, you can work with more complex music. If you find single-line music too easy, just speed up the metronome. At some point, it will get challenging.

You can also use repertoire collections that are considerably below your current playing ability for sight-reading practice as well. Just heed the 60–80% rule.

3. Use music below your current playing abilities

A common mistake is to use repertoire you may intend to play as sight-reading practice. This doesn’t really work.

Music that challenges your current abilities is too difficult for sight-reading practice.

Instead, choose music that is a level or two below you.  (This can be useful in other contexts as well.)

Flute music, violin music, fiddle tunes, jazz charts (the Charlie Parker Omnibook works well) or anything else you find can be very effective. You can often get books of sight-reading material at used book stores, estate sales, or online.

4. Glance over the music first to spot any tricky spots

Expert sight-readers like to give any music they play a quick “once-over” to spot any potential tricky spots.

Identifying any shifts, stretches or awkward moves before you start allows you to be more prepared when you get to them.

5. Set a timer

If you simply start practicing sight-reading, you won’t last very long. Because it’s challenging, our homeostasis mechanisms signal us to stop and do something more comfortable.

So it helps to set a timer (or at least decide on a duration) so that you just dig in and keep going, knowing that it’s temporary.

How long? Start with just a couple or three minutes a day. This may sound easy, but chances are, it will still take some discipline to keep your eyes and fingers moving, even for this short amount of time.

If 3-5 minutes is too much, do just one minute.  Anything.  Just do it…..

6. A little each day

The key to sight-reading, as with learning any language, is frequency.

A few minutes every day is much more effective than one big chunk of time on the weekend.

You improve more quickly, and each session is much more palatable.

Methods for Practicing Sight-reading

With all those tips in mind, here are some ways to structure your practice. Alternating can keep things interesting for you.

Method One: All New Notes

In this method, you practice the true art of sight-reading. All new notes. No repeats.

The benefit of this is that you are truly building the muscles involved with sight-reading.

Turn on the metronome, and watch the notes fly by.

Method Two: Leveling Up

In this method, you choose a small section of music, and use your time to get it as good as you can.

If you have three minutes of sight-reading practice, you set your timer and dive into that section.

You read through, identify any tricky spots, quickly solve any problems, and start speeding up the metronome.

The goal is to get it as clean and fast as possible within the time given.

This is a really fun way to practice, and it also helps to build skills of problem-solving and learning pieces.

Just make sure not to ignore Method One, above, because it’s just as (if not more) important.

Method Three: Develop Periphery Skills

In addition to the two methods above, you can also practice the “micro-skills” involved with sight-reading.

These are not a substitute for actual sight-reading practice, but work very well to support not only your sight-reading, but your general musical development.

Reading Rhythms

Clapping and counting rhythms aloud, with a metronome, is great for your sight-reading and for nearly everything else you’ll do.

Put down your guitar, and spend some time here.

This course on reading rhythm focuses on this skill.

Music Theory

“Music theory” is the way that the notes work together. It’s a study of the patterns and tendencies of notes and chords.

The more you understand music theory, the more sense a string of notes or chords will make. You’ll have an understanding of why a certain chord or bass note was chosen, and why others are to be avoided.

Knowing some basic music theory also helps you memorize music more easily. If you know what chord normally follows an E7 (for example), then when you come to an E7 in your music you’ll be able to anticipate where you’re going next. (an A or A minor chord is the answer, in case you were wondering).

Music theory can be a rather deep rabbithole. People spend their lives exploring and studying it (high-level jazz players are experts). If you’re just getting started with it, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. So the key is to keep it manageable and usable. Slow and steady wins the race.

Ingraining Scale and Chord Shapes

Another beneficial skill is to be able to readily recognize common scale and chord shapes.

Practicing chords and scales should be part of your technique practice, not your sight-reading practice. (So no trying to sneak around sight-reading practice by running through some scales!)

To practice sight-reading using scales and chords, actively go through your sight-reading practice music and look for snippets of scale and chord shapes you know. Mark them and identify them by name (the name of the scale or chord shape).

Increasing Focus

This one will help every single area of your life.

Your sight-reading ability is directly linked to your ability to stay focused on the task at hand. In this case, that task is seeing a note on a page and playing it on the guitar.

If your mind wanders, even for a second, you’re apt to slow down, miss a note, botch the rhythm, or just randomly stop (as if you’ve forgotten what you’re doing).

Meditation and mindfulness exercises are of tremendous benefit to many aspects of learning guitar. Any time you can practice bringing your attention back to what you currently see or hear (not your story around it, but the actual thing), or your breath or body, you’re building a muscle that will prove useful not just in your sight-reading, but throughout your guitar practice (and everyday life).

Easy Does It: Pick One and Get Going

Sight-reading can seem overwhelming at first. It can feel very challenging.

The trick is to find something you can do that pushes your boundaries, but doesn’t frustrate or overwhelm you. If this means just clapping and counting simple rhythms, so be it. Next time make it just a bit harder. Then harder again.

Sight-reading is a muscle. It’s a skill. One day of exertion won’t get you much. It takes regular attention and focus consistently over time. And to do that, it has to be manageable and easy to initiate. Ideally, it’s also rewarding and perhaps even fun!

So instead of forming the perfect sight-reading practice plan, just pick up whatever you have on hand and start playing the notes you see. If the music is too difficult, just play the notes with the stems pointing up (or down). Ignore the rhythm. Play just the top note of any chords you come across. Go slow. Do whatever you have to do to keep going.

Ask just a minute or two of sight-reading practice from yourself in each practice. No big deal. Just something, so you can say you did it.

Over the days, weeks, months and years this builds and builds until one day, you’re able to sit down and play most anything with ease and expression.

But until then, it’s just a matter of putting one foot in front of the next. Playing one note and then another.  Then another.

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2 Responses to How to Practice Sight-Reading on Guitar

  1. Gerry Phillipson January 22, 2017 at 6:20 am #

    It’s very interesting picking up sight reading on the guitar after forty year lay-off, having played the clarinet that’s not a chordal instrument! But it helps especially with the single line playing. The big transition is learning where best to place the note on the various alternative positions on the fretboard. It’s coming along nicely but your i) consistency, ii) focus, iii) clarity and understanding, & iv) mental representation agenda has really helped with regard to sight reading and learning new pieces. IV) I find especially important and helpful; I move off the guitar and sit down somewhere else, close my eyes and try to visualise placing my fingers on the notes of various scales, speaking out the notes as I do so; in the same way, with pieces, I visualise playing through a whole piece. All hugely helpful and almost as good as being in the room with you! Many thanks.

    • Allen January 22, 2017 at 7:36 am #

      Thanks, Gerry. That’s great to hear. Such good practice and mental exercise!
      All the best,
      Allen

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