How to Sight Read

Sight reading, or the skill of performing a piece of music the first time you see the music, is a skill that everyone can develop! It just requires consistent and careful practice. We’re going to lay out some tips to help you get started.

Think of sight reading as performing. Just as you shouldn’t stop and return to fix a missed passage in a concert, don’t do it while you’re practicing sight reading!

Rhythm is the most important element of music. For many reasons, a stable sense of rhythm is essential to sight reading, and even more so when you’re playing in an ensemble. If you miss a passage, keep track of the time and come back in as soon as you can. A steady sense of rhythm creates a feeling of trust in a listener. As they say, don’t miss a beat!

Prepare before you play. Wait, didn’t we say that sight reading is playing music WITHOUT preparing? Well, yes, but it is absolutely essential that before you play a note you make a quick scan of the music and note some very important details:

  • What is the time signature?

  • What key is the piece in?

  • What is the fastest rhythm that I will be required to play? This will determine what tempo you choose. Make sure you start at a speed you can maintain until the end!

  • Will I be required to change positions? I.e. are all the notes playable in one part of the guitar, or will a shift be required? If possible, figure out where you will shift beforehand.

  • Are there any other notable elements in the piece, like lots of chords, or sections with lots of accidentals?

Practice giving yourself 30-60 seconds to look over the music before you start playing. You won’t get everything, but it will give you a great head start on knowing how the piece should sound, and will help avoid unpleasant surprises.

Playing the notes correctly is just the beginning. The most important elements come from things like dynamics, phrasing, color choices, and articulations, all of which join to produce a convincing musical narrative. Make sure you’re including these as you practice sight reading.

Learn from your mistakes. After reading through a study, go back and figure out the parts that you missed. That way you won’t be tripped up the next time you run across a similar passage.

Practice sight reading every day you practice guitar. Sight reading is a skill that takes time, repetition, and consistent, careful practice to develop. Don’t be discouraged if it isn’t easy right away. If you can play the guitar, you can sight read! Sign up for our exercise of the day, and we'll email you a new sight reading study every morning.


Why Sight Read?

The day to day reality of a professional guitarist requires strong reading skills. Collaborations with ensembles and composers require the ability to play parts well on the first read through, pieces must often be performed at a high level with short amounts of intense preparation, and gig situations demand hours of repertoire prepared at any given time.

For years the classical guitar community has existed primarily as a little bubble within the classical community, performing solo repertoire from the 18th and 19th centuries. There are many reasons for this, both positive and negative, but the reality is slowly changing. Composers are writing more and more for the instrument, particularly in chamber music settings. As a result the guitar is becoming an essential member of the contemporary ensemble.

Sight reading is a prerequisite for playing successful chamber music for a variety of reasons. Guitarists are fond of memorizing repertoire, but performing as an ensemble requires a different kind of preparation. A strong knowledge of the music is of course necessary, but great flexibility of interpretation must be maintained. This allows rehearsals to primarily about synthesizing the musical visions of the members of the ensemble into a single cohesive idea. Good reading skills allows for one’s concentration to be focused outward, instead of on the page.

Additionally, the ability to read fluently makes learning new repertoire much easier. It effectively allows one to hear the piece at a performance level from the beginning, and so one’s musical attention is free to be applied to sculpting the phrasing, colors, and other musical and interpretive details. This becomes particularly crucial when working with new compositions and with composers. There are many works which have never been recorded, and are rarely performed. A poor reader may spend hours working through a difficult composition without ever obtaining an accurate vision of the final product, while a good reader could arrive at a clearer decision in a fraction of the time.

Most freelance musicians pay the bills on some combination of three income streams: concerts, teaching, and gigs. While all three benefit by learning to sight read well, the last stands to gain the most. As a portable, quiet instrument with lots of solo repertoire, the guitar is an  easy instrument to find work playing background music gigs at all types of events. It is important that the music performed at these gigs is played both beautifully and at a high level. However, there is much less pressure to play note-perfect than in a recital. Gigs often require several hours of music, and regularly come up with just a few days notice. Strong reading skills allow for one to be prepared to perform hours of music in a gig setting at any time.

Sight reading is a skill within the grasp of guitarists at any level. Like playing the guitar itself, it is developed through consistent and careful practice. You can get started by subscribing to our Sight Reading Exercise of the Day. It’s free, and we’ll send you one new study to read through every morning. If you’re new to sight reading, head over to our page on how to sight read first!