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Free Course: Sunburst - A Modern Masterpiece

Free Course: Sunburst - A Modern Masterpiece

GRAMMY-winning guitarist Andrew York breaks down one of his most iconic and inspired compositions, Sunburst.

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Sight-reading is one of the most coveted skills in the musical community. 

Along with the ability to memorise photographically a piece in one glance, improvise counterpoint that sounds like it was lifted from The Art of Fugue or be able to make an arrangement of something only listened to once by ear, sight-reading is part of the ‘hall of fame’ of musical talents that are brought up again and again as story examples of magical mastery. 

While I was still at university studying music performance full time, my general thought was that these talents were overrated, after all, if you have the time to learn a piece slowly and methodically, what does it matter that you didn’t read it perfectly the first time round? If you put in enough time memorising a piece comprehensively, what does it matter that you didn’t memorise it in one fell swoop? 

The list went on and on, and the theme that linked them all was time. The benefit of my life at that point was that I had the time to achieve whatever I wanted, so having a natural affinity or not didn’t occur to me to be a factor at all. 

For most people learning to play an instrument, time is a factor, and not just because life is busy with work, children, juggling hobbies etc. But also because the more you have to work to just be able to do the thing that you wanted to do in the first place the less fun it ends up being. 

I get sent about ten emails a week of people asking me how they can get better at sight-reading, and the reason they ask isn’t because they want to impress their university colleagues or get a good grade in their sight-reading class, it’s because they just want to get to the point where they can play the piece they want to work on so that it resembles the piece they wanted to learn in the first place and so that they can get to work improving it. So how can we get better at sight-reading? Here, we’ll jump into 6 steps you can take to improve your classical guitar sight reading.


Developing understanding

To be able to do anything with ease and with a successful outcome, we need to understand what is in front of us. 

An example I like to give for this often more understandable than a musical example is one that concerns language. Reading a passage aloud correctly in English is easy for me because I understand the letters used to make up words, I know what those letters sound like on their own and I understand how they interact when they are grouped together. 

Not only this, I also understand how lots of letters sound when they interact together in large groups to create words. If I am reading a passage aloud in English and I am presented with a word I have not yet come across, I can still hazard a most likely correct guess of how to pronounce this word based on my general experience with letters, through a process that by now feels intuitive because I have been speaking English for 25 years, give or take. 

When I am reading aloud, I am not thinking of the letters as singular entities, in fact, I am no longer thinking of the words as single entities either, I am able to transcend the mechanical aspect of what is written in front of me in order to create meaningful “sense” out of the words and letters. 

That isn’t to say that I might not make a mistake, it is simply to say that for the most part my reading in English is unshakeable, I understand the mechanical aspects of reading so much that they become second nature, thus I am able to read from a page of words (sensical or not) correctly executing each and where necessary I am able to add inflection, different tone of voice and sensical pauses without needing them marked explicitly on the page. 

Once I have read a page in English aloud, most of the time I will be able to recreate at least some of the meaning on the page were the page taken away from me (spot memorisation), if I am asked to continue the story I will most likely be able to create in the same sort of words the rest of a story and make it make sense (improvisation). 

In essence I read in English fluently and the feeling I experience while doing so is one of ease, it does not occur to me unless I am reading aloud in a pressurised situation the process which my brain is going through, the process of breaking down letters and words is one that happens subconsciously. 

This changes when I am asked to read a language I understand, but which is not my mother tongue, for instance, in French. When reading aloud in French, I mostly understand the letters (on the page they look the same as in English, bar a few accent additions such as é, è and ç), and I mostly understand how they interact with each other, in fact I understand most words despite not always being able to understand what the words all mean when they are grouped into a sentence. 

The limits of my understanding mean that when reading from the page, I will most likely be able to read aloud correctly, however because I lack full understanding, some pauses or inflection might sound off and detract from the meaning. 

The experience of this reading is also different, when reading in French my perceived exertion is at a much higher level than that when I read a passage in English, I actively feel the need to concentrate much harder and it is therefore much more tiring. 

I can still read aloud in French, and the outcome will mostly be successful, however, were that page taken away from me at any point, the chances of me being able to remember what was written on the page, or being able to construct a following part of the story sensically are low. 

This changes even more when I am asked to read in Russian, a language which uses an alphabet I am familiar with and know the sounds of, but am not sure how to build words in. Given a series of words I am able to point out the different sounds of the letters, but the chances of me being able to say a full word from seeing it written on the page are low, therefore the chance of me being able to understand the meaning in a full sentence made up of words is basically zero. Therefore the chance of me being able to read a text in Russian prima vista is zero (bar maybe the first two letters!). 

In order to improve the ability to sight-read music, the task is really the same as it would be for learning a language. 

We must understand the singular elements we see on the page and be able to recreate them physically with our voice or with our instrument e.g see an E on the stave and know where that E is on our instrument, understand how that note sounds and how to execute it when it is grouped together with a number of markings, e.g we see an E on the stave that has a 4 in a circle next to it (denoting that the E is to be played on the 4th string) and a 2 next to it (denoting that the note be played with the second finger), and how it sounds and easiest way to execute when it interacts with a number of notes in a sequence or pattern of notes, e.g E, F#, G#, A, B. 

So how do we start practising in a way that helps us programme these patterns into our playing to help us be the best sight-reader we can be, and what exactly should we start focusing on to get us there as quickly as possible?

1. Notes and their place on the instrument

Getting to know the notes on the page and the notes on our instrument is one of the most basic steps to getting better at sight-reading. 

How many of us are completely acquainted with every single note? 

Starting with single note lines begin by reading passages aloud naming the notes as you go, follow this by finding their place on the instrument as quickly as possible. 

It can be useful at this stage to write out your own exercises as most of the highest notes on the instrument will not feature frequently. Get to know what every note on your instrument looks like written out on the page and start to make direct connections between what you see written and the note’s placement on the instrument, if there are several places where this note features make sure you are well acquainted with all of them. 

Once you feel completely competent with finding single notes on the instrument, start to add groups of two notes and get used to quickly finding these combinations on the instrument in every variation possible. 

Practice this until seeing the notes written on the page triggers an automatic physical connection to the instrument.

2. Chords on the page and on the instrument

Now that you have a sense of where each note is on the instrument and in what position you need to be to play groups of two notes at a time it is time to focus on chords. 

Acquaint yourself with the sound and structure of the most basic chord types (major, minor, diminished and augmented), understanding how these chords are built will help you in being able to spot them quickly on the page and also in reducing chords where necessary during a sight-reading exercise. 

Familiarise yourself with how these different chords look when they are written out and engage in exercises that allow you to build some chords of your own in all different inversions. 

Quick identification of these chords is half of the work of sight-reading chordal passages. Next, find the different positions that these chords can be played in on the instrument and then practice making the connection between seeing chords on the page, identification and finding them on the instrument. 

It is also useful to practice reducing chords with additions (7ths, 9ths etc.) to their root for ease of playing.

3. Tempo markings and what they denote

Understanding what each tempo marking means musically helps the first reading of a piece sound competent and influences musical approach to rhythm and strictness of tempo. 

Learning to understand each tempo marking and the style of playing associated with each is therefore an important step in improving your prima vista reading.

4. Key signatures and possible harmonic destinations

Developing a full understanding of harmony and the associative function of each chord or note within a key is an unmissable step in prima vista reading. 

It helps not only to make sense of the musical and harmonic structure, but also to be able to predict which chords might come next. 

For example, understanding that a piece in C major is moving towards A minor means that you are less likely to be flummoxed by the presence of a G# in the score, as this is a leading note that you are already harmonically expecting.

5. Rhythms and what their groupings make as a whole 

When preparing to read a piece through for the first time, we want to acquaint ourselves with as many rhythmic figures as possible. 

This includes not only what they sound like, but also how we have to programme the hand to execute them pre-reading session. 

It can be useful to practice away from the instrument, removing the challenge of ‘playing the notes’ and instead clapping through rhythmic passages. 

Acquaint yourself with as many rhythmic figures as possible, paying special attention to groups of notes and how they fit into a measured tempo. 

6. Musical titles and markings

Familiarise yourself with as many titles and musical markings and their meanings as possible, a serenade for instance is expected to sound very different to a toccata. 

This gives you a number of clues before playing the piece as to what sort of musical atmosphere is supposed to be created, this gives you a lot of hints as to what sort of harmonies or rhythms you might encounter along the way.


Ultimately sight-reading is all about creating automatic connections between intellectual understanding and physical action, so any practice that creates a connection between reading and playing, whether that be pieces or technical study all serve to improve prima vista playing. 

Remember therefore that any practice you do that consciously connects what you see on the page with a corresponding action on the instrument is an opportunity for practicing sight-reading. 

Good luck and enjoy more present practice sessions!

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