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Queen Guitar Rhapsodies

Straining Sight-Reading's Sinews

An introduction to painless improvement

A joke, sad but true
There is a joke doing the rounds which goes something like this: if you want to get a pianist to play with enthusiasm put a piece of music in front of him, and if you want to stop a guitarist in his tracks - put a piece of music in front of him. Sadly, this joke is a true reflection of the present state of affairs, for few are the guitarists who can play music at sight with any degree of fluency and musicality. Yet, this is not the case with other classically trained musicians.

At a first rehearsal with the London Sinfonietta, I have heard Sebastian Bell the flautist play the flute solo from the third movement of Malcolm Arnold’s Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra. A zillion notes tumbled out of his end-piece at 200 miles per hour, note perfect. Afterwards, when I asked him whether he had practised the part he replied he had never seen it before. When I played some trios with violinist Pinchas Zukerman and flautist Eugenia Zukerman I presented them with the music at rehearsal. We played through entire works with scarcely a mistimed entry or faulty rhythm between us. At music conservatoires around the world guitar students receive a rude awakening when they first play chamber music with fellow students. If they come unprepared, expecting the others to falter as they do at a first reading they are surprised and even stunned by their colleagues' competence and agility.

Such have been the recurring difficulties faced by guitarists in this regard that for hundreds of years guitar music was only published in tablature and not in musical notation. Since tablature is a visual recreation of the fretboard the problem of reading music was neatly sidestepped, although making it impenetrable for other musicians by turning it into a club with entry restricted to guitarists. More seriously, the tablature-reading guitarist with limited music-reading skills, was - and still is - greatly handicapped in becoming familiar with the wider world of music.

So what is the big deal about sight-reading music on the guitar? Is there a good reason why guitarists cannot sight-read as well as other instrumentalists? The answer to the question is yes.

Why guitarists cannot sight-read
Let’s face it, the guitar is a funny old instrument when it comes to tuning. Whereas all the bowed instruments are tuned with the same interval between each string, the guitar has that one spoke in the wheels: a different interval between the 3rd and 2nd strings. As a consequence chords cannot be fingered uniformly across all the strings. Chords on three adjacent strings only share the same fingering pattern on the lowest three strings, and on the 5th, 4th and 3rd strings. The pattern produces a different chord on the other strings, because of that odd tuning between the 3rd and 2nd strings. As for chords across four adjacent strings, the pattern cannot be repeated at all.

Playing single-line melodies above the seventh fret should present less difficulty, but here we come up against the lack of familiarity with music-reading practise in those high regions, while the tuning denies quick identification and repeated patterns. In the lower positions the choice of fingering across the strings creates uncertainty or indecision as compared to wind instruments, such as the flute, where there is only one place, and no more, to find each note.

All in all, the poor old guitar player has a hard time of it as far as music-reading, largely because the guitar has an unhelpful tuning with irregular patterns whether in single-line music or chords. So we come to a second question I pose. Is it realistic to expect and demand of the guitar player that he or she should read as well as other instrumentalists? The answer is maybe. But how, I hear you ask?

Never mind the notes, rhythm rules OK?
Fixated as he or she is on finding where the notes are on the fingerboard, the guitarist allows rhythm and momentum to falter in the frustrating pursuit of locating notes. After all, you have to play the correct notes otherwise it sounds wrong, right? Wrong! Forget the right notes and concentrate on keeping going at all costs. If in doubt guess the notes you can’t reach in time, but don’t, whatever you do, stop.

Here is a rough guide as to how you could start out on this process:

First play-through: allow yourself all the time in the world, out of time too, to find out where the notes are. Try to understand the chords and harmony.
Second play-through: Consolidate what you have already done. Take care to remember where you have doubts and hesitations. After, practise individual phrases by themselves.
Third play-through: Play slowly in time. After, practise again individual phrases by themselves.
Fourth play-through : Let the rhythm now be your driving force. Keep going in time. You now know, more or less, what the harmony is, as well as half-remembering the notes, so this will help with difficult passages. After, practise again individual phrases by themselves, slowly.
Fifth play-through: Treat this as a stricter version of the fourth play through!

A different mindset
Making the rhythmic drive your priority requires a different mindset. Once you have acquired it, you may be surprised how effective it is in getting the mind and fingers to work more effectively together.
Quite soon, you will be able to dispense with the second and third play-throughs and go straight from the first to the fourth. After that, work at dispensing with the first three, and start straight away from the fourth play-through, with rhythm and continuity as your driving force right from the beginning. In so doing you will have made them more important than playing all the right notes. This is the secret of all good sight-reading.

Good sight-reading on any instrument depends on creating the impression of playing musically as many right notes as possible in time. With experience a player second-guesses notes as out of the corner of his eye he sees an arpeggio of, say, E major, coming up on the page. He may miss some of the notes, but will still keep going. In effect, he is busking it, and yet it sounds good. Some players, and they could include you, with experience eventually play correctly all the right notes in perfect time, for the sight-reading reflex can be developed phenomenally.

A player straining all sinews and completely concentrated on the sight-reading at hand is a splendid sight to behold, and a wonderful thing to hear. What greater satisfaction could you demand from your music-making than one day, being able to do this?

Listen to:
Malcolm Arnold – Guitar Concerto recorded by Julian Bream with the CBSO conducted by Simon Rattle at http://www.amazon.com

October 2011

Printed from: http://www.carlosbonell.com/blog/?p=804 .
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