This is from a blog I contributed to in 2008. Still true for me and my practice habits…
I’ve come to believe that the best way to learn how to read music is to learn by the pound….
I recently went on ebay and found someone selling 30 pounds of sheet music. I got it and 2 days ago a huge box full of random old sheet music came. Now I’m busy reading “Music for the Concertina”, various etude books, random 1920’s popular songs, and a bunch of other treasures. Guitarists always have trouble reading, so I wanted to pass along some things I’ve realized about sight-reading in the past few years that have helped me a lot. I hope you find them helpful too.
It’s always assumed that guitarist can’t read music. For the most part, it’s true – we suck at it. At least I always did, and a lot of players I know have always been weak readers. When I think about it, guitar might be the hardest instrument to read on. It’s the only instrument (that I can think of) that you can play the same note in 5 or 6 different places. Unlike piano or single note instruments, where a “c” is always the same “c”, guitarists have a bunch of options – which makes everything confusing when you are reading a difficult line or a chord. And it’s also difficult to coordinate your right hand picking technique with your left hand position while finding the right note/rhythm, etc.
Anyway, after being a terrible reader for years, I finally got serious about it a few years ago and started practicing it a lot. One obvious thing I realized about my problem was that I would get down about my reading abilities and spend three or four hours practicing it to get better. And then weeks would go by and I wouldn’t practice it at all. When I would return to reading, It was as if those four hours never happened. Practicing your reading on a regular and consistent basis is imperative to improving. Even if it‘s only 10 minutes a day, it’s better than several hours at a time once a month. It’s a very gradual process. Also, I realized that most of the time I would try to read music up to the tempo at which it was intended to be played. So, if something was too fast, I wouldn’t be able to get through it, I’d get frustrated and eventually go on to work on something else. Now I take things really slow if I have to, even if I have to put the metronome on 40 bpm and think of that as the 16TH note. Whatever I have to do to understand the rhythms and get through it. There’s nothing wrong with practicing things really, really, really slowly if you have to.
One last thing I realized was that whenever I would work on my sight-reading, I would always take a piece of music and play through it again and again until it sounded right. I didn’t realize it, but I would be practicing a piece of music instead of practicing my actual sight-reading skills. As soon as you read something once, you remember some of it when you read it again, and the amount of material that you’re actually reading decreases. Now I take books of music and read through them, front to back, and never stop to fix my mistakes. It’s always new material, and I’m forced to really read what’s in front of me without any idea of what it should sound like. When I started doing this, my reading abilities improved quickly. I’m not trying to play the material at a high performance level; I’m just trying to improve my reading.
I’ve always been into old junk. I often go to flea markets, yard sales, etc. I started buying old sheet music and etude books from these places – whatever was around: clarinet books, violin studies, accordion music, etude books, and old Broadway music, whatever. I take it home, open it up, read it once, and then put it in my bookshelf. I have tons of reading material now, or at least 100 pounds or so, ha-ha. It has become part of my routine: I get up in the morning, get a cup of coffee, sit down and read these old random books for an hour or so. But I only read it one time and then I move on. This has been the best way for me to get better at reading, and it way to warm up too. Anyway, I hope these ideas on reading help. Now I’ve got to get cracking on my 30 pounds.