Archive for: Exercises and Lessons

Ideas for Sight Reading

Sight-reading is not always a skill developed by guitarists, but it is a very good skill to have, especially once you (hopefully) get your foot in the door in the real world as a musician. There are lots of good reasons for developing a good level of sight-reading ability. Most of them deal with time. Most musicians’ incomes tend to come from teaching, which is quite draining and time consuming. Acquiring the ability to sight-read can:


  1. Help you learn pieces faster and without as much work for gigs or performances that might arise
  2. Allow you to teach students pieces without necessarily having to completely master it yourself (will depend on the piece of music of course)
  3. Allow you to collaborate with others in chamber music settings easier and also without having to master the work completely beforehand


Sight-reading was not stressed much in my early guitar endeavors, and it wasn’t really until I went to graduate school at Carnegie Mellon when my teacher Professor Jim Ferla strongly encouraged me to work on it. I will always be grateful for him for pushing me to sight-read better. Here are some tips and things to remember in order to get better at sight-reading.


  1. Remember, like all skills it takes practice. The only way to get better is to keep doing it. Even just a little bit each day.
  2. Start off with single line melodies. They don’t have to be written for the guitar. It could be flute melodies are even the top line of a piano score. In the beginning just stick to playing in the first position and play them SLOWLY but RHYTHMICALLY ACCURATE from start to finish, trying not to pause.
  3. When you start feeling comfortable in the first position, start moving them around the fretboard. You can either use the same single-line melodies or different ones, but try playing them in different positions. Check out this example of a made up melody: Sight-reading example
  4. As your sight-reading skills begin improving, start trying to read through easy guitar pieces. There are many relatively simple etudes and studies from the Classical era (Carulli and Aguado, for example, have many). Play them with the same process as reading through single line melodies. First play them in first position (most of them are written for this anyway). Then, if possible, try play them in other positions (even if it doesn’t make much sense to do so).


As already stated, the only way to get better at reading is to practice a bit every day. Grab some books of collected works like those from Frederick Noad and give it a try. Not all pieces are made for sight-reading, so make sure they are relatively simple. Also, keep in mind, the object of this isn’t to practice these little pieces and commit them to memory. Only to play through to better your reading skills.

Finding Theater in Guitar Music

About a week ago, I was able to go see an incredible performance of Pavel Steidl. I, of course, had heard recordings of him and seen a few videos on Youtube, but listening to those is never the same as it is live. When I watched the videos of him playing, and saw him mouthing the melodies as he played them, I wrote it off as just an unusual performance practice, like Glenn Gould and his vocalizing of the melodies as he played. But having watched Steidl’s performance live, especially during his Italian set where he flawlessly executed a musical dialogue that could have possibly taken place between virtuosi Paganini and Legnani, I realized (at least to me) that he wasn’t just singing the melodies, but rather he was turning this guitar pieces into mini-operas. The melodies or musical gestures became leitmotifs for characters of a story. This seemed exemplified as he altered the characteristics of the melodies through different tones and articulations. His facial expressions would act out the different characters and the moods they were to personify: whether they be serious or what looked to be a whiny, little brat.

The point of this article isn’t to write a review of Steidl’s performance, but rather to get other players to experiment with playing in this manner. The Classical era in guitar history attempted to show-off the guitar as a mini-orchestra (Giuliani’s Grand Overture), and perhaps at times would hint at an operatic style (Rossinianas). But in terms of executing this in a performance, I had never seen anyone exploit the different timbres of the instrument in this way, or so effectively. It changed the whole interpretation of every piece in the program. I haven’t been able to experiment with this idea of playing yet myself, but I offer a suggestion to anyone who reads this to give it a shot. Play the melody of whatever piece you’re playing, and try create a character for it. Experiment with not just playing it a standard manner, or a way in which one would expect. Then, do the same with other melodies that make up the composition. Finally, try find moments where you can make these “characters” to interact with each other in some kind of dialogue. This could add a whole new depth to even pieces we consider standards.

Tricks with Tempo

Learning new repertoire has inspired me to write this post about the different uses of tempo. Different tempi can help us work on different aspects of a piece as well as our playing. When first learning a new piece, working with a slow tempo will help get the movements and the music into our fingers. It also allows us to hear all of the nuances of all of the notes and sounds asked for by the composer. Once the piece starts to become familiar you can try to play it faster or at tempo.

Playing quick pieces at different tempi can be used for other aspects of your playing as well. Playing them slowly also works on endurance. I remember when I was learning the Prelude from BWV 1006a, I started playing it slowly to get all of the notes right, but then I would play it slowly as a good stamina workout. It essentially doubled the time of the extremely difficult piece allowing me to achieve exactly what I wanted.

But there is also a good use for pushing tempi well beyond what you plan on playing them, especially quick pieces. There are both advantages and disadvantages to playing fast pieces. They sound flashy, are often “crowd-pleasers,” and for the most part interpret themselves. But it is often daunting knowing how fast a piece is “supposed” to be played. Obviously solid, slow practice is the first step, but another good way to attack this problem is by going the other direction. Pushing the tempo to something faster than you plan on playing it has an interesting psychological effect. Playing things faster than you should, even if it’s out of control and sloppy, tricks the mind into thinking the proper tempo isn’t as fast as once believed and therefore achievable. Sometimes you may find that you can play the piece at the faster tempo and actually like the way that sounds. Either way it’s a win-win!

Warm-up Exercise 1

Here is a good warm-up exercise shown to me by Pepe Romero that can work on many technical aspects:

Figure 1

Figure 1 works on synchronizing your left and right hand, speed, and right hand finger alternation. Once you get the pattern down, move up the neck of the guitar on the same string continuing the pattern. I usually go up until my pinky hits the twelfth fret. I then move down the neck using the pattern in Figure 2.

Figure 2

Notice the slurs. I try to pick up the pace as I fall down the neck, using the slurs to help bring up the tempo.

Start these exercises slowly. Then, once you have the pattern down in your fingers, you can bring slowly bring up the tempo. For example you can start out playing quarter notes, then, during the next cycle, eighth-notes, etc. Play Figures 1 and 2 on all 6 strings of the guitar.

Slight right hand variations can work on different techniques. For example alternating between m and a in the right hand to strengthen those weaker fingers or playing them with rest stroke and then playing them with free stroke.