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Christopher Gotzen-Berg: Blog

Sight Reading

Posted on November 18, 2010
For years I have been sending students to the NYSSMA Competition. NYSSMA stands for New York State School Music Association, and is an opportunity for school aged students to perform Classical and Jazz music for adjudicators for a number grade, and that grade goes onto that student's school transcripts. Students are required to perform various selected solos, scales, and sight reading. It is the sight reading that I have found to be the most stressful for my students, which isn't surprising!

First, I feel that it is important to instill the importance of strong music reading skills right from the first lesson for all of my students. To be a good musician, it is essential to be able to read our language. Next, I like to make the connection between everyday reading, that is, reading a book, emails, texts, or whatever a person may read throughout the day. When students realize that they actually 'sight read' all day and everyday, they make an exciting connection, and usually gives them more confidence to tackle some musical sight reading.

Naturally, musical sight reading, especially on the guitar, is full of challenges. So to help my students have as much success as they can, I have devised a 5 point strategy.

1) Time and Key Signature.

For me, this is obvious. Music needs to happen based on particular "Time", and our musical alphabet can be organized in different ways and starting on different pitches, therefor, a great place to start with is knowing what the TIme and Key Signatures consist of.

2) Texture.

Texture is a very important aspect of sight reading. Some pieces of music are thin, as in a single line melody, while others can be very dense with many chords. Assessing this early on in preparing can lead to better success.


From years of teaching, the one thing that I see that causes the most anxiety is accidentals. I recommend that my students tackle these notes quickly to get over the fear of seeing added musical symbols.

4) Range.

I find this helps particularly with younger students, especially if they are in the early stages of music reading, and the piece being sight read has notes outside of the music staff, or Ledger Lines. This is also very helpful for advanced reading, as it can help a student determine what position they may choose to read a passage in order to perform that music smoothly.

5) Rhythm.

Depending on the level of the student, this can be as simple glancing over the music to determine note lengths to counting out syncopations. I stress the importance of setting up a strong, steady, and SLOW tempo so that the student can anticipate each note.

Again, it is very important to have strong reading skills in place to be a successful sight reader. If a student is unsure of what the notes are when they attempt a piece of music, the sight reading will be next to impossible!

Lastly, when preparing my students for such things as NYSSMA or college auditions where sight reading is necessary I spend a substantial amount of time actually "Timing" them. I give a student 60-seconds to look over a selected passage. It is in these few seconds they need to run through their check list and prepare. This also makes sight reading more fun as they see it as somewhat like a game.

For reading practice, I also like to assign a large amount of music for them to work on throughout the week. This can be many short exercises, or a longer solo piece, with knowing that it will be unlikely that they will have all of the music perfect. I explain that the goal is to conquer as much of the music as they can with a strong sense of rhythm and pulse. When I do this, I do not look for perfection, but more so comprehension.

I hope this helps! Please feel free to leave any comments or suggestions!


Christopher Gotzen-Berg
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