The Lute Society: Beginners Lesson 36

Sight reading
  • Lesson 36 of our beginners lessons, by Lynda Sayce


Occasionally I devote one of these lessons to a general topic rather than to a specific piece of music. I recently had the pleasure of teaching at the Benslow lutefest, and one of the joys of such a course is the wonderful opportunity for social playing - the weekend saw lute songs, duets, trios, quartets and a lute orchestra, with most people tackling at least some pieces they had not seen before. Several attendees mentioned to me that they were frustrated or felt let down by their sight-reading skills, so I have decided to devote a lesson to this useful skill. My own introduction to the lute was somewhat unconventional: most of my professional colleagues learned the classical guitar, but I studied the flute and received the sight-reading instruction which is an important part of training on all orchestral instruments. I changed instrument at university, first to renaissance lute and later to theorbo. I now earn my living mostly as a continuo player, and in my performing work I find myself relying heavily on the sight-reading techniques which I learned as a flautist. The key word here is ‘techniques’. It was clear at Benslow that many people felt that sight-reading ability was something one was born with - or not, rather than a skill which could be learned or improved. This is absolutely not the case: everyone can improve their sight-reading, so here are a few tips for doing that.

The first point is that, like everything else to do with playing an instrument, sight-reading improves with targeted practice. One of my flute teachers used to start each lesson by plucking a book of music from his shelf and opening it at random, and I would have to sight-read whatever that was. He demanded that I did this every day as part of my practice routine. Lutenists can - and should - do the same.

The same teacher drilled me in the rules:

  1. first take note of the time signature and key signature - and any changes to these in the course of the piece.
  2. look at the shape of the piece, noting any repeats or instructions for a da capo or dal segno. If there is a dal segno repeat, note the position of the sign.
  3. take a quick look at any difficult-looking bars (nearly always the blackest bits of the page!).
  4. select a reasonable speed for the piece and start reading it at this speed.
  5. start playing and do not stop until you reach the end of the page or the end of the piece, no matter how many slips you make. Do not stop to correct errors.
  6. maintain your original tempo. If you can’t manage a few notes leave them out, but be sure to stay in time. This will enable you to keep your place in an ensemble piece.

The initial steps should occupy no more than a few seconds. In most examinations on orchestral instruments one is allowed 30 seconds to peruse the sight-reading test before playing it, and this perusal should be done with full analytical attention. A casual look is not enough.

The last two rules are the ones which seem to puzzle many lutenists. When you are learning to sight-read, your eyes should be a little ahead of your fingers. As you get more practised at sight-reading, you should gradually increase the distance between the note you are playing and the note you are reading. Professionals trained on orchestral instruments all read like this. Reading ahead is the skill which makes sight-reading complex pieces possible. It gives a little buffer zone when a difficult bar comes along, because one’s eyes and brain can be analysing the difficult bar whilst the fingers catch up. When one gets to an easier section the eyes can move ahead again. This may sound impossibly complicated but it is not very different from the skill we all developed in learning to read, progressing from puzzling out single letters to syllables then whole words, until we are able to efficiently skim read entire sentences and paragraphs at speed when necessary. The crucial thing is that it is an active technique not a passive one: you need to consciously and continuously make your eyes read ahead, otherwise they will keep pace with your fingers. This is the part of sight-reading technique which requires dedicated practice to become an ingrained habit.

We can easily adapt this orchestral sight-reading technique to the lute. One important thing to look out for in reading ahead is any necessary position change. If you see fret h coming up and your eyes and fingers are at the same note, you might well put your 4th finger there. If you are reading ahead you might note the k and l following the h, and put your 1st finger on the h… Taking advantage of time in the bass line to pre-place the thumb for a low bass course is another example where reading ahead can mitigate a technical issue.

One difficulty is that we lutenists have to read several different notations, including staff notation, in which we face all of the same difficulties which make sight-reading famously difficult on the guitar - namely that most of the music is dense in texture, and many notes can be found in more than one place on the instrument. However, tablatures give a sight-reading advantage in that they eliminate the mental analysis required to a) identify the notes and b) locate them on the instrument. Tablature essentially tells us where to put our fingers, and although some analysis is required to puzzle out polyphonic textures and decide on the best fingerings, the work of locating the notes on the instrument is already done for us. In tablatures we do not have to worry about key signatures, though time signatures (and changes to them) do occur. Repeat schemes also occur, and in the case of rondeaux, they can be complicated. Staff notation has an advantage in that the pitch and duration of the note are combined in the same symbol, whereas in tablature we must constantly scan the system for two pieces of information, the finger placement and the rhythmic information above. Some tablatures, especially those which insert a rhythm sign only when it changes, are easier to sight-read than those which assign individual rhythm flags to each note, especially if these are unbeamed.

When practising sight-reading I suggest that you allow yourself to begin with tablatures with sparser rhythm flags, and progress to those with beamed flags, and finally to those with individual flags for every note. Another important point is that note spacing makes a big difference to the ease of difficulty of reading: most well-written or nicely set music assigns more line space to longer notes than to short ones, so one gets significant help in reading the rhythms merely from the spacing of the notes. Many modern computer programmes do not do this to the extent that most of us would like, and some impose cruel equidistant spacing on every note. Choose something with reader-friendly spacing for your early sight-reading practice, and save the equidistant notes for later. You could select a book or two with suitable spacing to start you off, and apply the random page selection only to this material, so you still have a proper sight-reading challenge. Another tip is that sight-reading should be the first thing addressed in your practice session, once you have tuned up: doing real sight-reading practice is hard work for the brain, and therefore tiring, so do it when you are freshest. Just one minute of sight-reading at the beginning of each practice session will pay huge dividends if you do it with attention.