This post was written more than two years ago. The content or information below may no longer be accurate.

This is the first written instalment in a series of write ups that breaks down and reflects on the classes/modules that I studied in my first year of the Bmus Guitar Degree at The Academy of Contemporary Music. My hope is that those interested in studying here, studying music anywhere and those of you now studying in your first year can gain a better of understanding of what the modules were like and how they’ve helped me develop so far.

Sight Reading 101
From the inception of my first academic year, reading was as far from being a strong point of my abilities than you could get. Sadly, even prior to joining the ACM although I had seen notation, I had never really read it and certainly not in relation to the guitar until I came to audition. I chose the sight reading pathway as my intention was and is to become a successful freelance/session guitarist and I knew that becoming a competent reader would be crucial for this. My tutor for both terms 1 and 2 was Carl Orr, a phenomenal guitarist whom of which has work with Bill Cobham among many, many other incredible musicians. The thing that I took most from this gentlemen was inspiration and would often book tutorials(one on one lessons) just to talk, rather than play. Carl summed up why being able to read/sight read is so important to any guitarist hoping to work and sustain themselves.

Imagine there are 40 guitarists all of which are looking for work and only five of these can read (music). Now, suppose there are 20 jobs going, but for 15 of these you need to be able to read. If you’re unable to read you’re automatically part of the other 34 guitarists that are all going for the five jobs they can actually do, whereas if you can read, you’re now part of the other four going for the 15 jobs that you can do AND you can do the other five also.

Term One saw the beginning of my sight reading module, which aims to begin with the basics and progress in difficulty for the student to develop their ability over the term. This class was quite large and each week I found myself sitting in the middle of the room, not at the front and not at the back. I didn’t want to be chosen for anything if I was at the front, nor did I want to miss anything by sitting at the back. The class sizes for this did change as in term 3 we began reading in small mixed discipline ensembles but I’ll cover this in a later post. The assessment process for these classes was daunting and intensive. We were required to read 16 bars or so of melody and chords to nothing but a metronome, with the other members of the class watching silently. Now for someone who has never read music or even been in a situation like this that isn’t a performance, this took quite a long time to adjust to. My advice in this situation would be to gain as much experience of a large group of people watching you as possible, along with reading practice.

Find out how I addressed this issue whilst using the ACM’s Jam Night Events.

Practice and Addressing The Issue
It’s safe to say that when I began my sight reading classes I simply couldn’t read and by feeling completely out of my depth I knew that it was a skill I needed to address as quickly as possible. Amongst the other 20 or so guitarists that were in my class at the time, there were perhaps only three of which that could read either really well or slightly. Unfortunately by being in a large class I wasn’t really able to practice or pick much up in terms of physically reading, I feel this is also down to the fact that many of us couldn’t read and so reading exercises as a class happened very rarely.

With the above said, reading is something that really, really needs to be addressed in your own time and very frequently in order to see development.

The hardest thing about practicing your reading is that it’s often quite soul destroying if you aren’t very good at all. To have your playing ability diminished to struggling to read even the simplest of semibreve (one note per bar) melodies, tests both your mood and patience quite quickly. The important thing to do in this circumstance as with any skill you’re trying to develop thats personal to you, is to maintain a positive self image.

ACM’s Jon Bishop (Guitar Essentials Tutor) explained how he he dealt with this issue during a class session.

As part of his structured or at least daily practice routine, he would force himself to practice sight reading FIRST and in the morning straight after having breakfast. He advised us to get what we like doing the least out of the way and to finish off our practice with something we enjoy most in order to maintain that feeling of positivity/accomplishment. I completely agree with this and believe this can be applied to whether you’re more of a morning or evening person but know from ongoing experience that practicing reading whilst you’re tired doesn’t help produce results as well as if you’re at your most focused point. To best develop your sight reading abilities you need to break it down to it’s two components (Pitch and Rhythm) and practice these separately before combining them. As a guitarist fretboard knowledge is crucial at this point, as if you aren’t aware of the notes on the fretboard or intervallic patterns, you will struggle to reach the notes in time.

The following video ‘random note finder’ from ACM’s Bass Guitar Tutor Joe Hubbard explains a good exercise to help develop your knowledge of the pitches across the fretboard.

So how about some suggestions of resources to practice with?
(I’m afraid most of these are specific to guitar, except for the suggestion of generally trying to acquire as much notation to read as possible.)

Practice Materials
One thing that was often regularly covered in class was materials that we could use to practice our sight reading.

First and foremost, two books that I quickly went out and bought as suggested by my classmates in a group discussion, were Leon White’s ‘Sight To Sound’ and William Leavitt’s ‘Melodic Rhythms’ as part of the Berklee Press.

Sight To Sound
This is an example of book that individually focuses on pitch and rhythm at it’s basics, before then combining them and it progresses in difficulty nicely. It tackles the challenge of learning to sight read by encouraging positional playing and using the major scale that corresponds to the key you are reading in.

Melodic Rhythms For Guitar
Begins at a more advanced level than Sight to Sound, but that’s simply because it’s a book of study pieces for you to read, with both chord and melody for you to play with someone else. The chords used in this book are definitely more advanced than beginners would be use. You will need to acquire the chord knowledge needed for this book elsewhere but my advice is to use this book with the support of sight to sound, to help build yourself to a level where you can practice with it effectively. This also doubles up as an interesting book for analysing harmony, as the pieces are intentionally odd and dissonant at times.

Modern Reading Text in 4/4 – Louis Bellson
This book is phenomenal and a MUST have to develop rhythm reading. This is usable by for any instrument as there’s no pitch included whatsoever. This is simply a book of every 4/4 rhythm you could possibly encounter, a lot of which you wouldn’t normally see written out as they’re what’s regarded as grammatically incorrect but none the less this makes it even more useful to develop reading any combination of rhythms. I personally use this book a lot and throughout my first year would read from this book whilst having breakfast, tapping out to a metronome on the kitchen table. This doubles up as a great study book to use with a friend, as I now read from this book with a drummer from the 2nd year also. Together we challenge ourselves to not only play the same passage in sync with one another but to also play different passages at the same time and not be distracted by one another. Lots of fun!
This is a website that served as my main practice source for sight reading throughout terms 1 and 2. What makes this website so great is that you can tailor your learning by selecting different difficulty levels, different keys and alter the tempo accordingly. The software automatically generates new melody lines for you to practice upon the click of a simple icon and it plays back to you at the same. Be careful though as while this website has helped me develop tremendously, I found I became dependant on hearing it played back to me as justification despite playing exactly in time. To combat this I reduced the volume level, until I was able to without having it played back to me. After using this site I found that I struggled to read any written notation or notation on paper form, simply because I’m become so accustomed to the clean, perfect layout of software generated notation like this and Sibelius. This is where sight to sound and melodic rhythms for guitar came in handy.

Classical Reading material Or Books For Other Instruments In The Appropriate Clef – I would advise that you try to obtain as much notation to practice from as possible and once you’re down with a piece, read it backwards! In the words of Jon Bishop, you need plenty of ‘cannon fodder’ that you can just constantly use to practice with. Over the summer I took the time to search high and low in charity shops for books of notation that people no longer wanted. I ended up finding violin and clarinet grade books that include classical passages that whilst being pleasing to hear played, can be quite technical. I found that the violin pieces once played on guitar, end up challenging your articulation on the fretboard and if sped up can be a lot of fun.

All in all Term 1 of sight reading was very difficult for me personally but certainly gave me an introduction to reading. It encouraged me to practice regularly and as you can tell, gave me a good understand of how to practice.

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Next up is my reflection on Term 1 of Ear Training.

Republished on behalf of ACM Guitar Degree Student Ben Mortlock. Originally published on