Beyond any doubt, Franz Liszt was the greatest sight-reader who ever lived, and all musicians of the nineteenth century testified to his miraculous powers. An American composer named Otis B. Boise visited him at Weimar in 1876 bearing a full orchestral score. Liszt asked him to play it, Boise tells the following story: "There has never been an occasion in my career when my pianistic caliber seemed to me so small, as when I for that moment contemplated exhibiting it for the first time to that great master; and I also felt that my innocent composition would suffer in his esteem through its shortcomings. He evidently noticed my worry and relieved me at once by saying, 'I think after all I should obtain a better idea of details if I play it myself. 'Accordingly he seated himself, glanced at the instrumental scheme, turned his mind, began the most astoundingly coherent rendering of an orchestral score that I had heard and such as I never since heard from another musician. Those who have attempted such tasks know that the ten fingers being inadequate to the performance of all the details, it is necessary to cull such essentials from the mass of voices as well as clear the line of development. Liszt did this simultaneously. No features of the workmanship, contrapuntal or instrumental, escaped his notice, and he made running comments without interrupting his progress."
It is an unfortunate circumstance that many guitarists are poor sight-readers. In a musical world where the guitar is still not always respected as a "legitimate" instrument, I am sometimes embarrassed when colleagues who play other instruments tell me they tried to play chamber music with this or that guitarist but found it frustrating or impossible because the guitarist could not read well enough. Or, closer to home, I have had students at the University of Missouri who simply could not keep up with the demands of our guitar program because it took them half of the semester to learn the notes to their pieces leaving little time to master them. Most musicians recognize the obvious importance of sight-reading in areas of the profession such as accompanying, teaching, ensemble playing, and radio, television, and film studio work. What about the amateur guitarist, or the guitarist who aspires to be a solo performer? Of what value is sight-reading to them?
Fluency helps make one's study of the guitar easier and more pleasurable. First of all, the study of sight-reading gives the player fluency. It gives a student a chance to learn a new piece before he tires of it. When learning a new piece, a student is most likely to be discouraged by the initial contact-wading through the maze of incomprehensible notes, signs, and symbols, all of which may present few technical problems once he has learned to read them. (This is especially apropos of anyone attempting to learn modern music.) Therefore, fluency helps make one's study of the guitar easier and more pleasurable. After all, one of the main virtues of being a musician is the pleasure music can give us. It should not be a battle to learn a new piece of music!
The second value of good sight-reading is the access and familiarity it gives to a wide variety of literature that we otherwise might not get to know. Yes, we can listen to recordings to hear unfamiliar literature, but not all the good or interesting literature is recorded. There are hundreds of brilliant compositions waiting to be discovered. In fact, for the guitarist aspiring to be a concert performer it is almost imperative that he find music that has not been recorded to help establish his own artistic profile and personality. The good sight-reader has an open door to a broad acquaintance with a wide range of music. Those guitarists interested in transcribing music will find the ability to sight-read a gift from heaven. It will save time in finding suitable works to transcribe and make the process of transcription quicker, more efficient, and more enjoyable.
Finally, extensive sight-reading will introduce many new technical, stylistic, and interpretive experiences that will contribute directly to the artistic grasp of the pieces selected for more formal study. Thanks to this wealth of experience one may study a particular fugue or sonata not in isolation, but in relation to the whole literature of fugues or sonatas. Vladimir Horowitz, perhaps the greatest pianist of our time, once said in an interview, "This year I play two pieces of Faure. First of all, I studied the whole composer. I play everything he wrote. Ensemble music, everything, I play myself-not listen to recordings. Records are not the truth. They are like post cards of a beautiful landscape. You bring the post cards home so when you look at them you will remember how beautiful is the truth. So I play. I'm a very good sight-reader. The texture of the music talks to me, the style. I feel the music, the spiritual content of his compositions." Yes, feeling the style of the music and the spiritual content can only be experienced by playing it, not by listening to records. Like Horowitz, I believe the concert guitarist cannot truly feel and understand the style and content of say, Bach's Lute Suite No. 4 without also studying, at the very least, the other three Lute Suites and their versions for unaccompanied violin.
Recognizing the importance of the ability to sight-read, what is the best way to learn or improve this skill? Read, read, and read. The prescription for learning to sight-read is to sight-read. But sight-reading must be studied systematically with a panorama of music mapped out in advance. And one need not practice reading for hours everyday. Just ten minutes daily everyday will result in tremendous improvement in one month. To start, one must read very elementary music. Of course before sight-reading begins, the intermediate and advanced guitarist must know the notes on the fingerboard through the twelfth fret. If he does not know them real well, that is o.k.-sight reading will improve his familiarity with them quickly. In my experience I find most guitarists read fairly well in the lower positions. But above the fourth fret they are lost. Therefore the initial goal most guitarists should set for themselves is to be able to sight-read virtually any single line melody in any position of the guitar. I recommend that most students start their sight-reading with beginning violin methods. They are single line melodies and the fingering notations will have no meaning to the guitarist, allowing him to concentrate fully on the notes. I strongly recommend that the guitarist just beginning sight-reading stay away from guitar music. It is usually fairly heavily fingered and can lead to the student sight-reading fingerings instead of music.