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There’s an old joke doing the rounds that contains a sad truth. This is how it goes.
Question: How do you stop a guitarist from playing away non-stop in the corner?
Answer: Place a piece of music in front of them.
Sight-reading is still considered an outlier skill, and that’s a pity. In a parallel world, literacy is accepted as an essential requirement for personal and professional development. No one, as far as I know, disputes the educational advantages of reading and writing. They hold the key to a world of knowledge. Without them, our access to information of all types is limited to the spoken word.
Back to the guitar: poor reading skills discourage exploring the vast treasures of written music. The process is sufficiently difficult to put players off from casual playing and exploring. It is the equivalent of reading the letters one by one until you make out a word. How long can you keep that up? Not long.
And yet here’s the rub. There is little embarrassment in the guitar world about this deficiency, for that is what it is. Instead, ever since the Middle Ages, we have taken refuge in a lazy device such as tablature. This opens a window to only a fraction of the musical world – our world, and only some of it at that. It is a sort of guitar-centred navel-gazing among a resolute group of afflicted pluckers. Otherwise, they would pick at notation until, voilà, a chord is revealed, and then onto the next obscure passage when, after a very long period of fumbling, a tune comes into view.
Here is my suggestion. Make sight-reading (and its mirror opposite improvisation) a priority goal of learning from scratch onwards, just like reading and writing are a priority for 5-year-olds. That way an adult guitarist will not be outsmarted at reading by a 10-year-old quick-as-lightning other-instrument player. Better still, the old joke about written music reducing a guitarist to silence will become a thing of the past.
Thank you for reading.