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I'm working through Berklee Press' Modern Method for Guitar 1. I start every new piece at 40 1/8th notes per minute, so 20 bpm. 40 bpm (1/4 notes per minute) is the lowest my metronome goes, so I just make each tick an 1/8th note instead of a 1/4 note. 40 bpm seems like it's too fast for me to read a new piece.

For most pieces, I just start at 20 bpm and I work up to only 40 bpm. I realize that that's still very slow, but I'm not trying to memorize the song, nor prepare for a performance. Working up to faster speeds seems like it's less about reading music and more about muscle memory. For the pieces or exercises that are more speed specific, I will work up to 80+ bpm.

The problem that I'm wondering about is that I'm not really getting faster at sight reading music. Every new piece I start at 20 bpm. I can't imagine sight reading a song at its intended tempo.

Is there a better way to approach this. Instead of starting slow, should I start faster and just make a ridiculous amount of mistakes? I already make mistakes at 20 bpm. I have seen questions and answers like this one that say to slow down to practice songs. Should I burn my guitar and cut off my hands?

I realize that each piece is getting more difficult, so maybe if I were to start at the beginning of the book, or find another book with easier pieces, then I could start faster. I would appreciate your thoughts on this!

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    This is a good question, which in the OP's case is about guitar, but the meat of the question is not specific to guitar. Should it be edited and retagged to make it less guitar-centric? – shoover Oct 20 '17 at 21:07
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    Consider using a phone app for a metronome. There must be one that lets you go down to 20, and then increase by 1 at a time, for example. If the jump to 40 is too hard, try starting the next couple new songs at 21, then at 22, etc., and work your way up. – Luke Sawczak Oct 21 '17 at 2:29
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    Something I've not seen in the answers below is the importance of learning to sight read rhythms without the instrument. Clapping, speaking (da da daaa da da da etc.), singing, tapping on the table; the important thing is to remove the technical aspect from your sight reading and work on being able to interpret what the rhythms sound like without having to slow it right down. Separate out the problem of how fast your technique allows you to finder the correct notes and how well you can sight-read rhythm into two separate parts. – Some_Guy Oct 21 '17 at 18:17
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    @Some_Guy: Great advice! My drum teacher said "If you can't sing it, you can't play it." – Jörg W Mittag Oct 22 '17 at 8:54
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The advice about starting slow and gradually increasing is certainly not wrong, but I'd consider adding another "mode" of practicing especially when it comes to sight reading.

So the default mode is to focus on being correct rather than fast. When you want to learn the piece or when dealing with a method book that is teaching things in addition to just sight-reading, default to starting slow and working your way up. Find trouble spots and "loop" them, etc.

But (sometimes) to practice sight-reading or just as an occasional exercise to get yourself out of a rut, try to focus on moving forward without worrying so much about mistakes.

  1. Go a bit faster than you normally would or are comfortable. The goal isn't to see how fast you can play it, but just to force you to keep up and start reading ahead.
  2. Don't worry about mistakes. Don't start over. Don't loop trouble spots. Just keep moving forward trying to keep up.
  3. Don't let yourself memorize anything because that defeats your goal of learning to sight-read. Get some new reading material that isn't your method book. Berklee has companion books specifically for this, or you can use violin music (alt link), fake books, randomly generated music, whatever. Just as long as it's the appropriate difficulty and you aren't familiar with it.

Then as far as your method book, see if that helps you increase the speed of the pieces that you're trying to actually learn. It should improve both your speed of actually recognizing and playing notes as well as your ability to look ahead to what you're playing next.

Don't worry about getting every exercise in your method book up to speed (maybe a bit higher than 40 though if you can get there). Do worry about getting them correct before moving on the next. And do internalize the point of the lesson (new key, fingering, or rhythm, etc). But only cherry pick certain pieces to truly perfect and get up to speed. Otherwise you'll never move forward into new positions, etc.

And, yeah, every once in a while you should start back at the beginning or an earlier point in the book and review some of the pieces. But you have to balance that with constant progress forward as well.

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    One of my teachers put it surprisingly simply: "The only way to get good at playing fast is to practice playing fast." Slow practice is great for working out kinks, but only practicing at speed will get you up to speed. – MattPutnam Oct 20 '17 at 18:41
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    There are two different things the OP needs to learn. The object of sight reading is to play unseen music, first time, at its correct tempo. If you have to leave out some notes etc, so be it - but you have to keep going, whatever happens. If you are sight-reading in a band or orchestra and you can't keep time, the result will be a train wreck. On the other hand if you are learning a piece, the most important thing is accuracy, not speed - but don't get sidetracked by to memorize the piece at the same time as you are learning it - first, learn to play it from the written score. – user19146 Oct 20 '17 at 20:37
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Practice sight reading without a metronome at all.

I find playing the rhythm exactly enough to stay in step with a metronome is a small challenge in itself and will hold you back if you want to work on reading faster, because by trying to sight read with a metronome, you're fighting on two fronts and stretching your attention thin.

So when you play the piece for the first couple of times, just play without a metronome - you can tap your foot if that helps, but just go as fast as you can play the correct notes and make the rhythm somewhat right - you can speed up on easy-to-read passages and slow down on the more complicated ones. The goal is to read and finger the notes right as fast as you can, and just keep enough of the rhythm to get an impression of how the piece will sound later on in your practice.

Sight reading is all about recognizing patterns fast, so by reading and playing each part as fast as you can read and finger it, you can move different patterns up at different speeds without having to wait for the most complicated stuff to pick up speed. Soon your library of recognized patterns that you can read and play fast will grow and you will be able to read and play pieces with these patterns reasonably fast. The more difficult parts will catch up after you don't have to think much about the easy parts anymore.

Now after you've played the piece a couple of times at your variable sight reading pace, get out a metronome and work out the intricacies of the rhythm.

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    Practicing without a metronome in the beginning is excellent advice in general, but especially for guitarists. When learning a new piece on guitar (unlike, say, the flute), there will always be parts where your fingers aren't yet ready for the transition, the first readings of a guitar piece are always going to be very "stop start", unless you slow it down a ridiculous amount. – Some_Guy Oct 21 '17 at 18:20
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Practice as fast as you can without making mistakes, or fumbling. This almost always initially means slowly. And be alert to the fumbling. You're not playing it without mistakes when you try out a few wrong finger positions before settling on the right one. Get the transitions right too! If you're having to play TOO slowly, it may be that you haven't found the direct route to the next position.

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Instead of starting slow, should I start faster and just make a ridiculous amount of mistakes?

No, from my experience it is better to start slow and work on correcting mistakes. The speed will come naturally. If you start fast, mistakes won't correct themselves naturally.

However, keep in mind there is a lot to read on a sheet of music: The note itself, it's duration, how it fits into the beat, while remembering the key, etc.

There are ways to practice reading some of that information in isolation, without a guitar in hand and without worrying about the rest. For example, practice reading the rhythm:

  • Every day, take a sheet of music
  • Set a metronome to a slow comfortable speed, for example 40 bpm
  • tap your foot to the metronome beat
  • Say the beat number out loud (1 2 3 4)
  • Tap your strumming hand on your lap for each note on the sheet of music, but don't say the beat nor tap your hand when there is a silence

By being persistant, you will be able to increase the speed and then, reading the rhythm will become automatic and it will be one fewer thing slowing you down while playing.

If you would like to follow a formal method including gradually more complex exercices, here is a a book I used and which helped me a lot: https://www.justinguitar.com/en/PR-012-UnderstandingRhythmicNotation.php

For notes identification, you could do a similar exercice, but you could name the notes instead of tapping your hand.

Hope this helps

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I too am using the modern method , what I do set my metronome and batter through the exercises then get to a point , stop after a fortnight or so then go back and review ,I’m not memorising the peices , each time I review I increase the speed Incrementaly, because the exercises get more technical as you move forward going back to the beginning I got up to 80bpm in no time , and just keep doing that and you get there

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Based on my experience with typing, morse code, music, ... , set the metronome speed well below what you can handle. At this slower pace, you'll tend to read ahead while playing the current note(s), a form of multi-tasking. Then slowly speed up the metronome. Again you want to try be reading at least one note ahead of what you're currently playing.

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My initial reaction was that it's pointless to practice sight-reading specifically and that you will automatically get faster in parallel to learning to play, more easily reading single notes, reading several notes at once and just guessing notes instead of reading them all (the latter can be dangerous but also highly effective). Likewise for your finger's ability to do the work, this is all about muscle-memory, you'll build up a muscle repertoire so to speak. You will never sight-play at the same level as if you practiced a piece and if you are working through a method book each new method will (and should) have something new to slow you down.

But methods shouldn't be the only thing you are playing. And when you are playing other things, written to sound nice instead of being an appropriate challenge and teaching you something, then exactly the slow steady method practice should enable you to sight read comparatively fast.

(This is just my subjective experience with some other instruments and the styles of music I play. I think it probably applies in general, but can't be sure)

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I am a big fan of sight reading factory, and I feel that it has made a big difference in my reading. For instance, maybe you could work specifically on starting at a lower level and setting the metronome just beyond your comfort zone. Think of it as speed work for your reading. Two things that work for me: don't stop. Yes you will make mistakes, but learning to keep going is important. Second, practice looking ahead. While you are waiting for that full note to finish, see what's coming to in the next bar. There is a place for reading slowly and methodically, but you might surprise yourself and gain confidence by trying those speed drills.

Good luck!
Brian King

BTW I am not affiliated with sightreadingfactory.com in any way. I just use I it and love it.

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    If "sight reading factory" is a product name it probably should have capital letters. – Transistor Oct 21 '17 at 16:47

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