As guitarists, for better or worse, we tend to approach the instrument from a visual and/or tactile perspective. We are first introduced to fingerings, grips, diagrams, and other references that we tend to internalize from either one or a combination of these perspectives. As a matter of entry to the instrument this is not necessarily a bad thing. It is in how we approach it as students, and eventually as teachers that allows us to harness the true power of this perspective.
When students first learn how to read music on the guitar there is a tendency to be disconnected from previous knowledge acquired on the instrument. A more effective way to approach reading on the guitar is to connect to prior knowledge or skills acquired. Consider this fingering of the F major scale:
As students practice learning this scale they should also practice reading the scale. This will help to connect the eyes, brain and fingers together so that when you see that first note you will know that it is an F played on the first fret of the 6th string. In doing so students will soon be able to connect something that is familiar, a scale fingering, with something that might be less familiar like reading music. Through making this connection reading music starts to be come a more comfortable experience.
Once a student begins to feel a connection with the scale fingering of the major scale and the notes on the staff, consider presenting a melody found in the Guitar 101, Book 2:
When doing so a connection should be made to the previous F major scale fingering. This allows us to access a certain comfort zone and connect to prior knowledge. Through these types of connections we are able to feel more comfortable and confident reading music on the guitar. Once we start to move up the neck of the guitar learning additional fingerings for our F major scale we can begin to connect to those respective fingerings. In doing so we are now starting to read all over the neck of the guitar. This allows us to have a new level of freedom throughout the entire fret board.
Whether you are trying to look for new strategies to read music or you are searching for new methods to utilize when teaching students to read music consider the following:
1. Make connections to prior knowledge and skills
2. Practice scales while reading the music in an effort to create familiarity through these connections
3. Present reading examples of simple diatonic melodies
4. Connect those melodies to scale fingerings
5. Connect melodies to additional scale fingerings up the neck
When these types of methods are put in place reading music begins to become a less complicated experience. Through connecting to prior knowledge you will begin to read music in your comfort zone.
Tom Dempsey is a New York based jazz guitar performer, recording artist, and educator. He is the author of four books for Alfred Music and the co-author of both volumes of the new Guitar 101 series. Currently Tom is an Associate Professor of Music at LaGuardia Community College as well as an instructor at Jazz at Lincoln Center.