Memorizers vs. Sightreaders

Two different student categories that I have encountered have been memorizers and sightreaders. There's pros and cons to each one, but nobody says you can't be both (not me at least). In fact, I think it would be best to develop each skill set well. I think it would be less wise to stick to one and ignore the other.


Memorizers tend to get a new piece of music, and study it until they don't need the sheet music anymore, and then they leave the sheet music behind. The good thing about this is that memorized music tends to be less restrained by the limitations of the margins on the paper, and it truly comes from the inside. On the other hand, a piece of music left memorized but unreviewed has the tendency to morph and change in the performer's head. I'm speaking from experience! So it's a good idea to bring out the music every once in awhile and make sure you're on the right track.


Sightreaders will get a new piece of music, read the notes accurately and interpret the piece well. For most gifted sightreaders, their sightreading is so good that they don't have to spend much time and effort internalizing a piece. Why memorize a book if it is sitting right in front of you? The good thing is that if you can write it, they can play it. The bad thing is that if they can sightread it, they're not going to memorize it.

The Yin and Yang

Beginning students often fall into a rut of one category or the other, simply because they don't need both to play music. This can also be caused by teacher oversight or neglect. But the truth is that one can absolutely develop both skill sets and be proficient in both categories, and music is exponentially more enjoyable when this is the case. If you think about it, sightreading at its core is quick, short-term memorization. Memorization requires reading or hearing of the music in order to stick in a brain. They overlap. So when you develop all of these skills, you'll have more tools at your musical disposal.

Here are some great sightreading materials for guitar.

William Leavitt's books are also great guitar sightreading resources.

For the best training, you really should try to read anything you can get your hands on. I've found the the more I practice sightreading, the better my memorization skills become.

When To Practice

There are so many different things vying for our attention in our day to day lives that it can be extremely difficult to find time to practice. This goes for not only musical instruments but anything else that you need to do many times to get good at.

Be Honest

Here's the short and straight answer: If you have found something that you are truly truly passionate about, it's easy to forget about everything else, immerse yourself in it, and lose all track of time. You don't have to make time for your passions. If you're passionate about something, you will have to make time for other things.

On the other hand, if you are constantly at battle with yourself or your child about practicing, you're barking up the wrong tree. I'm not talking about a reminder every once in awhile, I'm talking about daily conversations, uncomfortable for all parties involved, about practicing for a half hour (the minimum I recommend). 

Comfort vs. Discipline

Reminders are ok because anything that requires dedication and a high level of performance also requires discipline, and discipline isn't always flowers and candy. Sometimes you have to wake up earlier, skip that movie, or stay inside and put flesh to wood and put in some time on your instrument. But if you love it, what are you missing?


Here's the bottom line: anything is better than zero practice, but 1 hour is many times better than 5 minutes. Beginner students sometimes don't have the repertoire to practice any more than a half hour, but they need to learn muscle memory and posture and that can fill a half hour easily. If you're crazy about your craft, you can fill an hour easily too.

Here's my recommendation for beginners that are still figuring things out: Practice every day and take one day off during the week, but not the day before, on, or after your lesson. If you want to maintain your skill level and not improve, go for a half hour a day. If you want to improve, up that time to an hour or more.

Don't Scare Yourself

The reason I talk about such small numbers is because they are unintimidating and achievable. I see a lot of rookie players saying, 'I only have one day off so I'm going to do my whole week's practice on that day...6 hours!' That never works, and they just scare themselves into procrastinating or zero practice. Besides, it's almost detrimental to practice any more than 2 hours because you get fatigued and stop absorbing information. Take a 5 minute break every hour or two and do something different and active, like shoot a few hoops or walk around the block. 

So next time you go to your lesson, be caught up on your work so you can use the time to learn new stuff, not to practice.

Anything is Better Than Zero

Now more than ever, kids are bombarded with things seeking their attention-- video games, apps, youtube, homework, school sports, ipods, netflix, etc. As they get older and start having more 'grown up' type responsibilities, it becomes harder to just stumble upon an extra half hour to practice. It also seems trendy for parents to sign their kids up for as many activities as possible. Whatever happened to just having the time to be a bored kid left to their own creative devices?

I see my students struggling with this on a weekly basis, and I have a strategy for reeling it in. It's called, 'Anything is Better Than Zero'. The premise is that the only sure way to get worse is to not practice at all. Even five minutes is better than nothing, because your brain and body get tremendous benefit from doing. Music is a game of execution. 

I'm not a fan of demanding practice from my students, I'd rather peruse the practical considerations with them instead. I usually ask, 'You'd like to get better, wouldn't you?' And they always respond yes. Then I ask them how much they indulged in the aforementioned vices. Usually it's a little bit of everything. Then we talk about which ones we can scale back on so that we can play guitar more in an effort to improve.

Now, I know some teachers and parents are reading this and saying, "Five minutes of practice?!?! No way that's gonna work." But the idea here is not to become a world class guitar player on 5 minute practice sessions, the idea is to start habits of practice that grow into a passion for the instrument. Five minutes is an extremely un-intimidating goal that can get people up and doing every day. Otherwise, people set intimidating goals that scare them into zeros every day.

Rockwell Guitar School serves St. Paul and surrounding suburbs as a provider of music instruction on Guitar, Bass, Banjo, Mandolin, and Ukelele. For more information please visit our FAQs page or call 612-568-7433.