Pre-Reading: What you need to know before you start working

Recently, I’ve been looking through the New Shearer Method. The main reason is that I was given Volumes 1 and 2 from my boss at work who had these guitar methods laying around. So every once and a while, I’ll go through the books on down time and read though them. Probably one of the most useful ideas that I read in this method was the concept of “Pre-Reading” (I think this the term that Shearer uses in his book) a piece of music.

The concept itself is simple, looking over a piece of music before you start to play a single note. Making sure that you know and understand the notes, rhythms left hand and right hand fingerings, etc.

Recently, I’ve been using this concept when introducing new pieces to students. However, my version of “Pre-Reading” is slightly different, and perhaps a bit more laid back then Shearer’s method. Shearer uses it to try and avoid making mistakes while learning a new piece. I use the method to help the student become more engaged with what they are working on, and also to bring their attention to more then the ‘right’ notes on the page. Often times I’ll write in their book a list of points they should remember while “Pre-Reading” either a full piece or a section of it.  These are just a few points that you want to be aware of:

  1. Notes – Are there any notes that either you don’t recognize or aren’t sure what position to work in?
  2. Rhythm – Are there any rhythms that look confusing?  What about separation of voices and their individual rhythms?  What does the composite rhythm sound like?
  3. Right Hand fingering – Is the piece fingered?  Are you currently fingering it?  Are you aware of what the fingering of a certain passage is?
  4. Left Hand fingering – Is the LH fingering included, or are you creating your own?  Do you understand and are aware of what the fingering is?  And position shifts that might be awkward?
  5. Dynamic Markings – Knowing where the dynamics occur, where crescendos and decrescendos happen.
  6. Musical Shape/Melodic Structure – Looking at where the starting and ending points of melodic lines occur.  Are there jumps/skips in the music or its the line scalar?  Is it a mixture?  Anyway melodic or rhythmical motifs that are repeated?

This is just a basic list.  But this is my starting point.  Depending on the piece, I might tackle the full thing.  However, if the piece is lengthy, or if it is pushing my technical and musical abilities I’ll work in smaller sections.  But just noticing these basic elements will greatly improve your success rate of the initial learning of a piece.  Mainly because now you know what to look out for, and you’ve looked deeper into the piece and taking the time to understand these basic elements that go into learning a piece of music.  The obvious next step is to make sure that the section you are working on, all the listed things are in place, or are beginning to take form before you move on.  While it seems like a longer process, because you are thinking about those things, you don’t have to go back to a piece of music and re-learn it with the correct fingering, or the correct rhythm or the correct dynamic markings.

Posted on in Classical Guitar Tips


  • Alex

    I didn’t have a name for it… but that is exactly what I do. I take a different approach, though. I may analyze the harmony, look at voice-leading, etc.

    Something I’ve found really useful is to take the concept of “reading one bar ahead” further. I use speed reading techniques to scan a whole page or section of music beforehand. Some part of my brain seems to store the info, so when I actually read it “out loud”, it flows better.

    Learning to read music without a guitar in hand is also a great ability to have…

  • Nick Cutroneo

    Alex, I think analyzing harmony and looking at the construction of a piece is great. However this is literally before you start working on a piece of music. While theoretical analysis is great, I think in the beginning stages of working on learning how to play a new piece of music its a non-essential extra step. It certainly doesn’t hurt, and if as a player you are able to comprehend and understand those concepts that’s great. However, this is an approach that can be done at any level of playing, and not everyone is well versed in the idea of musical analysis.

    I’m planning a series of articles relating to practicing, and I’ll certainly touch upon the subject of analysis in them.

  • Alex

    Hi Nick:

    Interesting comment… I think that there are many different levels at which “pre-reading” can take place. And in the end it all depends on the approach you want to take. For me, all music within the 12 tone tempered system is about gravitation, or lack thereof. So I certainly want to understand what the piece is all about, in terms of rhythm, melody, and harmony, before I even “commit” a single note to sound.
    Having said that, to me this has a lot to do with language. If you read plenty of legal documents, for instance, you get to the point where you don’t have to stop and analyze what the heck the jerk lawyer who wrote it (and who usually wants to confuse you 😉 means by all that mumbo-jumbo…
    But if you don’t, you will have to stop and analyze the vocabulary, and even the syntactical structure: so my point is that if you take the time to analyze music, you eventually get to the point where that particular style becomes second nature, and a scan (auditory or visual) of the music you are dealing with is sufficient to know what’s what, and what you can do with it.

    Cheers! Great blog!