I'll admit, for the longest time, I feared sight-reading. Despite any advice given to me, I couldn't significantly improve, and I struggled to make it happen under pressure. Instead, I memorized nearly everything, and avoided situations where sight-reading was mandatory.
Recently, I decided to put my foot down, and force myself to overcome this fear. For the sake of my students, I needed to understand it better, so I could teach it better.
While improving my own sight-reading skills, I made notes on what helped me improve. Then, I compiled this list with tips I've heard before. Here's the list I compiled, so far.
1. Use Black Keys
Of course, black keys are used to visually identify letters on the piano, but they can also be a physical guide. Without looking at the keyboard, practice finding letters, chords, scales, and segments of pieces by feeling around the black keys.
2. Plane Shapes (for practice only)
Play an interval or chord, and move it diatonically (along a scale) or chromatically (keep the quality). Move at a set intervallic distance, too. This develops intervallic muscle memory within the hand, and intervallic muscle memory in arm movements.
3. Read for Fun
Reading new things should be fun! Don't just read to improve your sight-reading skills; read to discover new repertoire, or to play old and familiar tunes.
4. Look Around More
Look up, down, forward, backwards, and diagonally, not just at the notes currently being played. Compare what's currently being played to everything else seen in the past and future.
5. Look Precisely
Be careful that "look around more" doesn't turn into a purposeless wandering gaze. Make sharp, quick movements, looking at specific points on the page.
6. Analyze, Roughly
Look for patterns, sequences, and unique traits. You don't have to give a theoretical dissertation; just look for obvious things, like "this four note melody repeats," or "the notes are moving inward."
7. Recognize Steps and Skips
Steps and skips provide stable grounding, as they are the easiest interval to feel on the piano and see on the page. Even when notes are flying across the keyboard, steps and skips are usually hidden in the texture, due to voice-leading.
Even if you know nothing about playing an instrument, you've likely heard enough music to know what good melodies and voice leading sound like. Use your ear to make educated guesses about direction and distance of melodies and other voices.
9. Stay Close
Place your hand on a table. Close your eyes, lift your hand up high, and place it back down. Open your eyes-did your hand land on the same spot it left? Likely not. Do it again, and lift up only a little. Has your accuracy improved?
10. Replace Hands and Fingers
Pay attention to the location of all fingers, even if they are not playing. Use these locations as reference points, when hands must travel. If time permits, chain together multiple "silent" finger replacements for far distances, to keep eyes on the page.
11. Look Up
Temptation to look at hands is mostly a habit, and as with any habit, getting rid of it takes some time. When you practice sight-reading, trust all of the other tips, and never look down. If you are a recovering "peeker," allow yourself to look down only in performances, only when you feel it to be absolutely necessary.
12. Observe Expressive Marks
Expressive details often coincide with the "rough analysis." For example, you might notice that slurs highlight sequenced melodies, or dynamics mark beginnings of new sections.
13. Dominate Small Sections (for practice only)
Choose a comfortably small amount...depending on the piece, this may mean a couple of beats, a couple of measures or a couple of systems. Take a minute to focus and analyze, then try your best to play everything perfectly and expressively.
14. Slow Down (for practice only)
Play at an extremely slow speed, or completely out of time. Just focus on getting all the pitches and expressive marks correct.
15. Tap Rhythms Only (for practice only)
Do the opposite of tip number 14; take pitches out and just focus on improving rhythmic sight-reading. Tap the rhythms on the fall board of the piano. If either hand has multiple voices with different rhythms, designate each voice to one finger in that hand.
16. Pause in Uncertain Moments (for practice only)
Play in tempo, and pause every time you feel slightly unsure. Playing should be 100% clean, except for the hesitations.
17. Blast Through, Recklessly (for practice only)
No matter what, don't stop. In a live performance, you won't be able to, so you should get used to the feeling. To reinforce this idea and block temptation of pausing, practice sight-reading duets, sight-reading an accompaniment, or sight-reading with a recording of the same piece.
18. Play in Darkness (for practice only)
Temped to look down? Remove the option! Play anything you want (pieces, improvisation, exercises, etc.), in the darkness. Of course, you can't sight-read while doing this, but it builds necessary kinesthetic skills for doing so.
19. Improvise (for practice only)
It helps in various ways, but mostly, it helps you figure out what "feels right." When sight-reading, relying on this gut feeling might save you when all other tactics fail.
20. Be Patient
Nobody becomes a good sight-reader overnight. It can take years to become comfortable, and decades to become a master.
21. Be Consistent
If you don't use it, you lose it. Read every day, and concentrate on one or more of these tips each time.
22. Create Your Own Tip List
With a little thinking outside of the box and experimenting, I developed a few tips I've never heard before. I bet you can too!
23. Tap Silently (practice only)
If you're heavily dependent on your ear, and you find yourself "fixing" mistakes while sight-reading, tapping the keys silently, instead of actually playing them, will remove those temptations, and force you to focus on visual and kinesthetic skills.
24. Drill The Six C's
Low C (2 ledger lines below), Bass C (2nd space), Middle C (left hand), Middle C (right hand), treble C (3rd space), and High C (2 ledger lines above). They're called landmark notes, because if you know them really well, you can always get back on track, like when you're driving and you get lost!
25. Point With One Hand (Practice Only)
Sometimes, our eyes get lazy, and we trust things like our ears and memory a little too much. To make sure our eyes are actually staying on the page, play only one hand at a time, and use the other hand to point to the notes being played or looked at. If you want to be more precise, use a pencil and point with the tip.
I no longer fear sight-reading. In fact, I love it! I'm not yet a master, but I am improving, and my students are too. Hopefully, these tips will help you and your students improve as well. Happy sight-reading!!!