The first thing that is required for effective sight-reading is that the reading process itself not be impeded by anything practical. It is inefficient—and unfair to yourself and to your efforts—to work on sight-reading when there is too little light, or when you are trying to read from music that is small, cramped, poorly photocopied, annotated in a way that obscures the notes, or for any other reason difficult to see. There are times when we can’t avoid problems of this sort. It is easy to forget that these things matter, but they do: it is worth some trouble to get all of this right if possible. Copying onto clearer paper, enlarging, erasing unneeded notes: all good ideas. Setting up good lighting: an extremely good idea. (And of course, good light should light the pages evenly, not cast bright light here and shadows there.) If there is a choice of edition, large size and clarity should be taken into account. (They don’t trump accuracy of the musical text and any of its historical or musicological aspects when it comes to learning and performing pieces, of course, but they might for practicing sight-reading.)
It is also worth remembering to position the music in the most sensible way along the music desk. It is natural to put the beginning of a passage at the exact spot that seems easiest to read from (very possibly the middle) and then to have to cope with the fact that two-thirds (or so) of the music is sort of off to one side. It is fine to slide music about to get the part that you are currently reading into the best position, if there is time to do so. This can’t always come out perfectly, but it is worth remembering to think about.
It is interesting that the best position at which to read music is not the same from one person to another. This has to do in part with eyesight, and in part with habit. But it also has to do with the matter of the dominant eye. There is a simple test that you can do to determine which of your eyes is dominant. Sit or stand comfortably with your arms at your side. Look at something in the middle distance. Point to that thing with one of your index fingers—fairly quickly and spontaneously, without stopping to think about anything. Without moving your arm, hand, or finger, close first one eye and then the other. You should observe that with one eye open your index finger is actually pointing to the spot that you tried to point at, and that with the other eye open it is not. The eye that shows your finger pointing at the object is your dominant eye. This is completely different from the vision that is tested by an eye doctor or optometrist. You can see music more easily on the side of your dominant eye than on the other side.
Speaking of vision tests, it is most important that your eyes’ focus on the music as it sits on the music desk be correct. Or in other words, that your glasses’ prescription be right. Most reading glasses are designed to focus too near to the reader’s eyes—maybe about fifteen inches—to be good for reading music on the music desk of a keyboard instrument. That distance is usually more like twenty-two inches. It is not a problem for an optometrist to create glasses that focus for reading at twenty-two inches, but you must ask for this. These should specifically focus at whatever distance you think is right for you, or that you actually measure. They should be traditional single-focus glasses, not part of any sort of bi- or tri-focal or progressive lenses. Not everyone needs to make a change in this department. But if your visual focus on the music desk is uncomfortable, then correcting that is crucial.
All things considered:
Practice vs. performance
I am writing this about sight-reading. It is also true of any playing: just even more important for sight-reading. The same is true of other aspects of work on playing. To turn it around for a minute, much of what I have written about recently (and over the years) in connection with playing and learning to play is applicable to working on sight-reading, or just to the act of sight-reading, only more so. This is true, for example, of not needing to look at the hands and feet very much, and of being committed to keeping the music going, as well as of having an openness to seeing the keyboard score as being one texture played by ten fingers (rather than the upper staff’s being the right hand part and the lower staff the left hand) and being in the habit of paying attention, in the pedals, to what each foot has last been doing, not just to what the last note of the pedal part was.
It is also true that any habitual approach to fingering can be an aid to sight-reading. It is likely that part of the reason for the existence of “normal” fingerings for certain kinds of passages—scales and chord shapes, primarily—is that those fingerings can, by their very nature as unconsciously available defaults, make sight-reading easier. The details of those fingerings have varied with time and place, for reasons that don’t in themselves have anything to do with sight-reading. It is the very fact of their being learned defaults that makes them relevant to sight-reading.
On the other hand, there is one major theoretical conflict between sight-reading and ideal performance. In sight-reading, keeping the piece going is an absolute requirement. It should be in any performance as well, of course, and also in practicing. However, in sight-reading, by definition, no interpretive decisions have been made, and no interpretive ideas have been brought to bear on fingering and pedaling choices. So it must be very clear that interpretive dimensions of the “performance” do not have any priority. If in order to get the next notes you must use a fingering that creates a detached articulation when you might have preferred legato, or a pedaling that undermines clarity, or if an ornament has to be too slow or too fast or badly timed, or, for that matter, omitted, that must be judged to be OK. Likewise if, as you hear the music go by, you have what might be called interpretive reactions—“how would this sound if I . . . ?” or “this should be more free, or more clear, or more jaunty, or . . . ” then you should just ignore those feelings. In any case, nothing except getting the next note or notes on time and in the right rhythm has any priority whatsoever. This also includes anything having to do with registration, being on a keyboard other than the one you want to be on, swell pedal position, and so on. Finally, if you have to omit part of the texture—notes, chords, inner voices, one and/or the other, or the feet, or conceivably one foot—then that is all right: much better than breaking rhythm.
This stance or approach or attitude is very different from what we want in “real” performance. However, it is uncannily similar to what performance can feel like if something starts to go wrong (as it really does at least once in a while for everyone). When playing feels like this, we indeed often actually say, “It was as if I had never seen that piece before.” Therefore, practicing sight-reading with this attitude also constitutes practice keeping any playing going when doing so partakes (fleetingly, we all hope) of that feeling of hanging on for dear life.
A system for sight-reading
So what does it take to practice sight-reading systematically? As with aspects of doing sight-reading, practicing sight-reading is not so different from practicing any other keyboard skill (in particular, practicing pieces to learn them) but just requires being mindful of what the emphasis should be.
First of all, in order to practice real sight-reading, it is necessary to have a fairly extensive source of printed music available to you that you have never played and don’t know very well (or at all) by ear. Very few of us want to purchase a lot of music expressly for the purpose of playing through it exactly once: that seems wasteful. There are a few ways to approach this. Of course you can acquire music that you are going to want to learn or to use for something beyond sight-reading practice, and then use it (once) for sight-reading practice. You can download free music, print it out, and then, if you don’t have a musical use for it later on, use the reverse sides as scrap paper. You can put a computer— perhaps a tablet or something—on the music desk and sight-read directly off the screen. You can get music from the library, or find old volumes out of which you played just some of the pieces. (Just be careful to avoid the ones that you did play before: that really wouldn’t be sight-reading.)
The good news is that, just as anyone can work on any piece no matter how difficult or “advanced” it is—if he or she will keep the tempo slow enough—likewise any music can be used for sight-reading practice if you are willing to use an appropriate tempo. There is nothing wrong with using music that is fairly simple—simple enough that you can sight-read it at a tempo that makes it “sound like music.” However, there is no reason to stick only to that sort of music. Since really well-developed sight-reading is a coping skill of sorts, it is not a bad idea to work on practicing sight-reading with anything that you can throw at yourself at random. However, again, it is only good practice if you keep the tempo realistic: the more difficult the sight-reading, the slower the tempo.
I should mention here that there are nowadays quite a few websites that offer music for sight-reading practice. I will not mention specific ones, as I don’t have enough experience with any one of them to offer an assessment (let alone an endorsement) and, of course, they are likely to change all of the time. At any moment when you are undertaking to practice sight-reading systematically (or a student is), it is not a bad idea to do a search on a phrase such as “sight-reading materials” or “sight-reading resources” and see what turns up. Some of these services offer music that you or the student will certainly not have seen before, since it is generated for the purpose. They mostly do seem to offer music arranged according to a difficulty scale. I would probably recommend some of the time sticking to the next few pieces up in that scale, and some of the time leap-frogging ahead a bit, and slowing the tempo down.
So, once there is music on the desk and you are ready to drill sight-reading, what should you do? Essentially just start playing, but slowly, with a very strong commitment to moving your eyes forward systematically, and keeping the playing going.
Again, this is not so different from practicing a piece. In a sense, the main difference is just that you have purposely put a piece in front of your eyes that you have not seen before. Some differences in emphasis are these:
—You should just ignore and forget whatever just happened (no need to try to remember any problems in the back of your mind to inform future practice, as we would do when playing a piece that you are working on to learn);
—You should use your eyes very purposefully, scanning a note or two ahead, scanning steadily up and down—all the voices or components of the texture; perhaps you should use a voice in your head to explicitly mention pitch names as they come up (I seem to find this helpful, though I could also imagine its being a distraction);
—You should be consciously aware of not expecting any pre-awareness (or so-called “muscle memory”) to kick in;
—As we have said, you should neither look at and study the pieces and passages in advance, nor use the same material more than once.
“Not looking” is important, but also creates a sort of paradox. If in order to practice sight-reading strictly you need to have the sight-reading moment be the first time you so much as glance at a piece, but you also want to do the sight-reading practice at a slow enough tempo, then how do you determine, even approximately, what that slow enough tempo will be? This involves compromise, and different people can find their own exact ways. I would say that choice of tempo can depend in part on key signature—which you should look at in advance—and on a very rough scan of the overall density of notes. For some people this rough scan should include noticing how active the pedal part is, how many accidentals there seem to be, how much is chordal and how much is scale or passage-work, and what the smallest common note-value is. The correct slow enough tempo has to do not with the “beat” as defined by the time signature, but with the smallest prevailing note value.
I mentioned last month that I myself can do a spiffier job of sight-reading pieces that are in styles most familiar to me as a performer than I can music with which I have less learning and performance experience. I can sight-read Buxtehude or Scheidemann or Froberger more readily (which essentially means at a tempo closer to performance tempo) than I can Reger or Widor or Rheinberger. I am certain that this is about my experience and the expectations that it creates, not about anything intrinsic to the repertoire. The “hardest” Reger pieces, for example, are probably harder than the hardest Buxtehude pieces, but I believe that in developing my understanding of my own experience with sight-reading I am correcting for that. I do believe that most players can more readily sight-read music that is closer in compositional style to music that they have studied and played. I assume that the mechanism of this is that a kind of generalized “muscle memory” kicks in: that you can anticipate what the composer probably did next, even though you don’t know what the composer actually did next. Subconsciously your mind narrows down the possibilities and likelihoods about where your fingers and feet should be heading. This also explains why different people find different repertoires difficult. But, since we are talking here about sight-reading, we should note that these perceived differences in difficulty are often mediated by assumptions or experiences of trying to sight-read different types of repertoire, rather than trying to practice it patiently and systematically. Practicing sight-reading unfamiliar repertoire can be fruitful in de-mystifying that repertoire and in making the real learning process for that repertoire seem more accessible, if that sight-reading is done (again) slowly enough and with good focus.