While I was at the Detroit Symphony, I was able to take lessons with the assistant principal percussionist, Andres Pichardo-Rosenthal. One of the things we worked on a lot was sight reading. It always scared me, and I felt very insecure about my abilities, but Andres had a really fun way of approaching sight reading, and making it less stressful. I eventually got the hang of it and started experimenting with my own ideas on how to work on it. I'll be discussing only sight reading pitch based music, and not rhythmic based music, but these tips can be used for the latter as well. Some may be old news, and others may be new, but hopefully these tips and suggestions will be helpful to you in your personal practice. There are other blogs as well that may be helpful, or say things a different way that will resonate with you, and I encourage you to research other methods and find things that work for you. For now, here's how I go about it.
The mindset that I try to have when I go into sight reading is to not second guess my intuition, or any information that I find while skimming through or actually playing the piece. If you see that there is an A natural, take it at face value. Starting out, I found that I constantly would read a note, and second guess if I read it correctly. I had to force myself to accept that I saw, read and had to play an A natural, instead of hesitating and second guessing what I saw. Don't second guess your eyes, or your intuition, when you are sight reading. It takes getting used to, but it will change your approach before and during the actual playing.
You also should not feel rushed or try to rush through any of these steps. Take as much time as you need to feel confident in what you did during these preparatory steps, and then begin sight reading. Repeated practice will increase your speed and efficiency naturally, but do not force it in any way. You may consider timing yourself if you want to record your progress, but do not feel pressured to be the fastest sight reader. Only aim to become more efficient in how you go about sight reading, that is the real goal.
Before you start playing, you need to learn as much about the piece you are about to sight read as you can. When you are practicing, start every sight reading session by looking for these things:
1) What is the key signature?
B-flat. I suggest not to say whether it is major or minor, because as you begin skimming or playing the piece, you may be surprised as to what the key is, or you may not ever know. Qualifying it as B-flat major may have negative effects on your reading, decision making or "taking it at face value," and you may also have false expectations, making you read things incorrectly, or second guessing what you read. I simply say it's in the key of B-flat, and read it as such.
2) What notes will be sharp/flat because of the key signature?
B-flat and E-flat.
3) Are there any additional accidentals throughout the piece?
There's a C-sharp, an F-sharp and a B-natural.
4) What is the time signature?
5) What is the tempo?
Dotted half-note equals 60 beats per minute
6) What does that tempo sound/feel like?
It is essentially one click per bar, so it will be on the faster side in feel, and sound like a jig maybe?
If you develop this habit of looking for these items, you will feel more comfortable and prepared for both the approach and the attempt to sight reading. I should also point out that while you are looking for these things, you are not trying to read down the piece at that moment. You are only looking for those specific aspects of the piece to make you aware of what to expect when you begin to skim over the piece itself.
My next step is to skim through the piece. As you do this, you are just looking at how the notes move, not at individual notes or going note by note. You will notice either very simple scalar movement, arpeggios or arpeggios-like movement, leaps or large interval distances, rhythms that may differ from normal, and things of that nature. This just gives you an overview of what to expect as you begin playing the piece. As you improve with skimming through, you may even begin to contemplate stickings that will be useful for certain passages that you come across. When I first started, I used to play a lot of things with my strong hand, because it was easier for me to react with it quickly, if I came across something very difficult and couldn't confidently use my other hand to play the passage. As I got better with skimming through the piece, I was able to feel more confident using both hands, and even choosing to do double or even triple stickings with my weak hand, preparing for a leap with my strong hand, and other situations like that.
Measure 1- ascends and descends by seconds, or in scalar fashion, etc. (you could start the piece with either hand. Let's see what the next measure needs though)
Measure 2- ascends in an arpeggio, and leaps down to an E-flat (or by a fourth if that way of thinking is easier), and finishes descending in scalar fashion (the arpeggio may work better if you start with your left hand, so you could begin the previous measure with the left so that you are ready to play the arpeggio. doing that, the leap to the E-flat will be easily executed by the left hand)
Measure 3- there are 3 consecutive leaps: one down from C-natural to C-sharp, then up to D-natural, and lastly up to another D-natural (coming from the previous measure, you will begin this measure with the left hand, meaning you will have to use a double sticking to strike the low C-sharp. Given the tempo, it may be easier to start that measure with the right hand, giving you more time to prepare the left hand for that C-sharp. You could do a double right hand going into the 3rd measure, using the right hand on the last D-natural of the second measure, and a right hand on the beginning of the third measure. The high D-natural will also be easier if you use the right hand, meaning you will have to do a double sticking, striking both D-naturals with the right hand in that measure).
Measure 4- descends in scalar fashion, and has one slight interval leap down from A-natural to F-natural, and then a large leap down from F-natural to F-sharp (coming from the previous measure, you would begin with the left hand, which will work fine because when you get to the large leap, you will have your left hand available to strike it).
Measure 5- ascends in scalar fashion (coming from the previous measure, you may consider doing a double sticking to begin the fifth measure on the left hand, giving your right hand a little more time to prepare for the last measure).
If you would like, you do have the option of air playing (playing without hitting the notes with or without sticks) the piece as a final step before actually playing the piece through, but I recommend doing that only after you have skimmed through the piece first. The added action of air playing takes up more brain space, essentially causing your skimming to have less impact. However, as you improve with your sight reading, you may find that air playing while skimming has no negative effects at all, but if you are starting to sight read for the first time, I would advise against it for now. I still do all three steps separately to this day, and even though I could combine air playing and skimming, I like giving myself as much time as I need to feel comfortable with the piece.
This process is something you can rely on when you get into an audition situation and have to perform anything they put in front of you. However, there are other things you can do aside from these to improve your abilities overall, and not just your execution of the process itself.
1) Find music to read, not to play
You want to become accustomed to sight reading any piece of music, to the point that you begin to notice patterns instantly as they appear: scales, arpeggios, intervalic leaps like thirds, fourths and , rhythmic patterns, etc. Taking the playing out of it allows you to focus solely on your eyes and your comprehension of what you see. Here are some pitch patterns you will want to get used to noticing automatically
2) Practice ALL scalar fundamentals
You want your mind and body to respond correctly when you read something new. You don't want to be unprepared physically to execute anything you see. If the piece has a B-flat scale in it, it should be fairly simple to perform it once you realize what it is. But, if you don't know your B-flat scale, it will be more difficult to execute. Therefore, I practice all of my scales, major and minor, arpeggios, and other exercises that make me more knowledgeable and comfortable with the layout of the keyboard.
3) Improvise on your scalar fundamentals
It's good to diverge from the main variation of any scalar exercise to develop more flexibility and fluency with the scale itself. If your exercises are all ascending, practice them all descending. Maybe combine exercises from different scales: ascending in B-flat and descending in F-sharp. Play octave scales, or other intervals, as double stops, or separating them starting with either hand (playing octave C-naturals together and going up the scale in like manner, or beginning with the high C then striking the low C, or vice versa, and going up the scale in like manner).
4) Read/play through duets
Something Andres and I did often was sight read duets together. Often it was violin duets, but you can find anything that would be comparable. Something else you may consider, if you don't have a buddy to play them with, is to record yourself playing the top or bottom line, counting yourself off in the recording, and then playing the other line along with the recording. Andres did that a lot and made me do the same in many lessons. I found it fun after a while, and it is really helpful.
5) Leaping Scales
Ross Karre from the International Contemporary Ensemble taught this at an Interlochen masterclass. Take any scale and play it, but play each note of the scale in a different octave than the previous note. This really helps you with playing large intervals, introducing your ears to a very different sound concept of the scale, getting you to expand your reach and comfort around the keyboard, and it really works your brain in a different way. Below is what C-major could look like if you did this exercise.When you come across another piece with large leaps, you may find that they are easier because of doing this a few times a day.
I hope these suggestions helped make sight reading more approachable as it did for me. The links below are to sites that generate sight reading materials, but you may find others online that can be helpful. The first link is to another blog I thought had very good tips as well on getting started and developing good habits for sight reading.