I like the French term for sight-reading : le déchiffrage. Related to the English "decipher", it seems so much more apt than sight-reading. Déchiffrer. It's a word that, like the English equivalent, means to reveal the meaning of an obscure, illegible or encoded text. The word itself says something about the person capable of doing it. It implies a certain esoteric ability.
Indeed, sight-reading mastery is a skill that escapes even a great number of advanced pianists. Why?
For starters, few or us have truly had good training in this area. Effective method books are quasi inexistent. And most pianists don't seem to know how to teach it. The few pieces of advice I had included such gems as: "You just have to force yourself to do it, and often." Or, "Read from the bottom up." Or, "Keep your eyes one step ahead of what you're playing."
None of which ever helped, because this type of advice doesn't teach you how to do these things. Reading ahead is certainly crucial to good sight reading; but such a directive doesn't take into account the complexity of it. It assumes that reading ahead is a simple action. It would be like telling a baby -- if he could understand you, that is -- that to walk all he needed to do was get up on his feet and move one in front of the other. But no! To walk you need to learn how to balance on your feet, to coordinate leg movements, to put the heel down first, and have sufficiently developed muscles to do it in succession.
Walking is a set of individual complexities. Likewise, sight-reading is not just a single skill but an amalgam of many onerously difficult ones. These can be divided into three broad categories: Tactile, theoretical, and visual skills -- each of which must be treated individually.
I'll take them in order.
Tactile skills are sometimes referred to as "knowledge of the keyboard", which involves having a feel for intervals, distances and the topography of white notes-black notes. In another words, having physical knowledge of what, say, an octave feels like in the hand; or the feel of parallel movement in thirds; of an ascending f minor scale; or the relief of an E-flat major chord in all its inversions.
Thus, an important concept is establishing the rapport between intervals on the page and the corresponding distances on the the keyboard and in your hands. The same can be said for contour (ascending/descending figures), and any number musical motifs and figures -- melodic and rhythmic -- that must become so well-known, so banal, that they are intuitively understood by the mind, intuitively translated by the hands.
The ultimate goal of tactile-skills training is to not feel lost when you're not looking down at your hands, in order to focus your attention on other, more important things. There are a number of sufficient methods available to help develop this blind trust. I currently use Odette Gartenlaub's Le Déchiffrage par la découverte du clavier with my students.
Knowledge of the mechanics and grammar of music comes next. That is, keys, chords, chord progressions, inversions, scales and modes, rhythmic structures, forms, etc, etc, etc. Needless for me to go on about how this is relevant to reading and understanding a text.
Finally are the visual skills. These are perhaps the least understood and the least taught -- yet in the end, the most helpful in learning how to sight read!
When I say visual, I'm talking about how the eye moves about the score. There can be so many notes in a single measure: What exactly should you be looking at when sight-reading? The only method book I have ever found that goes to any lengths at all to train the eye in where and how it looks at the score as you play is called La Magie du Déchiffrage, by Pascal Le Corre.
In it, Le Corre starts with the basics: developing an awareness of the different fields of vision. At the center, the object you're fixating is clear. In the area around the center, your peripheral vision, things become progressively blurry. What Le Corre draws attention to is the broadness and utility of your peripheral vision; and how poor sight readers will have a tendency to look only through the center, effectively disregarding all of the valuable -- and surprisingly reliable -- information gained from the outer fields of vision.
While you may not be able to distinguish individual notes with precision, you can distinguish melodic contour for example; or rhythms; or even, when looking at the score on the stand, certain areas of the keyboard. Moral: Beware of tunnel vision.
Le Corre calls the fact of looking at something through the clear center part of your vision, a fixation (fixer in French is to look intently at something). Apart from keeping your eyes on the score, a key element in good sight reading is reducing the number of fixations per measure. Most people's natural tendency would be to read a bit like this:
Which effectively adds confusion to an already difficult task. Hence the need to train the eye in order to develop regular, linear, and rhythmic fixations. In other words, to simplify. To this end, Le Corre provides a series of fixation exercises in his workbook of which the unique goal is to learn to move your eye along efficiently and fluidly.
First, the measures of a piece of music have been separated by spaces, and a blue dot is placed at the center of each measure, between the treble and bass staves. In rhythm and in tempo, your eyes fixate the dots successively, taking in as much info as possible about the notes around it. These first exercises -- with one fixation (one dot) per measure -- are done at different tempi: at mm. 60, 100, then 160. In other words, with each tic of the metronome, the eye advances. The first attempts at advancing the eyes at a speed of 160 beats per minute can be trying.
In later exercises, the dots and spaces between the measures both are eliminated so the extracts appear as any normal score would. Finally, Le Corre instructs his reader to continue with any music they might have in their library, experimenting with two or more fixations per measure in pieces that contain a lot of short value notes (16ths, 32nds, etc.) or with longer time signatures (9/8, 12/8, etc.). With practice, this eye movement becomes second nature. The expected length of time to acquire these visual reflexes? Around six months. That's to say, six months of diligent practice.
(If six months seems long, it is. But consider it to be taking two steps back to better leap forward.)
Playing at the same time as reading follows. This too is treated progressively. A piece is taken at tempo (a Valse Noble by Schubert, mm. 138 = quarter note, is an example in the workbook). It's first read visually, one fixation per measure, in tempo. Then, while maintaining regular fixations as before, you play in tempo and in rhythm the first beats only of the left hand. The eyes are always a measure ahead. Next: same eye movement, always ahead, playing all the notes of the left hand. Next: left hand only, mentally hearing the right hand (melody and rhythm) and imagining the right hand playing. Next: left hand plus only the notes of the right that fall on the beat. Next: left hand plus all the melody notes of the right (i.e. only the upper line of the right). Next: play as written. And so on...
One valuable lesson learned by this method of working is to see the essential of a text, which in turn allows you to continue playing regardless of what happens.
There are many other things to be said. But this post has become quite long. I'll finish with this useful bit of info. When a pianist sight reads with ease, the following elements describe what he/she experiences internally (again, according to Le Corre):
1. The score is perceived as a whole.
2. Musical instinct guides the fingers over the keyboard.
3. The score is not only perceived as an ensemble of notes but also as a succession of harmonies, expressive moments, musical phrases, etc.
4. The beats (les pulsations) are stable and even.
5. The eye is naturally ahead of what's being played.
6. The score is understood based on similarities with musical formulas and models that are already familiar. Attention is paid primarily to parts of the score that diverge from those established formulas and models.
7. The act of reading absorbs the pianist completely. He/she is in the action, in the present moment.
8. All critical judgment is suspended.