When attempting to play any piece for the first time, having good sight-reading skills allows you to practice those strange new notes more effectively. Spending a couple minutes reading through and analyzing a composition gives you an opportunity to familiarize yourself with a work so that when you actually begin to play a song, you aren't stumbling through a forest of notes and tempo changes like Bambi learning to walk. You already have the necessary muscle skills to play the piece, you just need a handy map to guide you through it.
1. Selecting a piece.
This may seem either strange or obvious, but it's essential to learning how to sight read effectively. Know your skill level and don't push yourself to play a song that would still challenge you after a couple plays. Select a work that is a little easier than the music you tend to practice to compensate for any unexpected surprises you might encounter as you play through the piece.
2. Know the piece's background.
This is an easy way to improve sight reading skills. Before getting to the actual notes in the work, read the title and information on the composer. These smaller details hint at how the piece should be played. "Adagio for Strings" clearly won't go at the same pace as "Anarchy in the UK", so a title can tell you key information about the song's mood and tempo. Identifying the composer also helps ease the sight reading process by giving you contextual clues about the work's style. A Gershwin piece from the late 1920s will probably feature heavy syncopation and Baroque pieces from the late 16th century tend to explore a single mood, so knowing a work's background will aid you as you digest an unfamiliar piece.
3. Absorb at the music's annotations.
Check the tempo, time and key signatures, and dynamics. This is perhaps the most important step on the path to improve sight reading skills. Spotting cues where signatures change or a crescendo pops up helps you identify any surprises or booby traps you may run into while playing the piece. Finding these subtle nuances can make a huge difference in the kind of song you're trying to play (or at least help you distinguish between, uh, "Blurred Lines" and "Got to Give it Up").
4. Read through the beginning and final lines.
Mastering a piece's introduction not only helps your confidence while playing a work, but those early measures also tend to hint at repeating melodies. Also pay attention to the piece's last lines, since they are often times abruptly different and much more difficult than the rest of a piece. Re-skim those beginning lines a final time to get your bearings immediately before playing.
5. While playing, anticipate mistakes.
This might seem like a counter-intuitive way to improve sight reading skills. You've already spent a significant amount of time acquainting yourself with the nuances of the piece, but that doesn't mean you won't run into new obstacles. If you feel overwhelmed, focus on the piece's rhythm since this is the basis to the piece's sound. If you find yourself making a mistake, don't stop. If you are sight-reading during a performance, you won't have the ability to fix a mistake. While practicing, it's still a good idea to push through so you get the hang of picking yourself back up after stumbling during a difficult point in a section. Don't forget to look at the notes ahead of you while playing to anticipate your next move (you wouldn't drive with your eyes looking only at your dashboard, so don't play music with your eyes only focused on the notes in front of you!)
6. Keep practicing!
I can feel your eyes rolling from here, but this significantly helps to improve sight reading skills. Reading unfamiliar music has challenges for musicians at all skill levels, so don't expect sight reading to come naturally. The more you practice it, the stronger you will become at absorbing contextual cues and responding to abrupt tempo and tone changes.
Want more practice? Head over to Chromatik for sheet music and tutorials.