I've always struggled with sight reading, but my ears usually help me through. It's also not the strongest of my teaching strategies. What secrets do others have to help their students? This could apply to any instrument!
One technique that helped me when I was learning and is quite effective in teaching is a memorization exercise where I give the student a short passage of music and a specific time period to:
- View the music for key and time signature;
- Visualize the fingerings they would use to play the notes;
- Memorize the passage without using their instrument;
- Take the music away and have the student play it.
Depending on the level the student is at, I would start with very simple phrases moving to longer ones as the student improved. For example, I might start off with 2 measures and give them 30 seconds to go through the process and gradually increase the difficulty and decrease the time.
Of course you would want to have the students practice reading through complete songs in the traditional way also, but the short burst memorization technique above helps remove the obstacle of "thinking before playing" which slows people down and gets them to the "see note - play note" point much quicker.
I believe that most people are either sight-readers (but can't improvise their way out of a paper bag) or ear-players (and can't read well, or at all). There are a few awesome people who can do both. I am in the latter camp, an ear player/improviser, and I had to laboriously work out piano music and then memorize it, note by note, chord by chord. Hard to do Bach that way, but impressive when you can play a partita without the notes! I think there is a form of dyslexia that applies to those dots on a page.
Then I took up mandolin. In Celtic music the melody line is usually fairly simple and straightforward, and I decided to bite the bullet and actually learn to sight-read.
I used "flashcards" on a computer to learn the notes in the treble clef, and was able to make significant improvement in a short time (two weeks). Later when I began composing some simple Celtic-style tunes, I turned to ABC notation to record my ideas (rather than traditional staves and notes), and this had the unexpected benefit of learning where the notes lay on my fretboard.
Now it became rather easy to go from looking at the dots to know where they are on the instrument. This may be convoluted for some, but the take-away lessons I'd like to share are:
(1) learn to recognize the notes and say their names (G, Bb, etc)
(2) know where they are on your instrument (not sure how this applies to singing)
Notice that I have finessed the issues of key and time signatures, but I already had a sense of those, so I'm unable to give advice about that.
Others have mentioned the importance of practice, which I think is obvious (10,000 hours etc.) but I would add one word to that: SLOWLY.
I have always thought that playing an instrument at sight and singing at sight are two different skills.
Singing at sight relies on your aural skills and getting the relative pitches between the notes right. I can do it but I find it difficult if there are other people singing different lines at the same time which puts me off.
Playing a piece at sight on an instrument is different though. You still use your ears but it seems more or less instinctive to me - do the notes sound correct or not - but the main issue is getting your fingers, mouth, feet etc. into the correct format to do what it says on the page.
Although reading ahead is always mentioned it seems to me that the key point is how easily you can translate the notes on the page to the actions needed to produce them. The faster you can do that the better you will read.
In pieces in the mainstream classical repertoire I find this fairly straightforward. In modern pieces I find it harder and I think this is because there is more variation in the use of accidentals so (for example on the piano) the hand shapes are less familiar and need more "interpretation".
As with just about everything, as far as I can tell it comes down to practice. However it's not just practicing sight reading, its practicing playing. If you encounter a C# minor scale in a piece you are sight reading then you stand a much better chance of playing it if you practice your scales regularly. Also you will see what it is more quickly when you look at it.
Might not work for everyone but this is what works for me
This is only tangentially related to your question, but it's a technique I taught for years when I was still teaching, and I think it might help.
- You play a note (on a keyboard instrument), and then sing it.
- Point to another note, less than a seventh away, and sing it, but don't play it yet.
- Now play the new note and see if it is the same pitch as (or really close to) the pitch you thought it was.
- Do this over and over with a random assortment of intervals (and with a random assortment of starting notes, never using the same starting note twice in a row).
At first, do this only going up in pitch from first note to second. Later, after you're getting good at that, go down as well.
This will certainly NOT help your with fingering technique or anything else other than ear training, but in my experience ear training always does help in resolving sight-reading issues.
If you can get a buddy to help with this, by doing the playing and pointing, it helps avoid any tendency you might have to give yourself note pairs that are too easy. On the other hand, if you do it by yourself, it won't matter how good or not your voice is!
I know it may seem a bit stereotypical, but honestly I think you really have to exercise.
The way I did it was through a lot (and I mean a lot) of solfège, even practising all of the seven clefs, with clef changes here and there. I found it really helpful. I was horrible at first, but eventually I got pretty good at it. There are plenty of solfège books you can buy online, and there are also a lot of other free resources you can find.
I found Super Sight-Reading Secrets by Howard Richmann extremely effective. It´s a step-by-step program combing visual (see) - electro/chemical (think) -kinetic (muscles) and aural (ears) in a wholistic approach. I followed his instructions diligently 10 years ago and progressed quite quickly. Interestingly enough it also helped me be able to play piano faster. My piano teacher was impressed:-)) It can be downloaded as an eBook from his site: http://www.richmanmusicschool.com/products/super-sight-reading-secrets. It´s not expensive and worth every cent and more.
One of the best ways to "practice" is to simply DO. Join a community choir with a conductor that doesn't spoon-feed pitches and where you need to sight read on a regular basis. Being forced to "read" while surrounded by 'guide' pitches (other successful readers) will give you a constant (and fun) way to get better. This applies to singers OR instrumentalists. Sight reading is often taught with singing for all musicians because it's hard to cram everyone's instrument into a university lecture hall - and pitch identification is pitch identification, whether vocal or instrumental. Of the thousands of fellow singers I've met and sung with, those with great sight reading skills ALWAYS had childhood or regular choral experience. I know it doesn't seem like a specific strategy, but singing in a choir combines most of the suggestions presented here in a harmonized (pun intended) way.