I am currently learning to sight read on the piano and constantly noticing my eyes looking down at my hands instead of reading the music. Will this habit slow down my progress? I am curious if there has been any research done to show looking at the music and not your hands will increase the speed at which you learn how to sight read.
It's not so much that it improves your ability to sight read, as it gives you more time to do the reading & less to concentrate on where your hands need to be to hit the right notes.
It's like learning to type - you can get along far better once you stop looking at where the letters are & get on with the job of deciding what to type instead.
Both techniques need practise - you need to learn where the keys are & you need to learn how to sight-read, so each will come with time.
I've heard many tales of old-fashioned piano teachers putting boards over the keyboard so you've room to play but can't see your fingers or the keys. I don't know how effective it is to force someone in that way, but I don't doubt for the ones who persevered it eventually became second nature & freed them from the need or even the temptation to look, letting them concentrate on following the score instead.
I concur with everyone else that not having to look does improve your ability to read simply because you don't have to keep looking down, then find your place again.
Sight reading will improve most when you learn theory. Just like typing, your speed will improve if you can spell without thought or you develop pattern memorization for common words. Just like in piano playing, you would "group" the spelling. Reading music improves when we can look at music and just know what the chords and scales are because we recognize them without reading them.
Like reading this posting, you are not seeing every letter but your brain is catching some of the letters and filling in the blanks.
The problem is that the way piano music is is written is very layered. What happens is that you are going to have more and more problems finding where you are supposed to be on the page after looking down.
The two tricks that work best are:
1) Always sit in the exact same place in relation to the keyboard, centered at middle C. You can see that professional pianists always do this. This will tell your body and fingers which octave you are on. 2) Learn to know what key you are on by using the black keys for reference. The only ones easy to mix up are G and A, but that goes back to sitting in the center to know where you are. All the others are easy - C and F are open on the left, B and E are open on the right, and D is there between C and E.
I am one of those teachers who has covered students hands so they can't see, and the truth is that after a certain stage if you can't find your way around the keyboard "blind" you can't progress.
It might feel scary at first, but stick with it and it becomes so much easier.
Learning to sight read is about reading the notes and finding them on the keyboard.
When you are able to find them blindly by touch (feeling the neighbouring keys) and proprioception (knowing the size of your limbs in relation to the size of the piano) you are in a much better position to keep your place in the score and to read ahead (which is essential in fast reading).
BUT it's not forbidden to look at the keys. In some situations (large leaps for example) it's very useful to be able to glance at one of you hands to ensure precision. To be able to glance at you hands while keeping your place is even something that should be practiced along with reading blindly.
In general it's really important to know (and think about) when to look, how to look and where to look, while sight reading.