Fellow Stumblers: I suspect there are no quick answers to sight-reading classical piano music and perhaps also no magical moment where sight-reading just happens (though I sometimes dream there is). I do know that it does gradually get better.
Here’s the advice I’ve gotten: find a huge pile of pieces that are much simpler than those you study for your adult piano lessons. I mean, really simple. I mean, Twinkle, Twinkle (but not by Mozart). Once a day, pull out one of these easy pieces and play it through without stopping (no matter what). Play it through just once. Don’t second-guess the notes, proceed slowly, and don’t stop. The next day, try another one.
Before you begin playing one of those easy pieces, I find it does help to sit back a moment, look at the key signature, and remind yourself what key those sharps or flats constitute. It probably helps to go through and recognize some of the chords too and identify places where you’re just going up the scale. All before you touch the keyboard. Like reading the table of contents.
My teacher at my adult piano lessons tells me to read the bass line first (so read down-to-up on the staff)—which I find hard because I’m drawn to the treble line. I guess you could say with sight-reading, it’s a bottoms-up process.
The other thing that helps is to purposely read ahead. If you read in the moment, your fingers won’t anticipate where to go next. But if you can force yourself to read a couple of notes ahead (as I do when I read a book out loud, for example), you can get your hand going the right way instead of being constantly faked out.
One idea I have is that, rather like reading words, I can read music in chunks. I see a word like father and I see it all at once. I don’t have to read each letter and form it into a word. I think you can actually build subroutines like this for reading music. Recognize the scale, the tonic—simple chunk pieces—once you get a roll on with that, you can look ahead.
The rub about sight-reading is that it’s another one of those 15 minutes a day things—15 minutes of Hanon, 15 minutes of scales, 15 minutes of sight-reading. Which doesn’t leave much other time in my piano practice sessions.
For me, the other problem (and not just with sight-reading) is that there are too many things going on at once—none of which is really automatic. Because even if you can translate the notes quickly to your fingers—then you are also afflicted with staccatos, legatos, portatos, dynamics, fortes, pianos, smorzandos (for goodness sakes), fingering, quarter notes and half notes (or crotchets, quavers, and minims—ah, another problem).
I found one of the biggest steps forward I go each year is when I go to SummerKeys for two weeks—you might call it a music boot camp. I finally get to focus, and it’s not so hard to do a bunch of sight-reading when I am studying music several hours a day and not just trying to squeeze it in. It’s not like night and day—but I can always feel the improvement.
My personal wish is to feel free on the piano. To make music instead of rendering pale and shaky imitations. To be able to just let go and play and have the music be fun instead of an exercise in frustration. That’s why I’m committed to working on my sight-reading.