Sight-reading is the skill of reading and playing piano keyboard music straight off, which you haven't seen before. This is a very useful skill because it means that you can try out and enjoy many pieces of music without having to practise them. The idea is not necessarily to play perfectly, but to get most of the notes sounding and above all to keep going. The rhythm must above all be correct, continuous and flowing. How do we play piano music fluently without practising ? Here are a few tips ...
The trick is to look and study the page of music before you play anything and try to understand what is going on. The more information you can take in during these few seconds of looking at the notes, the better you will play the piano music. The two main things to look out for are the key and the rhythm.
Firstly, make sure you know what key the music is in by looking at the key signature. Find out whether it is in a major or minor key. If it is in the minor key you will find extra accidentals in the music which are usually the 6th and 7th notes of the minor scale which are sharpened in addition to the sharps or flats in the key signature. Check that the piece ends in the same key as it starts in and whether or not it actually changes key in the middle of the music. The ending key takes priority and the music is said to be in that key even if it begins in another.
Next, see what you can pick up about the rhythm of the piano music. The main clue is the time signature at the start of the music which tells you what type of beat you are to expect and how many of them are in each bar. For example 3/4 is three crotchets - quarter-notes - in each bar. Next look through the music and find the most difficult part with the fastest notes. How fast you think you can play these notes will determine how fast you can play the piece of piano music, and from this you must choose your speed. Choose a speed which is a little slower than you can manage, because once you start you cannot hesitate or stop. Problems are most likely to occur when you change from one note value to another in the music, so look out for these points and make sure you keep the main beat going. Also, check whether the music changes time signature in the course of the piece.
Watch out for the extra accidentals which are valid for the whole bar but only apply to the note they are next to. At the next bar-line you revert to the sharps at the beginning of the line which are the key signature. The sharps or flats in the key signature by contrast last for the whole piece and apply to every register - every octave - of the piano
Changes of clef are an easy trap to fall into. Often one hand can change into the clef of the other hand. For example the left hand could play in the treble clef or the right hand could play in the bass clef. This means of-course that both hands could be playing the either treble or bass clefs. It's a good idea to get used to doing this to avoid surprises, as well as looking out for these places in the music. Remember also to notice at which point the piano music reverts to the normal situation.
Look for directions to play either legato or staccato, joined or detached notes. Play everything legato unless there are staccato markings or rests. Also remember that the last note of a set of slurred notes is staccato, because the last note of one phrase - slur - is not joined to the first note of the next phrase.
Rests or ties are another thing to watch out for. Its very easy to overlook that a rest means silence when you are concentrating on so many things. Also its easy to forget a tie and repeat a note unnecessarily. Sometimes its possible to get mixed up with slurs and ties. A slur is over or under a set of notes of different pitch. A tie joins two notes of identical pitch - but not necessarily length - and you hold on the first one for the combined value of both notes and without repeating the second one.
Now that you've taken in all this information, you can start playing the piece of piano music remembering that you must keep going. Firstly try not to look at your hands on the keyboard, but keep your eyes on the music. You can place the music higher than you really need on the music stand so that it becomes too difficult to look down. You could also put some books at the end of the piano lid and then close it except for a small gap for your hands. - Mind the lid doesn't fall onto your hands. - Both these methods will help you not to look at your hands.
The trick is to try and look ahead, so that your eyes are slightly ahead of your hands. There is in fact a way of practising and forcing your eyes to look ahead a little. You can get a friend to put a card over the bar which you are currently playing as you play each note. This will encourage you to look ahead at the next bar. Later you can ask your friend to cover up the whole bar or even two bars at a time, forcing you to look further and further ahead. Basically what you have to do is eventually look at the bar, memorise it and play it whilst already looking at the next one. You can see why it's called "sight-reading".
Lastly, be patient about your progress with sight-reading, which will take many months to improve, It's important to read some new music every day, and to relax and enjoy doing it. Practise putting one of the above ideas into your session each day. Good luck with your sight-reading of piano music.