Research on improving sight reading can be confusing and contradictory, but one fairly consistent result of this research is that eye movements matter. Specifically, there are two principles that can improve our sight reading:
- When we’re taking in information from the notated score, we are most effective when we do visual chunking; that is, when our eyes don’t focus separately on each note, but rather can take in small groups of 3–5 at a single glance. To improve this, work on the exercises in the previous section on “chunking,” working for speed.
- As we’re performing, we are most effective when we are looking ahead at what we’re about to do rather than at what we are doing right now. This will be our focus here.
We have all already built certain automatic habits of eye movements, and simply telling you to look ahead as you’re performing may or may not override these. To build new habits in something so intuitive as where our eyes are looking, it’s probably more effective to practice forcing them to do what we want for a while using a method such as the activity below. As this becomes more automatic, we can hopefully take away the mechanism enforcing the habit and still be able to use it. Note that our desired eye movements are the same whether we are sight reading vocally or on an external instrument.
This is challenging if you don’t do it naturally! It places heavy demands on our working memory to store and implement some music while we’re scanning ahead and trying to plan for what we’re about to perform. Remember that we’re not aiming to make your life tough here—we’re simply trying to build habits. So use music at a level that makes this possible for you, and choose an instrument that you are comfortable with to reduce your cognitive load and focus on those eyes.
Goal: Develop the habit of looking ahead while sight reading.
Before you start: You will need some notated music to sight read. You may wish to use a sight-reading anthology or music for your instrument. You can choose whether to perform the music vocally or on another instrument since we’re just working on eye movements.
- Optionally, do any preliminary steps you or your instructor prefer, such as noting the clef, key signature/key, time signature, and tempo, scanning over the melody for chunks or challenging passages, etc.
- Determine the amount of music you will be able to consistently take in at a glance. Ideally, this is either a measure or a half measure. (Your instructor may determine this for you.) We’ll call this amount the “eye unit.”
- Look at the first eye unit’s worth of music without playing it. Then either cover it up with your hand/an object or have someone else do it so that your eyes can’t linger there as you perform it. (Having someone else cover it lets you focus your whole attention on reading and performing.)
- Perform the music! As you do so, make sure that the eye unit you are playing at any given time is always covered up, forcing your eyes to scan ahead to the eye unit they’re about to get to rather than the one they’re playing right then.