As an organist, I have been working in club land in the North of England for the past 30 years or so and one of the crucial qualifications in this environment is the ability to sight read music on demand. When I say music this can be anything from a beer matt to a ripped piece of paper repaired with selotape and stained with beer. To be fair most of the music is written by professionals and is nice to read but not always easy.
As a club organist, you do not get a band call. In fact, you are lucky to get five minutes to scan through between 10 and 15 pieces of music. Some written in different keys and some organist will tell you they hate it when they get a piece of sheet music written in six sharps, six flats, or even seven sharps, and there is a solo especially for you. Oh the joys of live music.
So how do you improve your sight-reading? Well I asked my music teacher this very question when I first started playing in clubs, because I knew I would have to play sheet music that I had never seen before. His answer was to practice sight-reading. He went on to tell me that session musicians practice by picking up any music book start playing on page one and continue until they have finished the book. Does it work? Yes it does. Try it for yourself, pick up any piece of music you can find, preferably one that you are not that familiar with, then start to play, but do not stop.
If you make a mistake it doesn't matter, you're not learning how to play the piece of sheet music you are learning to sight read it. You have to be strict with yourself and don't stop playing, even when there are lots of mistakes. When you have finished playing the piece of sheet music, you can then go back to the parts of the music that were giving you problems and learn how to play it.
Basically sight reading, is the ability to recognise musical phrases instantly. For instance if I ask you to read and play a 1 bar phrase consisting of Middle C, D, E and F, all crotchets, you should be able to play this phrase almost instantly without even thinking about it. Now, if I write the same phrase out again but two octaves higher, you might have to look at it twice. This is because the notation, two octaves above Middle C, is not as common. Musical phrases are like words, we tend to learn what we need then stop learning new ones. So it's no surprise that clever people know lots of words and great keyboard players know lots of musical phrases.
If you really want to test yourself. Get yourself an audience. I practice my sight-reading every week in front of a 200 plus audience.
It certainly makes you concentrate.
Mike Shaw is an organist and keyboard player and owns music websites http://www.mikesmusicroom.co.uk and http://www.keyboardsheetmusic.co.uk