This is a conversation I usually have to have with all my students whether they want to improve their sight reading or not. There are plenty of great conceptual reasons to get your reading together, however you are much more likely to learn something when there are ramifications if you don’t succeed. If you could put yourself in a situation where if you didn’t sight read well you would be yelled at, fired, embarrassed, docked pay, left in some unfamiliar part of town without a ride, etc… it would add extra importance to the task at hand (some ideas- start a reading group, get a cruise boat gig, teach a class on reading, join Buddy Rich’s ghost’s band…). When a student does ask me for help with reading, I usually assume that they’ve been humiliated to the point of asking me for help. Humiliation is truly one of the great motivating factors.
I’m by no means an expert sight reader but I have made significant progress over the years. In my experience, there aren’t really any shortcuts. You learn through the experience of doing it regularly. I take a three tiered approach to practicing reading:
1. Ètudes – The concept here is to work on the same thing for an extended amount of time. Don’t memorize it (always look at the page and not your instrument) but do get used to the way the piece sounds and definitely take note of your problem areas and feel free to work on them. The etudes I usually find myself coming back to are Bach’s Violin Paratitas, the Cello Suites and the Two Part Inventions (sometimes I’ll record one part and play against it).
2. Sight Reading – Here, the concept is to read something I’ve never seen before. This could be music from fake books, chorales, clarinet method books, snare drum books…anything so long as I haven’t read it before. First, I scope out the key signature, the range (this will allow me to figure out where a good position on the neck would be), and any road map issues like D.S.’s and codas. Then I turn on a metronome and play through it without stopping. I take note of any problem areas and sometimes allow myself to briefly work them out before trying it again. I play it until I feel like I have a handle on it before affixing an explosive device on it and hurling it out my window (it is important to destroy any evidence of you having played that piece – also make sure that anyone who heard you practice it is properly “taken care of” as well).
3. Original ètudes – Having taken note of my problem areas in the first two processes, I write ètudes to address those areas. For instance, I noticed I was really uncomfortable reading from the A on the D string to the A on the B string in 7th position. So I’d fill up some manuscript paper with notes in that range. Or let’s say I was fine with F sharps but G flats would take a second to register. In that case I’d make sure to pepper the étude with a bunch of G flats. You could make an étude with no flats or sharps, make maybe five copies of it and then fill in different accidentals for each one. If you notice particular rhythms are consistently throwing you, take note of those rhythms and write them out and incorporate them into the études. Or practice scales using those rhythms. Self criticism and resourcefulness are key to improving.
Let me know if these ideas are helpful and if you have any interesting ways that you work on your reading chops.