I’m a pretty good sight-reader, and I’ve written about that before. Put most (reasonable) pieces of music in front of me and I’ll be able to play them. Over the years I’ve built a system where I can get a feel for a piece before playing the first note. I’m usually in an ensemble situation, being in a band or orchestra or a quintet, where you have a little bit of time between getting your part and when you have to start playing.
I look for places where things change. Those places will be where you have the highest probability of messing up during playing. It’s easy to get lulled into nap-land with a long string of whole notes only to discover that you have a run of sixteenths after the page turn.
First, I glance down the part from beginning to end. I look for keys. What’s the opening key? Are there any key changes in the middle? Are the key changes related? Going from C to C minor is pretty easy for my brain to handle. Going from Db major to E major, not quite so easy. Does the key change often, or is it fairly stable?
Next I glance at the tempo markings. Is it something slow? I like slow. Slow makes easy to get the notes in. Look for tempo changes throughout. Does it go from Gravé to Presto? That’ll probably be a tough spot.
Next up is the road map. It’s embarrassing to be the only one who takes a repeat. You might be lucky enough to have a group that reacts consistently when faced with repeats in a new piece, but this would be a good question to ask otherwise. A simple “are we taking repeats?” takes away some of the stress. Don’t forget in some situations you don’t take repeats on a D.C. Be aware of the rules different styles of music have. Also be aware that some pieces naturally have complicated road maps. Waltzes, minuets, and polkas tend to be the worst. Concert band marches tend to be the most predictable.
Look at the page turns. Is there evil lurking just over the fold? Jot down a little note or a big “V.S.” to know there’s no prep time after you turn the page. You may have been given a photocopied part that’s offset by one page, so the nice page turn rests the composer gave you are now in the wrong place, and your page turns happen in the middle of a phrase. You’ll need to figure out now how you’ll handle that. Can you play this phrase with one hand while turning with another? Can you mentally grab a couple of notes and turn before it’s time?
Next I look for big blobs of scary notes. What are they made of? Is it a bunch of scales and arpeggios? If so, I can handle that. I might pencil in the name of the scale as a reminder. If not, this will be the parts that I silent practice until it is time to start.
Dynamics! Most avocational musicians are terrible about dynamics, especially quiet dynamics. Look for the ff and pp passages so you know what part of the dynamic range of your instrument you are aiming for.
Look at the last measure, especially if it is a march. Most marches have a stinger at the end. But many do not. You do not want to be the only one to play a stinger at the end of a march that doesn’t have one.
Finally, it’s good to be very aware of what’s going on around you. A section that looks scary might be a unison part everyone is playing. It’s OK if you grab a quick glance at the part of the player next to you and see if everyone is flurrying at the same time. The page turn that’s in the middle of a phrase might be a whole-band unison, in which case you can probably drop out and turn the page.
The worst thing you can do before sight-reading is to ignore the part, and just try playing it from top to bottom. A two minute glance through the part can show you where the hard parts are likely to be, and what parts are going to be easy. You can mentally recover during the easy parts so you can tackle the hard parts you know are coming up.