Do you need to read music to learn jazz or blues piano?

Wassup! Today I’m sharing my reply to a question from a student at Udemy.

STUDENT QUESTION:

Hi, Kent!

This is a two part question; first off, is there anything you recommend (videos, specific techniques, etc) to improve my sight-reading that won’t make me want to shout profanities?

I’ve Googled it obviously, but I’m curious about your opinion, as I enjoy your method of teaching.

Secondly, do you find skilled sight-reading necessary for jazz and blues? In other words, in your professional opinion, can I learn to be a proficient jazz and blues pianist without tackling my fear/hatred of sight-reading?

A little background to help explain the reasoning for my questions – Simply put, I hate sight-reading. Frankly, I’m intimidated by it. So much so, that I’ve ignored it for the 13 years since I stopped taking lessons, and basically refused to use it once I learned a new piece as a kid. I play and compose by memorization and by ear (which drove my strictly classical instructor insane) and in my rebellion and stubbornness, my sight-reading is just…hilariously slow. Everything I compose is in my head, besides recordings. I couldn’t commit my music to paper to save my life, though software helps.

I consider myself a skilled(ish) pianist, but I’m not sure if I’ll ever get over my hangups with sight-reading. I don’t aspire to play jazz and blues with other musicians, though it would be fun, but I want to finally break my dexterity from the grasp of rigid classical, and have the skills to compose what’s been sitting in my head.

Any little suggestions are appreciated at your convenience!

MY REPLY:

Thanks so much for your questions!  I would like to answer the second part first:  The history of jazz and blues is filled with amazing players and composers who could not read a single note of music, let alone sight-read.  Myself, I can read music, but I am a very crummy sight-reader.  I hope that answers the second part in a nutshell, and I hope it ignites a new passion in you, by eliminating some major doubt about what you can accomplish.

I do recommend learning to read chord charts (lead sheets).  You can be “hilariously slow” at it, but it is a great skill to have.  This involves being able to interpret chord symbols (like C7, Fm, etc). To be a good jazz or blues player, the most important thing is to learn about chords and scales.  If you visit my website, http://pianowithkent.com, you will find a review that I wrote about some jazz piano books by John Mehegan.  If jazz and blues is your passion, THIS is the stuff you want to focus on.

Now to the first part. Myself, I have a love-hate relationship with sight-reading.  I am painfully slow at sight-reading as well.  But I really wish I was better at it. I am always resolving to spend at least a half-hour a day reading music I have not seen before, which is, by the way, my best recommendation for improving that skill.  And yet, I do not stick with that resolution. I generally end up improvising, about ten minutes into the session!  In my classical studies I do exactly what you do:  I memorize.  My classmates in college would sometimes ask what my secret was, when it comes to memorizing.  My secret was, I had no other choice!

I hope this helps!

STUDENT RESPONSE:

Your answers are beyond encouraging! Definitely not what I expected, and I’m so happy to hear someone with your skill and experience having the same curse/blessing of automatic memorization. I’ve always considered it a hindrance in improving my skills, but a great asset for composing or being able to sit at any keyboard and play something I’d memorized years ago.

I took lessons from ages 6-14, and am now 27 – I let my skills, especially sight-reading, stall after I stopped lessons (due to relocation, not by choice), and though I loved my instructor, he was curmudgeonly and strict, and I enjoyed being able to play without judgement! But without being pushed to learn, it got me stuck in a comfortable Gb rut of composition, and slowly but surely, played less and less when my hands always found their way back to the same chords and scales. Everything just sounded the same.

I wish I knew that Udemy was around years ago, and that the techniques to get the right sounds are such simple additions to what I already know. I’m excited to play again, and have even reharmonized some of my own progressions for practice. My left hand synchronization is still having a trouble staying in time, unless I’m improvising with my right! Haha. Practice, practice, practice will improve that, though.

Thank you for your recommendations, as well! I’ve been looking through your website, and there’s a lot of material there I’m excited to review. My technical knowledge of chord symbols and scales is somewhere in my head, but long forgotten – I have a lot to brush up on to really feel more comfortable. For once though, I’m not intimidated to do so! 

I greatly appreciate your honesty and all the information, Kent – thank you, so much! (and thank you for reading all my rambling thoughts). 

MY REPLY:

You are very welcome, Tierney. I’m glad you feel encouraged, and that I was able to help!  By the way, I have a course in the works which is all about demystifying chord symbols, and also describes a simple method for constructing any standard chord-type off of any root, without resorting to rote memorization of each chord.  When it goes live on Udemy, I will be sending a course announcement to all students who are enrolled in the Blues Piano Crash Course, as well as those enrolled in “A Study in Blues Piano.”

Regarding the John Megan Books, he also published a summary volume called “Improvising Jazz Piano” which consolidates the material of the original four-volume set.  I highly recommend it.

You mentioned my honesty. I believe the best teachers are the ones who have struggled, thereby finding ways to overcome, which they can share with their students.  Therefore, I am always eager to share my own shortcomings, and to let people know how I either overcame them, or just ignored them, and found another path 🙂

Kent

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