hi everybody!

i'd like to have you opinion on sight-reading in jazz improvisation.
here's my personal background:
i've had some basic piano lessons as a teenager in which i learned basic songs and some easy classical stuff. i can read all notes in the treble and bass clef but sight-reading (playing while reading) has always been a big problem for me. i can do it, but only very slow. my teacher used to freak out, when i made a mistake. most of the time i learned the songs by heart and pretended i was sight-reading :)

after 2 years i quit the piano and started learning guitar by myself and with a friend. without any notes! just learning some basic chords and having fun with it, so that i was able to write some songs. this was the complete opposite of my piano lessons: my piano teacher made me hate musicc, learning by myself with my heart and soul made me love music!

now after 17 years (i'm 31) i've taken the decision to learn the basics of jazz piano. because i love jazz, black music in general. in fact i love the "comping thing", the jazz chords. my aim is simply being able to write some songs with jazz chords.

and my question to you is: do i really have to sight read? i mean, from what i've learned about jazz by now, it's all about knowing your chords and voicings, some scales. - so why would one have to be a good sight-reader? errol garner and dave brubeck couldn't read well either. i listen to a lot of stuff and can imitate some things.
i mean it's mainly all about knowing where the 1,3,5,7,9,11,13 are (incl. sharps/flats) and some practice. so why would i have to learn proper sight reading? i hate it, it kills the soul of the music!!! (that's my opinion)

i know a lot of people insist on sight reading (especially teachers) but is there anybody on this forum who's learned jazz without the pressure of being able to sight-read?

There are 3 comments, leave a comment.
i also do not read music very quickly despite years of attempting to work on that specific problem. (the best sight readers i've known were naturally good at it to begin with.)  if you do not read quickly and precisely, you will be limited in what kind of gigs you can take; your skill set will be poorly suited for accompanying a singer's written arrangement note for note or playing a big band chart at sight.  in the past, guys like tommy flannagan could take orchestra gigs when the jazz jobs were scarce, while hampton hawes struggled because he played entirely by ear (but how beautifully he did that).  

the good news is that plenty of other "creative" paths (where you are the leader or are in a more improvisation-based group) are available to someone with great ears.  don't let sight reading issues hold you back if you're just setting out to compose and play some jazz.  jazz is one area where having highly developed ears is an advantage, as you'll have to cop most if not all of the language from recordings.  i wouldn't worry about it.
i agree with ziggysane- inability to sight-read shouldn't keep you from playing jazz, and playing it well. and very good ears are probably a lot better than good eyes for jazz. but, like the post above mine, i think it's a valuable skill that will make you a more flexible and wanted musician. but again, i personally would rather have better ears than better eyes.
i don't think the idea that sight-reading takes away from creativity is true, though. i took classical piano lessons for awhile alongside jazz lessons, and i learned that it's a extensive process that involves an individual's unique style and individuality. it demands a high level of music theory and understanding of the piece itself, and while it may not be spontaneous like improvisation, it is very much interpretive and a highly musical process. but this is my personal opinion.
overall, i think you should continue to work on it, even if it's difficult. it won't hurt, and the worst that can happen is that you'll improve slightly on sight-reading! you don't absolutely need it to play jazz, but if it's useful, why not?
sight reading is rather important if you want to be a pro.  that is, if you want to play with any band or do any studio sessions.

i do not believe that sight reading is a natural talent. i believe that like any skill it can be learned and practiced to the point of perfect execution.

i think the main issue with practicing sight reading is that almost no one knows how to properly practice it.  you don't get better at sight reading by... sight reading.  sounds counter-intuitive, doesn't it?

you get better at sight reading by learning sheet music exactly as written, and classical music and transcription books are the places to go for that.  there's a nice transcription of somewhere over the rainbow as played by keith jarret that would be a pretty good place to start learning note-for-notes.

https://www.scribd.com/doc/24941933/piano-sheet-music-keith-jarrett-over-the-rainbow

you would want to memorize the song, exactly as written, and be able to play it from memory from any point in the song.  just like a classical player learning repertoire.

the more full on sheet music style songs you learn that way, the faster you start sight reading because just like learning how to play cool voicings from chord changes, it doesn't happen until you work out the voicing and then practice it in different keys in different songs.

some notes about sight reading, ways to make it easier.

1. read from the bottom up.  that way you get the foundation of what you're playing and it's often easier to read and be intuitive about the notes that are stacked on top of the chord or line.

2. don't practice the wrong notes.  don't play the same mistake over and over and over and over again, stopping and going back a few beats and then playing it right. you just practiced your mistake and learning mistakes is counter productive.  if you have a tough spot and make a mistake, go back a couple measure, slow down, and work it out.  play through the hard passage slowly without making mistakes. if you need to go even slower, do that.  great classical players always slow down in difficult passages if they are prone to making a mistake in those passages.  then it doesn't take long to play them at speed as long as you've learned them correctly the first time.  so don't skim over the hard rhythms, lines, or chords. never.

3. sit down on the couch with the music and say the notes out loud.  like in that keith jarrett transcription above, you'd go:

a. f f
b. c
c. g a e
d. c
e. c e c f

read the notes out loud, like, say them out loud.  it helps even though it sounds kind of strange.

4. sight read.  yeah, i said you don't get better at sight reading by sight reading, but if you do it this way it helps.  find a book of piano music- there are some great arrangement books out there - and then play every song in the book. however, don't play them as performances unless you can play them without mistakes.  otherwise, go super slow and play everything perfect.  go as slow as it takes to play perfect.  i mean, absolutely no mistakes in notes or timing (relative to the speed you are going.)  you can change the speed of playing so you get the notes right and just keep timing relative to the current tempo.  it could take hours to get through a book of arrangements.

or get a subscription to a good magazine like piano today that has good classical music and amazing jazz arrangements by big names specifically for solo piano.

sight reading is not a mystery, it's just another skill that it takes time and dedication to master.

also, if you want to learn jazz piano, then put down the other instruments and focus on what you want to learn.  i know a lot of guys who play many different instruments pretty well.  but they are masters of none.  why dilute yourself and be "ok" at lots of instruments?  pick one and focus on it and become a master at it.
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