Today we’re excited to welcome on to the show someone we were particularly hoping to feature as part of improv month: David Reed, the creator of Improvise For Real.
You may have heard of this popular method for learning to improvise and it’s one of the few we feel is totally aligned with the ear-led approach we recommend at Musical U and which we’ve been talking about on this podcast lately.
In this conversation we talk about:
- David’s own musical beginnings and two big pivotal moments – one which let him finally really enjoy the learning process and the other which involved totally reframing his mindset about how music fit into his life.
- We discuss the traditional approaches to music education and to learning improvisation – and the limitations these ultimately place on musicians.
- And we talk about how learning to improvise the right way can be like the difference between blindly following directions versus using Google Maps to immerse yourself and explore the world you’re navigating in rich, clear detail.
This episode’s going to be particularly useful for two groups of people. Those who feel like improvisation is kind of a side-topic, and are not necessarily particularly interested in it. We think you’re going to discover you may have dramatically underestimated how learning to improvise could help you in music.
And those who are interested to improvise, and have maybe tried one or two ways before – and found themselves a bit bewildered or disappointed by the experience. David does a fantastic job of describing how learning to improvise should be and how rewarding and straight-up fun it can be if you approach it in the right way.
Listen to the episode:
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Christopher: Welcome to the show, David. Thank you for joining us today.
David: Thank you very much. It’s a pleasure to be here with you.
Christopher: We’ve had the chance to talk once before, and it was such a pleasure to learn more about Improvise For Real and about your own musical story. For our listeners who might be new to you and your project, I’d love if you could just share a bit about where it all came from. How did you get started in music yourself?
David: Well, I started pretty young because my father was a jazz trumpet player. My first exposure to music was really nice. It was both listening to music in the house. We’re constantly hearing records by people like Chad Baker, and Billie Holiday, and Sonny Rollins, but then also there was this social component, which to me, was very fascinating. The good fortune to get a glimpse into it at very young age. I didn’t start playing myself until I was about nine years old. My father gave me a guitar, I was a terrible student. I hated practicing mostly because physically it just was very uncomfortable. I had a steel string acoustic guitar, and it was very painful on my fingers. I just didn’t have any discipline about it either. Probably five or six years went by that I was just talking lessons mostly because I was afraid to tell my father that I didn’t want to continue with the lessons.
What happens eventually, I think, is that even if you’re the worst student in the world, which I likely was, there comes a point where you struggled enough with the instrument, you’ve learned enough that you gain a minimum physical control over it and you reach a tipping point, where the very next exercise or etude that your teacher gives you, you’re actually able to play it and experience some of what your teacher had been wanting you to experience from the very beginning. When the pleasure of playing that tune starts to outweigh the pain involved in producing it, suddenly there’s no looking back, because suddenly, there’s no longer … It’s like the economics of the situation change and from that point forward, the same lack of discipline that made it hard to practice earlier makes it so, from this point forward, that’s practically all you want to do. It’s just keep coming back to this super fun experience and activity.
That really started in my teenage years. I was 14 or 15, from that moment, that’s when I really found the pleasure of playing music and like I said, there was no looking back.
Christopher: Fantastic. That’s such a lovely explanation of the tipping point and how even practice itself can become enjoyable once you get past that initial struggle.
David: Right. If you think about the way kids get obsessed with video games, sports, it’s fun to learn things. It’s fun to master things and to be involved, with your physical body learning to control things. We like it. I think when that’s not happening in music, it’s because something’s missing. There’s something you’re not quite getting and it’s up to us as music teachers to try to help people experience that same excitement as early as possible in their journey.
Christopher: You mentioned jazz there. Were you on a serious jazz guitar curriculum from day one, or what kind of music were you playing?
David: No, it took a circuitous route. I started out learning traditional folk-country method. I don’t know if people are familiar with the Mel Bay series of method books for guitar. It teaches you the notes on the strings and how to read sheet music, and just very basic music literacy. That was the first few years. When I was a teenager, part of what made music so exciting to me all of a sudden was that there was this moment that it dawned on me that this clunky acoustic guitar that I was holding in my hands was literally the same instrument that this electric guitar players were playing on MTV, these rock stars. Suddenly there was this, not only social but artistic components of music that had just never dawned on me. I had no idea where this could lead or what you could do with music. That’s when I got really excited about rock music. I started buying all the guitar magazines, learning to play riffs in songs, and putting bands together, and that. I think I was also fortunate to have a variety of musical experiences. Like in school, I was also singing in the choir.
By that point, I was playing the trumpet in the school marching band. We had a jazz ensemble. These school artistic programs, I think are so important. I think a lot of times we don’t realize how important they can be in the development of people, whether they go on to become musicians or not. But I’m very thankful for those experiences that I had. The primary one was probably the rock band at that phase of my life. When I was about 18, I was very fortunate to get a gig playing in a jazz quintet in a little restaurant in a small town where I grew up, and that was one of the best learning experiences in my life, because for almost two years, we’re playing every Friday and Saturday night for four hours. That’s just a lot of time in front of the real book, claim jazz standards, playing with other musicians. I was very unprepared for it.
In the beginning, I was … Even at the end, I was still the worst member of the band. For that reason, it was a very beautiful and inspiring experience. I think that was really what cemented my love of jazz music and improvising, because it connected with my very first experiences as a child listening to those Chad Baker records, Billie Holiday records in my dad’s house. At that point, I really was able to start working with these beautiful rich sounds of jazz chords and harmony, and all that. That’s what really propelled me for the rest of my life, really.
Christopher: Was it always obvious to you, then, that you would go on to have a life in music? Were you dreaming of being one of those rock stars on MTV?
David: Well, yeah. I certainly dreamed of it, but it wasn’t clear at all. In fact, there was a moment in my late teens when I consciously decided to stop being a musician. I really put the thing down and decided I was no longer going to play music. I think that’s partly because I didn’t see any path forward. When you grew up in a small town, it’s not clear how you make that change or that jump from the things you can really see in the physical world and reality to these imaginary things you see on television, the Red Hot Chili Peppers on some stage in Los Angeles, right. There was that journey that I didn’t know how to make, but it was combined with the fact that the way I was playing music, the rock music that I was playing, which was mostly imitating other great guitarists and try to learn their solos and things. I think it just didn’t really satisfy me creatively. I think that I was very much attracted to music, but I didn’t know how to find my own way in music and do anything of my own in music.
Eventually, I got so frustrated with it that I just quit. I quit the band, and all that stuff. The interesting thing is that the way I look at it now, is that that’s when my true relationship with music actually began. Because it gets all the ego stuff out of the way. When you no longer think of yourself as a musician, and it’s no longer about earning a living, or having any kind of success, or being involved in any project, suddenly now you’re getting those needs satisfied through other means. Maybe you’re studying other things, you get a job, you’re doing something else with your life, but then you just have this instrument sitting over there in the corner with no expectations or ambitions tied to it. At that moment, the only instrument I really knew how to play well was the guitar, and so this was still the guitar for me at that time. What I would do is I would just pick up the guitar and start noodling around with it.
As foolish or ironic as it may sound, it was in that process of noodling around with no ambition, with no goal, that I was finally able to discover what you can really do with music. I was finally able to discover a more genuine relationship with music that didn’t have these ulterior motives attached to it. Really, ironically from the moment I decided to quit music and I wasn’t going to be a musician anymore, that’s when things really started to take off, and I found myself playing six or eight hours a day, but it was with no concept of self or any project in life. It was just this highly addictive activity that I loved.
Christopher: That sounds like a really great way to rediscover the heart of music, and rediscover that enjoyment. I’ve had the pleasure and honor of talking to some great jazz educators on this show before. We’ve talked with Steve Nixon of Freejazzlessons.com, and Nick Mainella of The 10 Minute Jazz Lesson Podcast, and Brent from Learn Jazz Standards, and with all of them, I kind of put to them a question that I’d love to ask you, which is, I think all three of them went straight to jazz, and that can be surprising to some people because jazz is often seen as this quite advanced complex genre, and you were obviously, you said you were gigging a couple of times a week playing jazz standards, you’d grown up in this jazz household, did you find it difficult to reconcile that with just picking up your guitar and playing or how did that work for you? Because for most people, they just pick up and play, that’s worlds apart from performing as an expert jazz soloist.
David: That’s a great question. I would love to hear what some of the other people had to say about it, what their experience was. My own experience was that these were very fragmented experiences that had almost no relationship between them. If there is one piece of that, that might be useful, or helpful to your audience, it might be helpful for a lot of people to understand that what you see on a stage, when you see jazz musicians performing, he’s not always, it can be, but it’s not always an organic extension of what you see pop musicians and blues musicians doing. In other words, those musicians on the stage doing something that seems very, very complex, improvising solos with all kinds of exotic sounds over jazz chord progressions, when I was doing that, I at the same time would not have been able to do many of the things that you teach at Musical U. To listen to a simple pop song, recognize the chord changes by ear, find the key of the music instantly, express myself effortlessly over that tune. A lot of what you described as musicality, I didn’t have.
What’s interesting is that even without that, you can still cobble together a pretty decent solo over a jazz tune if you’re just very diligent and very motivated to learn the theory and scales, and the chords. I don’t mean to say that there was no musical intent behind what I was doing, but I was certainly missing a lot of the skills that patch all these things together like glue. I never played like a natural. I was never one of those like a total package musician where you can go to a party and figure out everything by ear and plays beautifully. I was never that person. I just had learned to play solos and chords over jazz standards before I picked up some of those other skills. I think in my case, those two worlds really had to remain separate because I had a lot of catching up to do on the more authentic side before I would ever be able to get back to the level of complexity that I was playing from a more theoretical plays.
Christopher: That’s such a valuable point. I think it would shock a lot of people in the average restaurant to learn that the judge pianist that was entertaining them with this amazing jazz, actually couldn’t play a pop song by ear, and these weren’t necessarily related in any way.
David: Right. Also, imagine the suffering of that poor jazz pianist because he’s doing the best he can and he’s on his path, and we’re all just of different places and we’re learning different things, but because of this misconception, all his friends and family are treating him like a musical genius of the neighborhood, and then he goes to somebody’s … There’s a family gathering and they say, “Well why don’t you sit down and play us a bunch of Beatles songs and we’ll all sing together.” The poor guy feels like a fraud because he’s being expected by his friends and family to do things that he just doesn’t know how to do. A lot of times, it’s not just the audience, it’s not just the amateur musician or the beginner who suffers because of these misconceptions, but even some very advanced musicians are going around the world with some very deep insecurities and they feel like they’re not truly natural musicians. They’re not really creative. They’re just faking it.
I think that the value of what you can bring with Musical U, and what we’re trying to with Improvised For Real is not just to help beginners get into this beautiful, enjoyable world of music, which is obviously the largest part of our audience, but also even some very accomplished musicians, they have surprising insecurities and doubts, and questions, and so if you can help those people to feel better about what they’re doing and have a more complete experience as a musician, I think that’s just as rewarding.
Christopher: Yeah. I have to say, I wouldn’t name names, but it was eye opening to me in our first few months of Musical U, one of our first members was a Grammy award winning musician, and they’d had all of the success and I had the opportunity to talk with them on the phone. I was a bit shocked just to hear even at that level, that such a part of music making can be missing. It’s exactly what you just described, that they’re very accomplished in one path, but if they try to sit down and play even Happy Birthday by ear, they would have really struggled. Did you find a way, then, to connect those worlds? The complex jazz you were enjoying playing but not necessarily understanding by ear, and the just sitting down with your guitar and maybe figuring out pop music by ear or something simpler?
David: Yeah. But only at the end of quite a long circle. For example, you’ll relate to this because at Musical U, you start people of in, I think, the right way in understanding chords and harmony, which is to focus on the sensations, and of course thinking relative to the key. You talk about the one chord and the four chord, and the five chord for example. That connects us up to an experience that’s very familiar for many musicians, many, many musicians, even quite amateur beginner musicians, to feel pretty confident that they can not only recognize chords one, four and five by ear, especially if it’s in a predictable format like a 12-bar blues, but they also take it for granted that they should be able to easily play those chords in any key. If you ask this person, “Could we play a 12-bar blues in the key of G?” A lot of people can follow along with those chords.
Yet, the same person, if you ask them to play a jazz standard like Autumn Leaves in an unfamiliar key, with the same confidence, they would take it for granted, that that’s impossible. “Nobody, that’s a freaky ability. You got to be some kind of rain man, Savant to do that.” Yet, Autumn Leaves, it only has seven chords. It’s got four more chords than a 12-bar blues. If I can learn to recognize the three chords of a 12-bar blues by ear, and if I can learn to visualize them in any key of my instrument, then why can’t I do it with four chords more? While we’re on the subject, why can’t I do it with any song I’ve ever heard? The only way that I was able to have that realization for myself was that I needed kind of a middle level of complexity, which for me is what I found when I was living in Buenos Aires studying Tango music, because prior to that, I have these two worlds very separate. I have the very simple tunes that were three chords and I could play them in any key, and the jazz standards, which never occurred to me to even try that.
The nice thing about the Tango music, which it shares with all Latin-American music, and a lot of American folk music is that it’s still pretty simple. It’s got just a few chords, but you might have the one chord, the four chord, the five chord, and then maybe the two chord. The whole A section might be one and five, one and five, one and five, and then in the bridge, it goes to the sixth chord. It’s just a little bit more, it stretches your mind that little bit more but it’s still simple enough that it’s worth trying to visualize all relative to the key, and it kind of leads you very naturally to that way of thinking about music that we all have with the 12-bar blues but most of us don’t have the jazz standards. That formed a bridge that then got me thinking about that.
Then, I started going back to some simpler jazz standards like Autumn Leaves, and saying, “Well, instead of thinking of that, it’s just a random whatever is the first chord, depends on the key you played, like an A minor seven, or what if I just sketch that out as a two chord? I get the two chord, the five chord, and the one chord, the four chord, the seven chord, the six chord.” I said, “Holy cow, these are all the chords in the major scale. The whole song comes from a single major scale.” What was so hard about that? That’s what inspired me to then apply that same analysis to essentially every song I’ve ever played. A lot of the way that we teach in Improvise For Real is based on that realization, and then following that through to its conclusion.
Christopher: You said something really interesting that I’d like to pick up on, which is approaching all of this in terms of the feel of the chords, or remembering how these progressions might sound or feel as you play them on your instrument. Talk a little bit more about that, because I think a lot of people would hear the kind of terminology you just used like the two chord, the six chord, and suddenly everything is sounding very abstract and theoretical, and mathematical. How did those two worlds reconcile?
David: That’s such a great point. I believe that creativity and a genuine understanding of music is the result of the student having the opportunity to get to know the raw materials of music first hand. I think human beings learn best when we’re able to explore the world directly, gets to know the raw materials of our art. When we make our own decisions, our own creative choices about how to use those materials, it’s through that process that you actually learn to understand music. In other words, improvisation is not the result of 10 years of studying theory and learning what chords go with what other chords, and what scales should be cobbled on top of those chords, and so forth. Improvisation is actually activity that leads you to the understanding in the first place. If you think about the way we teach any other art form, for example in a painting class, there may be some technique you learn, maybe you’re talking about lighting effects or for shortening, or whatever, but then there’s always this moment in the class that the teacher says, “All right, class, now you’re going to have an opportunity to make your own original painting and you’re going to choose the subject, and you’re going to choose the composition, and we’re going to practice this skill that we just learned.”
That’s the same in poetry, that’s the same in creative writing, that’s the same in drawing, and graphic design, architecture, anything. It even goes beyond the arts. If you think about how human beings learn anything. Maybe you wan to learn a computer programming knowledge, well as soon as you’ve learned two or three instructions, the very next thing that’s going to happen is the teacher’s going to say, “All right, class. Now what we’re going to do is you have this problem that we want you to solve using these instructions that you’ve learned, so I want you to write a simple program that accomplishes this task.” It’s understood that one of the most important aspects of the learning process is for you to have to go into that base of knowledge that you just acquired and make creative decisions about how to use it to do something that you want to do.
My knowledge, there’s only one field in the world where this is not widely adopted, and that’s music. In music, I mean there are always exceptions, but too many people have had a very different experience in music, where their experience in music looks like the following. You show interest in music as a kid, somebody puts an instrument in your hand, and that begins a process of 10 years of learning basic music literacy, learning to play the instrument physically, you learn to read sheet music, so you’re learning about things like half notes, quarter notes, and triplets, and all kinds of other things. There’s a lot of good stuff that happens during that phase. I’m not trying to diminish that, that we learn a lot about how to play the instrument physically, and interpretation, and dynamics, and also learning to read sheet music is an important skill. But then what happens for most people is if you’re very talented, you show a lot of potential, then at the end of that 10 years, you might go on.
You go to a music school, and then you begin a more intense focus on theory, and music history, and compositions, and these things. At the end of all of that, now you’re in your early 20’s, and finally we tell you, “All right, Christopher, society has made this massive investment. You’ve had all these experiences, you acquired all these knowledge. Now, the time has come for you to create your own original music with all of these concepts. But be careful, because remember, your music is going to be judged along side the music of Mozart, and Bach, and Chopin, and Miles Davis, and everybody else. Whatever you do, it better be good.” The kind of crowning achievement of this whole process is that’s when the person just gives up on the whole thing and goes to work in a bank, because it’s just too much pressure. My feeling is that this whole approach is outdated, and it does a great disservice to musicians.
To the people who started out as sensitive music lovers who just want to have a richer experience. They just want to make music themselves. They want to hear the sounds. They fall in love with the sounds when they discover their own ability to play melodies that sound great because you’re playing on the key of the music so every note sounds fantastic, and you can draw these melodies across the air like you’re painting in the air. That’s the experience that people want. They don’t want just the other part, the technical part, the physical part, the theoretical part. What’s missing? It’s really not very much. What’s missing in the … The difference between the total package musician that has the musicality that you talk about, and the other person who feels totally blocked and can’t do anything without sheet music, and suffers because of it, the difference is very simple.
It’s when little Johnny or Suzie is learning the C major scale, once you’ve gone through the, “Da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da,” once we’ve done that, there just needs to be another experience. It’s the same experience that you see in the computer programming classes, in the painting classes, in the poetry classes, which is, “All right, Suzie, check this out. You’re going to flip when you see this. We’re going to put on this jam track behind you, and now you’re just going to play any one of those notes of the scale and you can hear how great it sounds, and then you can just move freely between those notes. You can play anything you want. That’s not just Suzie developing herself creatively and learning to express yourself through music. In other words, it’s not just Suzie learning to improvise. What it really is, is Suzie learning to understand these notes, and actually getting to know them. Get to know them by working with them freely, and playing them in any order. That, to me, was the missing experience for me, and it’s the missing experience for most people.
Christopher: Absolutely. I think the respect we have for the classical repertoire we’ve inherited leads to such misguided music education, as you described. So many years put into just replicating music. It’s like we’re learning to reproduce music rather than make music. I think exactly the kind of experiences you described of just giving people the opportunity and the permission to try things out makes a huge difference.
David: Right. I mean there are some components to go into that, because if we want this experience to lead to something even deeper and richer tomorrow, then there needs to be an organized path. Tomorrow there’s different set of sounds, different scale, different chord, and somebody needs to organize that path for you so that you can eventually come to have an understanding of harmony. As you know, there’s a certain vision of your instrument that’s required to be able to do these things in any key, and all that, but all of that can be learned. I think the point is not to diminish at all the contribution of some of the most beautiful musicians I’ve ever known, and really the ones we’ve got music on the deepest level, are classical performers who had never improvised a note in their lives. There is such a universe there of beautiful problems and challenges, and lovely opportunities, and creativity, and expression. There’s so much that goes into the interpretation of music.
Some of the conscious choices, like what are you going to do in this section, the other section, how are you going to link them together? What you do with timing and dynamics, and so forth. It’s not to diminish in any way people that do that, because that’s a magnificent art form and I hope it always stays around, but a lot of those people doing that would also love to just sit down and jam, and improvise a solo with a band, and they don’t realize how available that is to them. They don’t realize that it’s like you’re sitting there with a Ferrari. With everything you’ve learned about creating beautiful sounds on your instrument, and you’re literally just missing the key. You’re missing a couple little things to help you see how you can create your own music and any context, and so that’s really exciting.
I think what I’m trying to say is that people who can’t improvised are mystified by the whole process. What they need to understand is that improvisation is not like this whole other feel that you have to go off and learn. Everything you have learned about your instrument, everything you’ve learned from listening to the music you love, everything about you as a person, your values, your takes, your sensitivity, you bring all that with you to the very first time you improvise. If you just have a structured experience here you can get to know this art form called musical improvisation, it’s not like starting over. It’s discovering, “Wow, I get to see a different side of myself. I didn’t realize I had all this inside me.”
Christopher: I think you touched on something important there which is that even improvisation comes with some baggage socially. When I think back to when I was learning these, I wouldn’t really have explored improvisation very much because I didn’t want to be an improviser. Sometimes there was an opportunity to play a guitar solo in a rock song, and that was fine, and I knew my scale patterns, and I could do it, but I wouldn’t have really dived into improvisation because I didn’t think of myself as someone who particularly yearned for that creative outlet. I think if someone had framed it to me more as, “This is the path to really understanding the music you’re playing. This is the path to having the ability to create whatever for that might take,” I think I would have gotten a lot more excited about it. I think it’s interesting that we started this conversation talking about jazz, and you also mentioned, looking at the rock stars on MTV, because I think improvisation in both of contexts comes with a lot of assumptions.
I’d really love to talk more about your approach, Improvise For Real, because in the first episode of this series for improv month, I talked about two of the most common approaches to learning to improvise, and maybe the drawbacks those have. The first being the jazz tradition of learning vocab. You study the greats, you memorize their licks and riffs, and then you essentially pull those out of your bag when it comes your turn to step forward. The more traditional rock approach, which is you learn your scale pattern, and maybe some rhythmic ideas, and you’ll noodle around in the right kind of note group, and it will sound okay. Both of which to my mind are quite far from true improvisation. I’d love to hear your perspective on those approaches and whether they have a place in improvisation, and also how you look at things at Improvise For Real.
David: Yeah. Wow, you made so many great points there. I’ve had the same experience where many of our students wouldn’t use that word, improvisation, to describe their musical goal right now, or their fantasy. They might say it a different way. They want to be able to jam, they want to be a better instrumentalist, they want to be able to play with a band, maybe they want to write their own songs. There’s a learning curve there. There’s an explanation there that we need to get better at doing to help them understand our vision of how they can achieve all those things and not allow that confusion surrounding the word improvisation to get in the way of that connection. The things you mentioned about the different approaches to improvisation or the teaching improvisation is also very interesting.
Without going into a long social commentary of how the word got to be the way it is, our view is that the first thing we want to make sure our students have is the understanding that the world of harmony is finite. What you can do with it is infinite, but what you hear in 99% of the music that surrounds you on a daily basis is finite, it’s knowable, and our responsibility is to give students a system that they can visualize in their mind … Like if you think about Google Maps, and I mean it’s wonderful. You can see, you can zoom in, you can zoom out, you can see your street, you could see the whole neighborhood. You can even go down and see the street view, see photos of things on the street. That’s our responsibility as music teachers, to give students that experience of harmony. In other words, they should feel that each harmonic situation that they’re learning about connects to others. They should see how it all fits together.
They should be able to go down and do the street view where they’re improvising, and they’re working with the notes, and they’re down inside the thing, but they should also be able to lift their view up and get a bird’s eye view, and see how it all fits together. That’s, I think, our first mission, is to help people understand that that view of harmony is possible. That you can have a very simple, a very elegant model of our musical system in your mind that you can then explore. Now the knowledge of those sounds is going to come from your exploration. It’s not up to me to tell you how to use those sounds. My view is it’s not up to me to give you vocabulary. It’s up to me to show you the map and to show you how you can go down, and walk those streets, and get to know all those neighborhoods for yourself.
The interesting thing is that when people connect this vision of harmony with the personal experience of getting to know the sounds through improvising, they develop that musicality that you’re teaching at Musical U. The result of this process is a very different definition of improvisation. Improvisation is no longer spitting out licks and vocabulary that somebody else gave me. Now, it actually becomes very similar to some of your training exercises that you teach at Musical U, because what people discover through the process is there’s a hidden factor here that a lot of people don’t know it even exists in the very beginning. Just what I call a musical imagination. What I’m talking about is your imagination for the sounds. For example, if somebody starts laying down a really cool baseline in a nice jazzy sound, one thought process and one belief system is, okay, what chord are they playing? Then, what scale would fit correctly over that chord, and what kind of lick or vocabulary can I use to start my solo?
But there’s a whole other thought process, which is to just close your eyes and listen, and imagine yourself, imagine a fantasy that you were watching the most beautiful concert that you ever heard in your life. The way the concert begins is with that baseline. Then, suddenly, another musician starts to play. What’s the very first note that she plays, or he plays? What is that sound? If you can hear that sound in your mind, that is your inner composer. That’s your musical imagination right there. Then, using the skills that you teach at Musical U, and that we teach in Improvise For Real as well, the idea is to be able to transcribe that sounds. How do you do that? Because you’ve played with it before. Because of that Google Maps experience, when you were exploring the world of harmony, you know that’s note six. You play it, and it’s gorgeous, and it works, and nobody needed to tell it was right. You don’t need anybody else’s vocabulary.
What you discover after going through this process is that you already have vocabulary. You have endless vocabulary inside you. It comes from all the records you’ve ever listened to. It’s filtered through your taste, your values, your personal appetite for the sounds. That to me is just a much more exciting thing to be dedicating our lives to. Once I discovered that I have that voice inside myself, I don’t care about other people’s vocab. It’s not that it’s not beautiful, it’s not that their music isn’t lovely, but I feel like if I have listened to it deeply, whatever I’ve been able to learn from it is already inside me. The exciting experience I want to have is just that feeling of total freedom where I can create the music myself and express the sounds that I imagine. That’s really what we teach at Improvise For Real.
Christopher: Fantastic. Well, what you’ve described, I think, definitely is the dream of improvising. But I feel like there’s a spectrum, and on one end of the spectrum there’s the kind of formulaic rule-based improvisation, like you’ve learned your vocab or you know your scale pattern, that’s fairly easy to learn to do step by step, but it doesn’t give you that creative freedom. On the other end of the spectrum, you have the kind of romantic jazz story of the guy who just goes and practices hours in the shed until he can magically improvise out of nowhere just by playing. How would you connect up those two world? How do you fill in that middle ground that lets people learn that kind of beautiful creative free improvisation you just described but in a clear step by step way?
David: I think what you just described is exactly … We don’t do everything at Improvise For Real. We don’t teach rhythmic patterns. We don’t teach site reading sheet music, we don’t teach musical literacy. Even though those skills are very important. Even though there’s a lot to be gained from all of that, we don’t do that. There’s just one thing that we do. It’s just one thing we want to do, and that we want to be the best in the world, and that’s provide that step by step path, an organized journey that should be fun and creative from the very first day that should lead people in an organized way through the world of harmony, but making use of improvisation every step of the way. In other words, day one, let’s say you’re improvising in the major scale over what we call the one chord. We got one, three, and five going in the background, and you’re just getting to know the notes as they sound in that context.
Tomorrow, we can do something else. Tomorrow we could maybe improvise with the same major scale, but now maybe what’s sounding in the background is the two chord. That changes everything. Now, this is not an overnight process. This is a life-long journey. At some point, the person’s own intuition and desires, and personal goals begin to take over, and they could interact with our material in a much more flexible way the same way … One of the things I like about Musical U is that you offer people road maps and a plan, and a vision of how to get to where they want to go. But it’s also built in to the process that they have the flexibility to go deeper into some areas than others, and to do things in the order that they need to. I think that’s necessary for anybody. If our students are musicians, almost by definition, we’re talking about sensitive people who don’t want to be told what to do, and they don’t want to study stuff that doesn’t mean anything to them, that doesn’t make sense to them. They have a burning desire to figure out something in each moment. If we can help them get in contact with that, that’s kind of our job.
What we do at Improvise For Real is to try to lay out that path. For example, there’s a book, Improvise For Real, and then there’s a series of jam tracks that we’ve published. Literally just going through those jam tracks, first level one, then level two, then level three, what they’re doing is they’re going through all these different harmonics situation.
We’re leading them by the hands, and at every step of the way, they’re getting to know the sounds by working with them, by improvising with them, by playing solos with them. Yes, at the end of this process, you’re going to be a monster improviser because your entire practice routine is improvising. That’s what you’re doing all day long. But if we’ve done our job properly, then the path should also be very understandable. It should feel very much like that Google Maps kind of experience where you could see the world of harmony and there’s nothing particularly complicated about it. It should feel like a very rich landscape of beautiful things to discover, and it should be organized in such a way that the abstraction gets layered in over time. The very first principle should be very easy to understand. It should build a very solid mastery of them, and then it becomes easy to understand variations on that or abstractions.
That’s really the work I’ve been doing for the last 10 years. I think getting into the mechanics of it is maybe not that interesting to the listeners as far as exactly what we do first, and second, and third, but the way you ask the question is actually a very lovely mission statement. Every day that we wake up, we’re returning to your question. How do you help a musician develop that freedom, that total musicality that allows him or her to feel that complete creative freedom improvising, composing, jamming with friends, performing, maybe forming a band, how do we give them those experiences or make those experiences possible through a learning path that incorporates a deep understanding of harmony and total creative freedom right from the very beginning?
It’s the exact opposite of the approach where first, we’re going to tell you a bunch of stuff about music and you’re going to practice your instrument for 10 years, and then we’re just going to throw you out on to the stage and force you to do something. The idea is that if you learn something, then you should see it clearly, you should be able to play it on all 12 keys, you should be able to recognize the sounds by ear, you should be creative with those sounds, you should be making your own music with those. That can be very simple. We can do that with one, two, and three. But if you’re learning the one, two, and three, you should be able to recognize Mary Had a Little Lamb. Tying those things together so that you can perceive what we’re really talking about. It’s not theoretical. These are human sensations that we’ve got to get to know and we have a way to wrap around them and that’s the Google Maps sort of vision of harmony.
More important is the personal experience. Getting to know the sounds, and my perspective is the most effective way to do that is through being creative with them. It’s through improvising, and even composing. Making up your own chord progressions.
Christopher: Fantastic. Well, I know that a lot of our listeners who have either shied away from improvisation because they weren’t sure it was for them, or maybe have tried learning to improvise but found themselves trapped in patterns, and rules, and memorization, are probably feeling really inspired and enlightened right now, because the approach you take at Improvise For Real, I think, lives up to its name. You are teaching the true spirit of improvisation, and I love how step by step and practical, you’ve made that for people to learn. Do you have any advice for someone who’s just getting started in this journey?
David: I think my advice would be the most important advice that I would give to any person who is longing for a musical experience is to try to separate the social issues of the tribes, the internet trolls, the people who spend all day online arguing about music theory, and all these things. There’s so much of that, that to a beginner can be so intimidating. We have our own things that we bring to this as well. We’ve all been exposed to too much television. We’re all guilty of the celebrity culture of idolizing people and so forth. All of that is a distraction. There is something here that if you can just get a taste of it, it’s so beautiful. It’s so joyous. I mean, music, we musicians are so fortunate because we’re fascinated by an art form that people actually like. You can go anywhere in the world and it’s very hard to find people that would just say as a blanket statement, “I don’t like music.” Right? I mean, we all like different kinds of music, but it’s maybe one out of a hundred people that would say he or she doesn’t like music.
If you compare that to the people who say, “I’m not interested in poetry. I don’t like to go to art museum.” Everybody loves music. It has that wonderful component to it that it’s something that we all feel it’s visceral, it’s something we can share with others, but then it also has this amazing social component that you can do it with other people. You can jam together. Whether it’s just a simple pleasure of playing in time, like just playing written sheet music in a big band or something, or whether you’re strumming chords in a rock band, or whether it’s something more interactive where you’re soloing and having a real dialogue. I mean, this is just the most wonderful art form. It’s such a cultural treasure. I feel that it’s everybody birth right. These kids all over the world should be jamming. There should be jam sessions on every street corner of every city in the world, and almost free. It’s totally anti-consumer, anti-materialist. You get a little instrument for a couple hundred dollars that can open up this whole kingdom of pleasure and enjoyment, and fascination for the rest of your life.
You don’t even care about the new iPhone, whatever, that’s coming out, right? I would just encourage people, my advice would be to stay focused on that. Focus on yourself and your own experience, and what you can experience through music, because there is something so beautiful that’s waiting for you there that once you get into that, all the other stuff kind of goes away. It gets smaller, and you don’t really care anymore whether you’re the smartest guy on the chat forum, or somebody considers you the best musician in your town. All those ego things just don’t matter anymore because you found something so much more interesting and valuable.
Christopher: Wonderful. It’s been such a pleasure to talk with you, David. I would highly recommend Improvise For Real to any of our listeners who are excited and intrigued by the things we’ve been discussing today. Thank you again, David, for joining us on the show.
David: Thank you so much, Christopher. I really appreciate it.
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