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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Improvise For Real's David Reed details his own musical beginnings, the limitations of traditional music education, and how to improvise - the right way.



That was so much fun. David has such passion for teaching music through the creative practice of improvisation and I love his perspective on how to make it easy and accessible to any musician.

There was a ton packed into that conversation – let’s do a quick recap.

David grew up surrounded by music, his dad a jazz trumpeter and he started playing guitar early. But it didn’t come easily and in fact was quite hard work for the first few years. But then he said he hit a tipping point where his abilities got to the stage that he could actually enjoy the learning process – and from there he was hooked.

He went on to gig with a band playing jazz standards a couple of nights per week, and that really pushed him to learn on that particular path. But interestingly he pointed out that this style of playing and performing isn’t necessarily connected at all with the world of improvising that he went on to discover.

After making a conscious decision not to pursue big career “success” in music he was able to pick up his guitar and reconnect with the pure enjoyment of making music. And he found that he was able to figure out simple music by ear. Not yet the complex jazz music, that was still a separate world. But in time it was Argentinian tango music that provided a bridge from the simple I-IV-Vs of rock and pop to more varied chords and eventually even the jazz music made sense to his ear.

We talked about the traditional approach to learning music, which can have you studying for years or even decades before you’re finally given permission to compose music of your own – and how different and more enjoyable the journey can be if musical creativity is incorporated from day one. We talked too about how even the word “improvisation” brings with it some baggage. It’s clear that for David improvisation is simply the essence of musical creativity, and the activity of improvising can be a vehicle for learning all the inner skills of musicality that we talk about on this podcast.

I loved his description of how they approach teaching improv at Improvise For Real, with the goal being to give you a “Google Maps”-like view of the music you hear, so that you’re not dependent on memorised vocabulary or sticking to rules and patterns – but you can trust your musical imagination and have the ear skills needed to translate what you imagine out into the real world. If you’ve been following along with our improv month episodes or you’re a member of Musical U then you’ll know how well that matches up with our own view of what true improvisation is.

When David described the vision of a free, creative musician, casting aside all the social pressures and mental hangups around improvising and really just focusing in on the pure enjoyment of music making – I was reminded of our recent episode with Nick Mainella of the 10 Minute Jazz Lesson podcast when Nick talked about the advice to pick up your instrument and “just play”. Like Nick, David obviously recognises the importance of giving students not just that goal of “just playing” and the permission to experiment and try things out – but also providing a clear step-by-step path that equips them with the skills needed to make that playing what they want it to be.

You may have noticed that when talking about Improvise for Real we didn’t really say much about particular instruments or particular styles of music – and that comes back to what David said about the spirit of true improvisation. That even on day one when you improvise for the very first time, you are bringing to it all your experience and identity as a musician – and you already have the ability to imagine the exact perfect notes you want to play. What remains is to learn how to interpret what you imagine and make it real. David was kind to mention Musical U as one way you can learn those skills, but certainly I would highly recommend the path he’s put together himself at Improvise For Real. And it’s something I have no hesitation recommending to existing members of Musical U because it’s beautifully complementary to the improv training we provide ourselves.

So if you’re feeling excited by this idea of putting creative music-making at the heart of learning music – and whether you have any interest in ever improvising a solo or writing a song I think you’ll understand after hearing David speak how improvising can still be a wonderful vehicle simply for learning to understand and enjoy the music you love and play – if you’re feeling excited then do check out where you’ll find an easy way to get started exploring this great approach to learning to improvise.

I hope you enjoyed this episode. Stay tuned for our next one where we’ll pick up on something David talked about, the importance of understanding the harmonic context you’re improvising in – we’ll be talking about improvising using scales and chords.

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