iRealBook: the double-edged sword

We live in an incredible era for musicians, where we have instant access to an incredible wealth of information that wasn’t available just 15 years ago. All this, thanks to various technological advancements. I can only wonder what further innovations await us!

Every previous generation of musician uses the same line with the latest generation: “back in my day, we had to do X to learn to do Y”. For instance, a 35 year old musician today would tell a 20 year old: “when I was learning music, there was no YouTube, I had to learn from CDs”. The previous generation would say: “In my day, there were no CDs, I was learning from cassette tapes”. The one before that would say “I kept wearing down my records from repeated use”.

There’s a famous story from Paul McCartney (who rose to superstardom thanks to the efforts of Kanye West) who talked about learning the B7 chord by traveling far just to find someone who knew how to play it. In his own words “[…] we got on the bus, trouped across Liverpool, changed a couple of buses, found this fellow, and he showed us B7. We learned it, got back on the bus, went home to our mates […]”.

There are also stories that J.S. Bach had to walk miles to different towns just to learn certain things!

Today, the amount of information at our fingertips is just on a completely different and unprecedented scale. Want to learn B7? Just ask Siri on your iPhone! You have a gig tonight and need to play All The Things You are in Db? No problem, the iRealBook will transpose the song for you, you can just read it off your iPad! How convenient!

This is exactly what I want to talk about in this article. While all this technology appears to be great, I feel that this technology needs to be used with caution. For anyone who is serious about music, certain essential skills should not be sacrificed for the sake of convenience. This didn’t start with the iPad; the Real Book has been widely available for a few decades, but I feel that with the iRealBook and the use of iPads on the bandstand, we are on a very slippery slope.

This article is not so easy to write, because certain musicians may feel offended. I am not necessarily targeting anyone specific as I have seen this phenomenon all around the world in various situations. I may have to draw on certain personal experiences to illustrate certain points, but again, the focus is not on specific individuals but on the phenomenon itself.

I’ll be direct: I think the iRealBook is among the worst/dangerous musical “innovations” out there. I have never used it, and I refuse to use it for most situations. The ability to learn and memorize a simple 32 bar standard is an essential skill for any serious improvising musician. If you’re a hobbyist, sure OK, do whatever you need to do to make yourself happy, but understand that your true potential as a musician will only go as far as your ability to learn things by ear AND memorize them. The problem is that I see too many young professional musicians relying on the iRealBook, and I see the negative consequences all too often.

In the style of music that I play, the chord progressions to most songs tend to be quite simple and straightforward. I cannot find any good reason to use charts. I have played gigs with professional musicians relying on charts for these songs. Some of the chords are wrong in these charts, and instead of telling the musicians, I would try to make it clear in my playing by emphasizing the correct chord. All too often, the musicians just don’t hear it, or have a hard time figuring it out. We’re talking chord progressions like Gm Cm D7; the most basic of chord progressions out there. I remind you, these are professional musicians. There’s something very, very wrong with this picture.

We’re talking about two separate but equally important skills here: the ability to hear, and the ability to memorize. While many professional musicians have the former down, the latter is often neglected due to the frequent use of sheet music. I have nothing against sheet music, and I can understand the importance of it for music that is heavily arranged or complex. Nonetheless, reading anything should never come at the expense of the ability to memorize simple 32 bar standards on the spot. There is really no excuse for not being able to memorize Pennies from Heaven in one listen and one chorus (two tops).

Yet, I’ve found myself in situations with the local big names asking for charts to songs like After You’ve Gone and not being able to memorize the melody. These are guys who are teaching in prestigious musical institutions, who are among the most respected musicians in town, and I’ll admit it, as improvisers, can play circles around me. That’s the point, I have mixed feelings about people who can improvise over Countdown in 7/8, but who can’t memorize After You’ve Gone in one shot. The ability to memorize such an easy song should not be considered impressive, it should be the norm. When I play with good musicians from older generations, it IS the norm. Of course, there are many musicians from today’s generation who understand this, and those are the musicians that I like to surround myself with.

Was I born with the ability to memorize many things on the spot? To be honest, in my personal case, I’m not sure how my ability to memorize developed. The only thing I can say, is that since I was maybe 18 or so, I practically stopped using charts. I used sheet music only to learn classical music. I recall a gig, when I was in my early 20s, where I was hired by a folk musician to accompany him. He sent me charts and told me that I would need them because it was full of arrangements with alternating measures of 2/4 and 4/4. I remember taking a few days to memorize all the songs and arrangements so that I wouldn’t need them on stage. I played the entire gig by memory. That’s the earliest recollection that I have of making an effort to train my memory. From then on, I’ve always insisted on memorizing music.

I remember some musicians telling me that I was taking it too far. In one instance, it was a wedding gig with specific song requests. I made an effort to memorize the songs. One of my band mates told me to relax and just use the sheet music; “it’s just a wedding gig”, he said. He’s right that it was a lot of effort for “just a wedding gig”, but for me, it’s about the discipline to maintain and improve the skill. I’ve heard that excuse many times “it’s just a bar gig / it’s just a wedding gig / it’s just a cocktail party”. All the little excuses add up, and then you end up not practicing what you ought to be practicing.

I firmly believe that one can train to improve his/her memory. You just have to make the effort to do it, don’t let the little excuses set you back. We can use similar bad excuses for almost anything in life; people driving to go to the gym instead of walking 10-15 minutes; people saying they like having the occasional puff of cigarette and saying that they can quit smoking anytime they want, but then who go on smoking for years. If you want to smoke, go ahead, but don’t pretend you’re an occasional smoker and can quit whenever you want; after a few years of daily smoking, you’re not an occasional smoker. We’ve all seen similar scenarios, it’s always little excuses.

I would like to share with you a recent example from my personal experiences. This one is difficult to write as I don’t want to single out a particular musician. If he ever does read this, I apologize for writing this, but a clear example is necessary to illustrate my point. Last summer (2015), at the wonderful Django In June festival, I backed up two musicians, Tcha Limberger and Rino van Hooijdonk. We had recorded a CD a few years before, and this was to be the American debut of the group. Unfortunately, the festival was not able to bring in the bass player, so we had just a few days to find a bass player. Rino had asked a bass player that he jammed with on the first night to play with us. We had very little time to rehearse.

During the first rehearsal, it was clear that he had trouble memorizing the songs. I had to write down charts for the songs for him. Some of the songs were brand new to me as well, and I have to admit, I wasn’t too happy about having to write a chart for someone who was learning the same song at the same time as I was. The second rehearsal, it became clear that he still had trouble looking away from the charts, but he said he would make every effort to memorize the songs for the gig. The day of the gig, an hour before soundcheck, we got together for a final rehearsal. Here it was obvious that it just wasn’t going to work out. Too many mistakes in the bass playing made it difficult for the rest of us to concentrate. It was difficult to bring up the issue, but we asked the gentleman if it would be possible to ask another bass player to play with us instead. He was a perfect gentleman about it, and agreed to do what was best for the music. For that we are extremely thankful.

In came the young cellist/guitarist William Brunard who had only picked up the bass a few years ago. By now, there was only 30 minutes or so until soundcheck. We asked him if he knew the songs that we were playing. He did not know most of the songs. We ran through one chorus of each song. He memorized every song in one shot. He did have to make a few notes for a few songs with longer forms and arrangement, but overall in 30 minutes, he memorized in entire setlist 2 hours before the concert. We then did our soundcheck, had dinner, and played the gig. You can watch the entire concert below, courtesy of Djangophile Patrus53. Tcha, Rino, and I agreed, it was a near flawless concert; everything happened the way it needed to happen.

I must now backtrack a little bit to talk about the original bass player that we had hired. I’m not sure if he was a full-time musician, I’m guessing semi-pro. He certainly had skills, and was good at what he knew how to do, which if I’m not mistaken, was bluegrass. He was not at fault, it was our mistake. One shouldn’t expect a non full-time musician who specialized in an entirely different genre of music to be able to learn jazz repertoire in one sitting. So, Mr. Bassist, if you read this, again, we really apologize for this, and I apologize if it upsets you that I talk about this experience.

Going back to William Brunard, we would think that he is an exceptional musician. Well OK, yes he is, but the ability to memorize these songs should not be lauded as some miraculous feat. This is how it NEEDS to be for any serious improvising musician. Again, we are talking about a genre of music that has very straightforward chord progressions; there are no excuses.

In October of 2015, I joined Bireli Lagrene’s Gypsy Project as a rhythm player for a number of concerts in Canada. There were no rehearsals whatsoever. If there was a song he was going to play, you just had to know it or learn it fast. I wish we had rehearsed though, just to be able to understand what kind of feel he was looking for from a rhythm section. I’ve accompanied enough musicians to know that everyone is looking for something different, and one musician might want the opposite of what another wants. That’s deserving of an article of its own, but I’ll just say that, playing rhythm for Bireli is not easy! His bass player and saxophonist warned me: they had been playing with him for many years, and they still weren’t used to accompanying him! He’s always pushing his musicians in different directions, you just need to be ready. Without any rehearsal, I was just thrown into the lion’s den.

At any rate, at the last concert in Quebec city in front of a large audience, Bireli deviated from the setlist, and played a little chord melody that almost sounded like a Minor Blues, but then threw a curve ball at us. He started quoting the Lady Is a Tramp. It was a standard that I did not play. I had only played it once a few years ago while backing up another musician. I did not remember the song beyond the opening melody. This was not a rehearsal, we were playing an actual show in a prestigious concert hall. This would be the big test for me! I started by figuring out the key of the song quietly, away from my microphone. Then I listened and watched very carefully. Luckily the melody made guessing the harmony fairly easy, so I was able to get the A section very quickly. The B section wasn’t too difficult either. The last A had a different ending than the first two As, I managed to get it on the third chorus. Every time I wasn’t sure about a chord or section, I kept the rhythm going with my right hand, and semi-muted the left hand. It was quite the experience, but I enjoyed it. I wish for every serious musician to have the opportunity to accompany a musician like Bireli; that’s when you will realize what you truly need to work on. Like I said, I have backed up many renowned artists in the Gypsy Jazz genre, you’d think that I have a lot of experience, but backing up Bireli was extremely challenging and showed me that you have to remain humble at all times, and that there’s always something to work on. I’d like to thank him for giving me this wonderful opportunity.

These skills that I have acquired, and that I continue to work on, should not be considered impressive, it really should be the norm. Back in the day, it WAS the norm and it needs to stay that way. I’ll repeat myself: as an improvising musician, your maximum potential will only truly be as good as your ability to play what you hear, and your ability to memorize and learn on the spot.

I have nothing against reading music. By guitarist standards, I’m actually quite a decent reader (by other instrument’s standards, I’m in kindergarten). I use sheet music if I want to learn a classical music piece. If there’s intricate music with heavy arrangements, I would consider using sheet music, but if I have time to practice it ahead of time, I usually try to memorize it. One of the last times that I remember using charts on a gig was a swing dancing big band event where there was no rehearsal. The bandleader just gave me his book and I had to read from it.

There are musicians out there who have both the ability to hear and the ability to memorize, and who do use sheet music on stage; these musicians are not the norm, but the exception. Don’t use them as an example for not working on these essential skills. With all the technology available to us (and that will only improve with time), go ahead, and do what you need to do to learn to play music, but never ever let it come at the cost of acquiring an essential skill. In the end, the iRealBook or sheet music in general, are not directly to blame; rather, it is the lazy culture that has developed around the technology that is the problem.

It’s never too late to work on these skills, the only person holding you back is yourself. If you’re very serious about music, then you know what to do. I promise you, it will pay off.