iReal Pro: A revolution in jazz education practice tools

November 8, 2023

iReal Pro: A revolution in jazz education practice tools

Mobile app for iOS and Android devices. Also available for desktop computers. Technimo. Released in 2010. https://www.irealpro.com/ Basic version $15.99 with in-app purchases

Sometime in 2010, I was the bassist for a group performing at one of Detroit’s best Jazz Clubs, Cliff Bells. A saxophonist came up to the bandstand to sit in. A tune was called that he didn’t know, and he proceeded to pull out his cell phone. This was unusual to do at that time, and after the show he introduced me to a brand-new app that contained the chord changes to the tune. Not only were the changes available at the touch of an app, but he could transpose the chords to suit the key of his instrument. The app functioned as a “Band-in-a-Box” accompaniment tool, and he could even adjust the tempo. My mind was blown and I knew instantly that this would be a revolutionary tool for practicing jazz.

Created by jazz bassist Massimo Biolcati in 2010 as iReal Book (the name was changed for copyright reasons), the app presents vast functionality. Apple and Android mobile apps display a menu that gives the user the opportunity to pick various songs and styles to load. Even larger style libraries are available through in-app purchase. iReal Pro comes pre-loaded with several basic exercise examples, (Blues, Rhythm Changes, etc.), and it is incumbent on the user to download more songs from one of the numerous playlists that can be found in the “forums” section (represented by a “globe” symbol in the upper left-hand corner of the home screen). Chord symbols are notated with well-known jazz shorthand symbols. The user is also presented with a range of customizable features including text size, tempo, number of repeats of the form, key, and style. The bottom of the screen gives users buttons to access tempo and transposition changes, stop and start, a digital instrument accompaniment “mixer,” and display options for various instrumental chord diagrams.

Figure 1: Example of a common tune display in iReal Pro.

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As a professional jazz educator for 20 years, I have seen and evaluated many jazz education materials during my career. Play-along materials such as Jamey Aebersold’s books and programs like “Band-in-a-Box” have been around for decades, and have helped developing jazz musicians learn tunes and practice improvising. While these have been invaluable tools, each has their limitations. For the Aebersold books, the accompaniment recordings could not be altered to change the tempo or key. “Band-in-a-Box” does have options for changing tempo and key, but it has historically functioned best on a laptop or desktop. iReal Pro separates itself from other resources through its slicker and more user-friendly interface, and the ease with which it integrates into a mobile-friendly environment. The developers of iReal Pro are jazz musicians, and good ones, so the accompaniments, while digitally generated, still maintain a sense of “actual” musicians, regardless of feel, style, or instrumentation.

My students use this app often. The app allows for a count-off, an option to repeat any number of measures within the tune, and a wide-range of customizable sounds. Particularly, the ability to change the tempi of the tunes keeps their practicing honest, as they no longer have any excuses for why they cannot play their music (e.g. too fast, bad key, can’t remember the changes, etc.). This app facilitates the best kind of solitary practice (nothing can replace playing with real people). As a bonus, it is no longer necessary for jazz musicians to drag around bulky fake books to gigs, as the tunes are available on their phones or tablets.

I believe that iReal Pro has made a huge difference for jazz musicians to learn, practice, and perform jazz tunes. However, as with any practice tool, there are a few drawbacks to mention. Most notable to me are the digital sounds, which still do not compare with actual live musicians in terms of feel and musical pacing during a common tune performance. The biggest disadvantage over a published fake book is that, for copyright, readability, and interpretation reasons, the melodies are not included. While this app revolutionizes the way jazz musicians can practice, there is still no better way to learn the melody of a tune than to listen and transcribe it by ear from a recording.

References

Practice made perfect. iReal Pro. (n.d.). https://www.irealpro.com/ 

185 Last modified on November 15, 2023