Overcoming Obstacles in Transcription

Whether it’s figuring out difficult double-time passages, navigating advanced technical lines, or even finding the motivation to do it everyday, transcribing can be difficult. Transcribing, while essential to learning to play the jazz language, is often one of the most demanding tasks to complete on a regular basis for improvisers.

Two readers recently asked questions regarding the difficulties of transcribing. One reader writes:

“I wanted to transcribe a Wes Montgomery solo and there are some moments where I can’t hear what he is playing. What should I do, try another solo? Also, how do I overcome moments when I am not in the mood for practicing?”

Slow it down, hear & sing every note

I know this feeling well: beginning a transcription, making progress quickly, and then reaching a point where you just can’t figure out the notes. As a result, your concentration quickly falls apart and frustration ensues. At times like these, do not move onto another solo, especially if you really love the solo. In most solos there is a section that is difficult to transcribe, whether it is a fast double time section or a track of poor recording quality. Stick with it.

In these cases, I use a program to slow down the recording so I can precisely hear what the soloist is playing note by note. Don’t be afraid to slow the recording way down or feel that you’re cheating by doing so. Once you’ve slowed it down, hear every note in your mind.

Retain the notes in your mind and then attempt to sing them with the recording. Aim for accuracy of pitch with your voice. Sing it over and over, gradually increasing tempo. After singing, playing the line will be much easier. Over time, your ears will improve and you’ll be able to pick out lines at a much faster rate.

Also, ask yourself why you picked that particular solo to transcribe. Maybe it is for a certain Wes Montgomery line that really grabs your ears or it’s to understand how to play over a particular progression. What ever your purpose, make sure you’re transcribing with a purpose and leave your transcribing session with the information you intended to obtain.

Good habits with daily minimums

Everyone has moments where they feel unmotivated to practice, so don’t feel like you are alone in this. Part of being a musician is finding the time and motivation to practice everyday. We are creatures of habit. Good habits equal good results.

The daily decision to get started is the most difficult. Like actor Matt McConaughey says, “Tie your shoes…You tie your shoes man and you know you’re gonna do it.” He’s referring to his addictive running habits. He expresses that the most difficult part is the initial push to begin, but once you get over that hump, you cruise.

One way I stay on top of things is to have a daily minimum effort for a given task. It’s much easier to say, “Today I will practice for at least 20 minutes” then to say “I’m going to practice 4 hours everyday.” Make a daily commitment with a determined minimum. Some days you’ll get in the practice room and just put in your 20 minutes. Other days, you’ll feel so amped and connected to the music, you’ll spend 4 hours of pure fun in the shed. The important thing is that you’re getting in there daily and making the most of your practice time.

You may not be able transcribe an entire solo in one sitting, but as part of a daily routine you can accomplish small specific goals that over time amount to great accomplishments.

Getting a solo up to speed

Another reader writes:

“One of the greatest obstacles I have come across while practicing and transcribing is the technical challenge most solos present. For example, often I learn the solo at half time and then work on speeding it up. I can play it fine at say, 70%, but getting past the speed barrier seems impossible. Range is another huge issue for beginning trumpet players.  I have been playing for four years and anything above the staff is exhausting and chop degrading.   You can always transpose those notes down the octave, but it still isn’t really satisfying since that upper register is what we’re trying to attain.  Any advice on how to work with these problems of range, speed, and general technique?”

One of the reasons why we transcribe is to learn directly from the source, copying the lines and imitating the styles of the masters. They are called masters for a reason. The greats on every instrument are some of the most technically and harmonically advanced musicians on the planet, so needless to say, transcribing their lines can be very difficult!

Oftentimes, a great benefit from transcribing a solo is to gain technique that you didn’t have before.  A great way to get a solo up to speed is to start very slowly with a metronome and then gradually speed it up in small increments until you can play along with the recording. At some points, though as the reader points out, certain lines just don’t seem to be getting any easier or faster due to incredible technical demands.

If you’ve gotten the speed of the line to 70%, you’re on the right track. Often, I’ll get a line to 70% speed and cannot get it faster. What do I do? I go slower. Bring it back down to 50% and play it there for 20 minutes straight. Still can’t play it? Do it again, even slower. Rinse and repeat to perfection. In this manner, you will get the line to speed. Make your mantra for learning technically tough passages “Twice the time, half the speed.”

Trumpet technique and transcription

As a trumpet player this can be especially difficult. The trumpet is an instrument that takes years of sustained practice to even get to a competent level. Attempting to transcribe the solos of masters like Freddie Hubbard and Woody Shaw can be very technically demanding. First, make sure you have a daily practice routine that focuses on fundamentals and technique.

Books like the Clark Technical Studies, the Schlossberg Daily Drills and Top Tones by Walter Smith are good resources to work out of for technique and range building exercises. Be patient with range and do not force it.

clark schlossbergSmith

Once you have transcribed a solo, include the difficult technical areas in your warm up. If the passage you transcribed contains some tricky finger patterns, try using some of these patterns instead of scales or arpeggios when you are warming up. Or, if the solo is in a key that you are unfamiliar with, only use that tonality as you do flexibility exercises, so you are ingraining that sound and finger pattern into your playing.

While I was in grad school, I was working on transcribing a number of Woody Shaw solos that were extremely difficult and I had the same feeling of not being able play the solos up to full speed. There were even a few sections that I couldn’t play at all, so I just figured the notes out on my horn and wrote them down. The passage below was the fast double-time line that I had trouble playing at even half-speed:

To overcome this, I took the line apart measure by measure, always starting slow and with a metronome. I started slowly with the 1st measure and repeated it dozens of times, gradually increasing the speed until it felt easy. Then I practiced the 2nd measure in the same manner. After I had the 1st and 2nd measures under my belt, I combined them.

After that, I learned the 3rd measure perfectly, then added the 3rd measure to the first two. I then continued through the entire passage in a similar manner: measure 4 perfect, add to previous measure…measure 5 perfect, add to previous measures…and so on, until I mastered the entire passage.

I made sure to play these lines every time I picked up my horn, so I was improving a little each time.  Eventually, after weeks of slow and focused practice, I was able to execute the lines with ease. Playing through passages in this manner will allow you to master the most difficult parts of any solo

Dave Liebman on transcribing

For some people, having a method of transcription makes the whole process easier. On his website, the saxophonist Dave Liebman discusses the art of transcribing in-depth. Here he outlines three areas of musical awareness that are encompassed in the transcription process: Notation, Playing and Analysis.

Liebman elaborates that the student must first internalize the solo through repeated listening and singing, notate the solo, play it along with the recording and finally analyze it and create new material from it. Essentially, a method of learning that requires all aspects of musicianship. He has a detailed method of how to transcribe and create your own language based on what you have learned, which is definitely worth checking out.

Go at your own pace

Overall, your goal in transcribing should be to learn the language of jazz first hand through immersion in great recordings. Quality is better than quantity, especially when it comes to transcribing. Don’t feel like you have to transcribe hundreds of solos to be a great improviser. Just by learning one solo very well, you can make a huge leap in improvement.

When you begin, focus on transcribing solos that are around your current technical level, but are still challenging and interesting to your personal taste.  Eventually, you will encounter solos that are beyond your technical level.

When you come across these difficult solos, make them long-term goals and in the mean time, you can still get a lot of value from them. In the Wood Shaw excerpt, even though I couldn’t play some of the lines or get them up to speed right away, I benefited from the harmonic techniques and devices Woody used in his lines.

In all, transcribing is a challenging process that has immeasurable benefits for musicians of all styles. Even though you will encounter some obstacles along the way, just know that by transcribing you are already on the right track.

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