The Transcribing Mindset: Learn to transcribe with purpose

Transcribing can be beneficial no matter how you do it. Often when I go to transcribe, I like to have a specific goal in mind of what I am aiming to accomplish, making for rapid improvement in areas that need the most work.

It’s essentially a problem/solution approach:

  1. Identify what problems you’re having
  2. Find the solutions quickly by hearing them on records you’re listening to
  3. Transcribe them by ear and break ’em down

Some Common Problems You Can Solve by Transcribing

Which of these problems can you identify with?

  • I lack a jazz vocabulary of ideas on specific chords or common progressions
  • I need assistance in creating my own ideas
  • I can’t play in a specific style
  • I need to develop new influences
  • I can’t play on a small chunk of a tune
  • I don’t hear things in my head to play
  • I can’t play things that I hear in my head

Most likely, you can relate with all of these on some level. Lets look at each one of these problems in depth and how they can be solved by spending some concentrated time with recordings.

I lack a jazz vocabulary of ideas on specific chords & progressions

When you are learning a language, there are many words and phrases to learn that connect your original ideas. The same is true in jazz. We have all heard many of these “cliches” over an over, and  I’m always coming across more. Learning these lines straight off the record, gives you great insight into:

  • Typical ways to navigate common progressions
  • How jazz is phrased
  • How jazz lines are articulated
  • The concept of “swing”
  • The concepts behind strong melodic lines.

Do not look for a book that has a bunch of these lines written out in it! That is a waste of your time. The whole point is to train your ear to create and develop strong melodic lines on its own. If you put the time in with the records, the jazz vocabulary you build will morph and evolve, manifesting itself in all sorts of variations. As great baritone sax player Gary Smulyan said in a masterclass I attended, “Do your own homework.”

Another important point is to ensure that you are accumulating ideas for many different melodic situations. That means that when you encounter a major, minor, diminished or any other chord type, you don’t just aimlessly run up and down the scale or chord. You have ammased a number of meaningful ideas on all these types of chords in many different contexts.

The process would go something like this:

  1. Define the problem: I feel like I have nothing to play over one-measure major chords besides running up and down the chord and scale.
  2. Hear the solution: Sonny Rollins has some really good ideas over one-measure major chords on his solo that I’ve been listening to.
  3. Transcribe it. Learn the lines he’s using. Understand why they sound good. Problem solved.

Now, the next time you encounter a one-measure major chord, you will have a concept of how to play a strong melodic line over it and you will like the way you sound over them. You can do this with any chord or common progression (like a ii-v, or a iii-Vi-ii V etc.) and it will greatly increase your comfort level in these situations.

A small caution. You do not want to learn ideas as an ending point, merely inserting them into your solos. These ideas are a starting point. They are a springboard for your own creativity. Initially you may simply reproduce them, but over time with practice, they will become your own. You want to be able to change and alter the line at will. Gradually, the line will manifest in totally different ways.

I need assistance in creating my own ideas

Once you have transcribed a line from a record, you can then use it to inspire your own ideas. Spend some time varying it in any way imaginable: expand the intervals, add altered tensions, change the rhythm, play it over different chords, combine part of the line with another you are working on. You’re only limited by your own creativity.

Michael Brecker  transcribed and created his own ideas constantly. This video contains some of the most valuable information about practicing that I’ve ever heard. Thank you Michael Brecker.

I can’t play in a specific style

Perhaps you have trouble in modal situations, or maybe it’s not a style of jazz, but more a type of tune, like a ballad. What ever it may be, Find someone you like doing it in a way that makes your jaw drop. Then transcribe it and rip it apart.

I need to develop new influences

Starting to sound too much like Dexter Gordon? He’s the man, but yes, we all want to develop our own voice. No worries. Just start to transcribe some other people. One of the easiest things to do, yet so many people avoid it, is to transcribe a different instrument than your own. Fingerings lay totally different on all instruments, causing players to migrate towards different line constructions. Try learning from another instrument and it will greatly expand your concept.

Many pros I’ve studied with stressed that I needed to look outside of jazz for inspiration. Coltrane drew influence from many other types of music and it helped set him apart harmonically and rhythmically. Getting deep into some music other than jazz will only help to expand your horizons and help you develop your unique voice. Turning to Michael Brecker again, listen to his priceless words on developing your own sound.

I can’t play on a small chunk of a tune

This is one of the most common reasons I transcribe because the effects can be noticed immediately. Maybe it’s the first four bars of “Confirmation,” or perhaps it’s the start of a blues, but wherever you feel you are not up to par, simply transcribe some of your favorite phrases over that section and figure out what the pro is doing that you are not. Simple and straightforward.

I don’t hear things in my head to play

This is a common problem. If you don’t spend time with records, then your ear will not absorb the music. Spend time with the records and you’ll start to hear musical ideas flow in your mind. One of the most beneficial exercises is the following:

  1. Listen to a phrase from a recording
  2. Pause the record and hear it your mind’s ear
  3. Keep replaying it in your mind and try to slow it down
  4. Replay it on the recording and try to hear it even more precisely
  5. Sing the line WHILE you hear it in your head (That is a big point. Pay a lot of attention to the voice in your head, especially while you sing)
  6. Play the line WHILE you hear it in your head

This is a great process to follow any time you transcribe. For a great cheap resource on this type of ear training, pick up a copy of Ear Training For The Jazz Musician for a measly $1.50, by awesome jazz pianist Harry Pickens.

I can’t play things that I hear in my head

Every time I transcribe, I make it a point to leave with a better ear than when I started. Despite the reasons I may be transcribing on any given day, I always want to strengthen my ear to finger connection. Just getting the notes to paper will not help you do this. You must spend time really hearing the phrases in context.

Transcribing in the previously described manner (steps #1-6 in ‘I don’t hear things in my head to play’) will greatly aid in connecting your fingers to your ear. I cannot stress enough how important the voice in your head is. It took me a long time to realize that even when I sing or play my horn, to keep listening to that voice in my head, loud and clear.

Never Ending Solutions to Your Never Ending Problems

By now you should have a better idea of what you want to transcribe, based on your specific goals that you want to accomplish. If you apply this type of thinking, you’ll be able to solve many of your musical puzzles with ease. Next time you can’t figure out how to play over something, or you don’t like what you’re playing in a particular situation, remember, there are a lot of recordings out there with the solutions to your never-ending musical problems.

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