Transcribing for Technique: Improving Musicianship Through Transcription

After hours spent practicing technique: endless articulation, tone, range, and fingering exercises, are you still not matching up to what you’re hearing on your favorite records? Are those same étude books and exercises you’ve been working on for years still not cutting it?

It can be very discouraging when you don’t see any improvement in your improvising and technique even though you’ve been diligently practicing exercises designed to make you better. The problem is not that you’re practicing exercises to improve, but rather that the content of your practice routine isn’t matching your goal of what you want to sound like.

If you want to sound like your favorite musician, why are you relying on études and exercises out of books to get you there? Learn the technique from the source. This is not to say that you should abandon crucial practice on your instrument for tone, fingering, articulation, etc., but if you are relying solely on these sources to reach your goal, you’re going to be working for a very long time.

Transcribe for technique

Everyone talks about transcribing to learn lines and copying language from the greats, but one invaluable benefit that is often overlooked is the advance in technique that goes hand-in-hand with learning solos by ear. Think back to the last solo that you transcribed. After learning the solo and playing it along with the record, did you notice that you had more technique or were able to play in a way that you were unable to before?

On this site, we’ve stressed time and again how the simple act of sitting down with a record and learning it with your instrument improves your ears and increases your knowledge of the jazz language. The complimentary benefit though, is that in learning these difficult lines slowly, your instrumental technique will automatically improve.

More than books, videos, or exercises, transcribing improves your technique to a greater extent because it directly involves your ear and your body. Crucial aspects of musicianship like articulation, tone, range, finger technique, etc. are dramatically improved through transcription because you are imitating what you’re hearing. This method is much more effective than reading notes from the pages of an etude book because now, you have the sound, a model, that you’re imitating.

The music comes first

The music has generated all the techniques I use. When I sit down to learn to play something…it is not because I want to master a technique. It is because I want to hear what an idea sounds like. ~Pat Martino

Imagine how your favorite players acquired their technique. Did they sit around all day practicing exercises out of a book, hoping to one day acquire the technique of their idols? Probably not. They listened to records and learned solos by ear, spending hours copying the sound, lines, and articulation of their heroes until they could eventually play the lines themselves. The technique came naturally as they strived to imitate what they heard on the records.

An important idea to keep in mind is that technique is not the overall goal of music. We don’t play music because we are enamored with technique, our lasting response is to the emotional content of the music. The fact that an instrumentalist has flawless technique, does not automatically mean that they are a great musician. Obsession with technique can even get in the way of musical expression.

When you pick out lines or solos to transcribe, focus on the musical aspect of why you like them. As you slowly learn these solos and play them along with the record, your technique will also improve – a logical by-product of working on those difficult passages. What you first set out to accomplish musically will naturally result in technical advancement. The difference here is that this technique is musically relevant rather than that which is learned solely from a book.

Use your ears before your mind

When we approach a difficult passage or line in learning a solo by ear, we often try to mentally analyze and deconstruct the music instead of carefully listening and imitating what is actually happening on the record. For instance, we might hear a line with a difficult technical passage and try to figure out how to execute it mentally. By focusing entirely on the sound of what we’re trying to learn, we allow our body to figure our what it must do to imitate the sound.

Consciously work to get your mind out of the way as you learn ideas from the record. Remember, the body can intuitively imitate sounds and actions by sight or sound. It’s when our minds get involved that we introduce fear, doubt, and complication into the fray. When you hear a solo that you want to sound like, instead of thinking how you don’t have the facility or range to execute it or how it would be impossible to attempt, turn off your mind and start imitating.

Get out of your comfort zone

Rising above the place where we feel comfortable is frequently the biggest hurdling block in improvement to overcome; the key to moving forward instead of continually remaining proficient.

Too often we follow the same routine in the practice room: warm-up with the same scales, work on the same articulation and fingering exercises, and review the same tunes we’ve been working on. Sure, you need to have a routine to maintain your instrumental proficiency, but you’ve also got to challenge yourself. Don’t get stuck in a rut of stagnation.

Just like doing a physical work out, you won’t see improvement unless you push yourself to a new level of fitness. Once an exercise becomes challenging, we have a natural tendency to ease-up and go back into our comfort zone. When you push yourself past your comfort zone and into uncharted territories that you haven’t been before, this is where you’ll see improvement. Tasks and techniques that you were unable to do before suddenly become possible.

Not attempting something because you don’t yet have the skills required to perform it is not an excuse. By challenging yourself, you’ll see what is required of you and in turn, you’ll be able to focus on these new skills in the practice room.

How to acquire the technique you want

Don’t wait until you have the technique needed to learn difficult solos. Challenge yourself with a skill you don’t have to begin learning it. Here is a sure way to gain the technique that you’ve been striving for in your practice sessions from transcribing:

  • Pick out a technically challenging or complex line or chorus of a solo that you like
  • Begin very slowly, focusing on every detail and nuance
  • Try slowing down the recording with a program like Transcribe to clearly hear every detail (this will make your job a lot easier and much more time-efficient)
  • If you can’t hear the line the first couple of times, put it on repeat
  • Listen to the line intently instead of trying to analyze it mentally – in other words, turn off your mind and try to imitate exactly what you’re hearing
  • Allow the body figure out what it must do to recreate the sound
  • If the line contains tricky articulation or fingerings, work these out separately in your practice, maybe as a warm-up exercise
  • Remember to be patient, improving your technique or learning a new skill takes time and can’t be done in just one practice session

Often by transcribing a difficult solo, it will uncover areas of your technique that are lacking or are underdeveloped. As you realize these holes in your technique, address them in your practice and work daily to improve those areas. These may be articulation related, cleaning up fingerings, or even concentrating on air-flow. Whatever they may be, incorporating exercises into your routine that focus on these trouble areas will guarantee improvement.

Start learning now

If you want to play intricate lines with ease like Coltrane, start transcribing a solo of his today. If you want to play with the articulation of Clifford Brown or the facility of Freddie Hubbard get out their records and get to work. It’s not easy and won’t happen overnight, but the road to improvement begins by setting your goals and challenging yourself.

Don’t wait until you feel “ready” or like you have acquired enough technique to attempt the solo, dive in and see what you need to do to improve. The only way to get better is to attempt something that you can’t do. You may not conquer this new technique in one day or even one month, but with dedicated practice you will eventually see improvement in areas that you once found impossible.

So You Want to Keep Improving?

If your goal as a jazz musician is to get better fast and have fun doing it, then make sure to join over 100K Jazzadvice Subscribers by signing up to our FREE newsletter. Each week, we'll send you powerful resources to keep you moving forward in your jazz journey.