Amagical thing happens when you listen to a recording of your favorite player and begin to play along with the record. It’s almost as if an unconscious transformation takes place, an instant instruction through aural osmosis. Simply by sitting by the speakers with your instrument and taking in those sound waves, you can instantly imitate that player’s unique musical style.
Ironically though, many of us miss this connection because we have tunnel vision on the music theory. Somewhere along the way, we’ve picked up this mentality that you learn the notes in one place and get the style from another.
Chances are you’ve even heard someone describe musical style with words while teaching improvisation: “bend that note, lay back on the time there, ghost those notes, play with a brighter sound, tongue those notes shorter, put some edge on it!”
These phrases give you a general target to aim at, but when compared with the actual sound, these verbal descriptions continually fall short of the intended target. To truly grasp style, it must be experienced and understood on a deep emotional level. This is where the benefits of transcription and serious listening come into play.
The majority of improvisers have a set definition and goal when it comes to transcribing, which usually begins and ends with figuring out the specific notes of line or solo. But think about it, once you’ve learned those notes, do you sound like that player from the record when you’re by yourself? Is that music theory translating into actual listenable music?
It’s more than just the notes
Notes, notes, and more notes. We’re obsessed with those printed little black dots and stems and the theory behind them when it comes to learning improvisation. “What chord tone does that ii-V resolve to? How is the soloist altering those V7 chords? Which scale do you use on half-diminished chords? Is the 7th resolving to the 3rd in that line?”
It’s as if every other aspect of the music pales in comparison to figuring out the hidden notes that make up a line. Forget about sound, articulation, and those other pesky musical extras that get in the way! We just want those notes, like right now, so we can steal them and recycle them into our own solos.
You’ve probably felt like this yourself at one time or another. The truth is that we all have. You put in the time in the practice room, you transcribed a line, and intellectually understood how the theory worked. However, once we got those notes and put them to use in our own solos, things didn’t work out like we planned. A key ingredient was missing. Something vital was left out of the mix altogether.
“The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect, but by the play instinct acting from inner necessity. The creative mind plays with the objects it loves.”~Carl Gustav Jung
Still not convinced about the importance of style? Try it out for yourself. Pick out any book of transcribed solos, turn to a random page, and start playing. Do you sound like Cannonball, Miles, or whoever’s solos were in the book? Didn’t think so.
Remember, those ink marks on the page are just a cheap approximation of the real thing. Without the phrasing, sound, articulation, and expression, those printed lines are meaningless.
Improvisers aren’t the only ones guilty of this theory-obsessed mentality. If you play classical music you’ve probably felt the pressure to play the notes on the page perfectly. It’s easy to fall into a mindset of reproducing perfect notes and rhythms, but the final result, while technically “correct” is lacking musically.
Keep in mind that the goal in any genre is musical expression, not mechanical or intellectual reproduction.
The greatest players, whether they are improvising over Have You Met Miss Jones or playing Mahler’s Third Symphony are playing music, not just reproducing notes printed on a page. They are expressing themselves with musical style, an act where the notes and the style ultimately go hand in hand.
Play a musical role
Learning to improvise is like becoming an actor that is preparing for an upcoming role. Somehow, you must study this musician, imitate their style, and finally create your own performance. Sure at first you’ve got lines to memorize and different scenes to navigate, but it’s ultimately the subtleties of style and personality that make a performance convincing.
Just like a skillful actor, you must get inside of a your subject’s head to make your performance believable. You can pull someone off of the street and put them in the right wardrobe and make-up to look the part, but if they don’t believe the character at their core, it’s all for naught.
Try to transcend yourself and become that person you are studying, even for a moment. How did this person think? How did it feel to live their life? Ingrain their style of their speaking, their facial tics and expressions, their posture in every range of emotion. It’s the actor that has internalized their character that deftly executes the role.
“Obviously there are times with acting when exactly what is required is just going through the motions, and when doing nothing is the best thing. But at other times, you have to make that leap beyond the immediate environment of people putting up lights on the set.”~Christian Bale
For improvisers, we do the same type of preparation when we transcribe a solo. At first, we study the notes, phrases, and theory of the solo we are listening to; after all there’s no way around this – if you don’t know your lines, you can’t play the part. However, the notes, like the lines an actor must read, are just one small piece of the puzzle. Anyone can read lines or musical notes from a page, but not everyone can play with style.
Go beyond the notes. Become Coltrane or Lee Morgan or Tommy Flanagan for an hour. Copy their articulation, their sound, their feel, their musical personality, and their spirit at the same time that you’re figuring out their ii-V’s. Remember that this music is a language and an inherent part of any language is it’s style.
The elements of style
So if notes aren’t the final goal, what exactly are you supposed to be looking for when you transcribe style?
If you insist, you can break down musical style into concepts like tone, articulation, time, technique, and phrasing – after all, these elements are all present in some form when you describe a player’s style. But I suggest something a little different.
First, turn off that frenzied, analytical, music theory obsessed part of your brain for a few moments (you’ll survive, I swear). Find a recording of a solo or melody that you are trying to learn. Pop it in, turn up the volume, and close your eyes. Now simply listen.
Don’t worry about the key or the chord progression. Don’t think about scales or ii-V lines. Just clear your mind and focus intently on the sound of the instrument that you’re trying to imitate.
After a few minutes of repeated and focused listening, stop the recording and get out your instrument. With that sound still fresh in your mind, try play the first phrase of that tune or solo. Already you should start to feel some of that style starting to rub off. Now start the recording again and do your best to internalize the sound coming from the speakers.
Continue this process of listening and imitating at short intervals until you can copy the recording exactly. Without even realizing it, you’ll be imitating sounds, articulations, and the subtle characteristics of each player that you transcribe. This is the way to learn style, and what’s more, you can do this at exactly the same time that you’re figuring out the notes.
Change your mindset
When you set out to learn a solo, this simple shift in your mindset can make a world of difference. Now is a good time to put a stop to your obsession with just getting the notes off of the record and moving on to the next solo.
Instead, aim for the whole package with anything that you transcribe, be it a melody, a simple ii-V line, or even an entire solo. Get the style along with the notes – they’re both equally important.
The next time that you turn on a recording and set to work transcribing, set a goal for yourself with two sides. On one hand get the notes exactly right. Study the theory and understand why those lines work over those chord progressions. At the same time, in another part of yourself, ingrain the style and personality of the player.
One without the other is not going to cut and for most players, it’s the style that gets left out. Don’t let this be you anymore. Aim to make transcribing an enjoyable and effective daily habit, the place where your intellectual and intuitive and emotional sides meet to create an original personal sound.