Benefits of transcribing solos

Tom Gullion – Jan ’97

We often hear older jazz musicians brag about the way they learned to play: transcribing solos from records. Our first response is to often write it off the same way we ignore Grandpa’s comments about trudging five miles through the snow to get to school. Now we have cars and buses to get to school and jazz play-a-long recordings to learn to solo. But maybe there are some hidden benefits to taking the “long road”.

The end result of the transcription process, a beautifully written score, should not be the main goal. The “act” of transcribing is what is important. It subtley but powerfully teaches ear training, concentration, notation, harmony, rhythm, sound production, articulation, and many more skills. What other exercise in your daily practice routine can condense so much into so little time?

When I was coming up, I remember thinking transcribing was just another dumb exercise, similar to etudes. Some sort of rite of passage. It wasn’t until I was deeply involved in the process that I started to hear so much more music. I discovered the beauty in the interplay of all the instruments and got my first glimpse at why this music was moving me so deeply. Subconciously I suppose I had been hearing it but conciously I had been too overwhelmed by the soloist to truly hear all the music.

The most obvious benefits of transcribing are ear training, rhythm, articulation and notation. The process involves hearing the line and figuring out how to notate it. Thus, at first glance, one might think these were the only skills to be gained. These skills are undoubtedly very important and should never be trivialized. But there are some deeper lessons to be learned.

Concentration is a skill which can’t be overemphasized (especially in jazz). As improvising musicians we are confronted with the monumental task of spontaneously creating meaningful art in some of the most hostile environments. Nightclubs are notoriously full of distractions such as noise, smoke, temperature (too cold or too hot) not to mention the close proximity of the audience (clubs like the Village Vanguard have the first row of tables right at your feet!).

An added benefit of listening so closely is that you begin to pick up the subtle parameters that make up a player’s sound. While playing back the transcribed solo, it is virtually impossible not to sound like the soloist. Intrinisically you start to play with their articulations and sonic nuances which soon lead to discoveries about that individual’s style. I encourage all of my students to try to imitate the soloists exactly. While I don’t want them to become exact copies of the soloist, I believe they learn invaluable lessons about sound production and variation as well as increasing their possible repsonses to particular musical situations. While playing, my mood is often changed when I hear one of the other musicians play something (a piano voicing, bass line, rhythmic figure, etc.) that reminds me of a recording I’ve heard and I will often evoke the emotion I remember from that recording. Its subtle but I believe it adds to the depth of the music.

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