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.

creating meaning

My colleague Bill Neil recently wrote “Why waste the time and notes at the fundamental level when you really want to get at the notes with meaning?” We were discussing a composition we’re collaborating on.

Anyway, the power that sentence really struck me. Exactly! He condensed the essence of musical expression into a short question. BTW, he has an incredible knack for doing that sort of thing.

Consider Miles Davis’ use of space, Charlie Parker’s use of flat nines (among many other incredible note choices) and Coltrane’s use of extended chord tones…they all create meaning. Sounds quite simple when you distill it down to this. However, we all know just how difficult it is to create meaningful music.

Perhaps Bill’s question suggests a way to approach making music that will guide us toward creating meaning.

IAJE judging forms

Recently I had the honor of working as an adjudicator and clinician for a couple university jazz festivals. A large number of high school bands participated and, as always, blew me away! It’s always a pleasure to enjoy the hard work of the students and see their enthusiasm.

I take the role of “judge” very seriously and try to offer useful advice (instead of criticism). I was very happy to see the festival organizers leave room at the end of each performance for the judges to do a quick workshop with the band. Obviously, an interactive workshop is far better than static comments on a sheet of paper.

But the real reason I’m writing this is a dilemma I see within the IAJE-approved judging sheet. For competitive judging, there are a number of criteria you’re to assign numbers to. The very first one, for 25 points, is Improvisation. Being a devout improviser, I think this sets the proper tone for the judge work sheet.

The dilemma arises when bands play the repertory pieces from Wynton’s Jazz at Lincoln Center. There was one band in particular who did a stellar job playing three Ellington charts. I mean, this band was swingin’, playing all the right phrasing, etc. But every soloist played the transcribed solo included in the chart. Not one ounce of improvisation.

The kids did an admirable job playing the various solos by Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney, Bubber Miley, etc. But, as I said, they didn’t do anything beyond just playing them. Is it improvisation? Of course not. But I did give them credit for at least studying the recording.

But I really wanted to give them a zero for improvisation because it just wasn’t there.

My suggestion to band directors is to take these charts from JALC and use them. No one can argue with the quality and the price. In fact, I’m very happy kids are being exposed to this music. But, please, open up some solo sections. Ellington did not play this music in such a static fashion.

recorded music is a commodity

As I sit here thinking about the new year ahead, I feel compelled to group some growing thoughts on the value of recorded music.

Recorded music obviously adds tremendous value to our everyday lives. The market for recorded music has, until recently, proven just how valuable it is. However, as we all know, recent trends (e.g., digital music, file compression, peer-to-peer file sharing networks like Napster) have fundamentally changed the industry.

Previously it was quite simple to “protect” recorded music since copies were obvious degradations in quality. Digital recording and CD ripping software have changed that forever.

People are very willing to shell a few hundred bucks for an iPod but seem to think the recorded music content should be free. This has been debated elsewhere so I won’t belabor this.

But the most interesting aspect of this for me is to consider the implications of these actions.

Consider – which is a next-generation label that is trying to get seed funding for recording projects as they are being created. I find this interesting in that it is helping an artist record something but it also establishes a community (since participants subscribe to ongoing details behind the project).

There is an interesting interview with Brian Camelio (president of artistshare) where he does some financial projections behind what an artist makes per download on some of the pay-per-download sites. Very sobering.

But this all condenses down into the core value of music: providing a live experience for people to share. Composer William Neil ( recently started using the term “experience” to describe what we offer audiences. I agree completely with this idea. We have to share much more than just music if we’re to really reach out to people.

I see all this as a boost for live music. It’s the beginning of a new year. I can feel optimistic, can’t I?

listening for music

This blog is all about trying to find the true essence of music. In my studies of Tai Chi I came across the term “ting jing.” This is loosely translated as a mystical listening power where one could “hear” the intention of an opponent.

I prefer to think in more peaceful terms. 😉 But I strongly believe music is successful when we tune into this deeper power.