Thursday, July 26, 2012

Making the Most of a Transcription

Transcribing plays a vital role in most jazz musician's development whether it's outright transcription or just trying to capture and figure out what a player is doing. This week's post is dedicated to different ways you can approach a transcription and how to make the most of it.

Transcriptions are one of the major avenues of musical discovery, and should be used heavily when developing a command over jazz vocabulary. Every great player I've read about goes through a development phase where they learn the ropes through transcription of some type or other. At one point Charlie Parker learned to play many or all of Lester Young's solos on record. You can also find a lot of Don Byas' vocabulary in Bird's playing. Coltrane was influenced by Dexter Gordon. Sonny Rollins loved Coleman Hawkins, and you can certainly hear his influence in Rollins' sound. Joe Henderson learned the ropes transcribing Coltrane, and the list goes on. A modern day example, Chris Potter, spent a lot of time in high school learning how to play like Bird and then explored Brecker's playing. If you are still working towards a command over the jazz language, transcription should be an obvious and utilized tool. What if you've already made it a fair way through your development? I'd suggest that transcription is an easy way to explore unfamiliar sounds that you can't reproduce. Whether it's a harmonic progression, a time feel, or a certain sound on the saxophone, transcription can help you learn and understand it.

The Transcription Process

Here is the part where I tell you to do some of the obvious things you're dreading in the transcription process, but I'll also give you an easy out first. There are three different levels of learning from a master player, at least in my mind. The first level, which is the loosest, is where you simply listen to the player and then try to reproduce that vocabulary or specific aspect of their playing while you improvise. This works really well for me with players I've already done some serious transcription on, or for occasions when I'm trying to reproduce a tone or time feel alone. The second level is learning from a written transcription someone else already completed and made available. If you put all the proper work into it you can still get a lot out of a solo someone else transcribed and wrote out. The 3rd, and most intense level, is actual transcription, figuring out what a player is doing note for note, rhythm for rhythm all by your lonesome. I personally feel like everyone should do level three transcription at some point during their development, but both level 2 and level 3 transcriptions can be taken through the paces.

Here are the steps I would suggest following in the transcription process:
  1. Write out the transcription as you go. Include the song's chord changes as chord symbols above the measures to make analysis easier.
  2. Analyse the solo picking out specific modes or suggested harmonic substitutions and progressions. This will make it easier to apply concepts learned from the transcription in other places and keys.
  3. Learn to play the solo flawlessly. Spending a few months or more on a solo is just fine. Let it get in your bones.
  4. The last step would be to memorize the entire solo. I don't know that I've ever memorized an entire solo, but memorization certainly plays an important role in the process of learning music.
Approaches from Dave Liebman and Steve Wilson

Once you can really play the transcription you're ready to put the transcription to work for yourself. I have heard advice from Dave Liebman and Steve Wilson who both suggest making the transcription your own.

Liebman's is a macro approach. After mastering the solo, practice it progressively injecting more and more of yourself into the solo. The first time around try playing 90% of the original solo and 10% of your own injected improvisation changing how lines end or begin, changing rhythms and changing colors. The possibilities are really limitless here. The next time around try to play 80% of the original solo and 20% your own. Continue the process until you've arrived at 100% your own. At this point you've likely assimilated some of the vocabulary from the transcription into your own improvisation.

Wilson's, in contrast, is a micro approach. In lessons he had me take some lines I liked from the transcription and explore ways I could make those lines my own. Again any musical aspect of the line or riff is fair game. For example we could take this typical Bird line, and transform it as shown below (click here for a larger version).

The first line is the original lick (click here to listen), the opening from Bird's solo on Anthropology with a basic outline of the chord structure above. The second line (click here to listen) has some harmonic variations introduced in the middle and the suggested chords are indicated below the original chord symbols. I've substituted an A half diminished chord from the minor ii-V over the A minor, and I've substituted an Abmin7 over the D7, a type of tritone substitution or chromatic movement. 

Finally, in the third line (click here to listen) I've taken the most liberties building on my first variation and changing mainly the rhythmic content but also changing some harmonic and melodic content. My approach to changing the rhythmic content here was to shift the accents which naturally happen as the line peaks in various places throughout. The melodic changes typically serve the purpose of shifting the rhythmic peaks and accents which was my main goal in this last variation. My additional change to the harmony is the added sharp 11th over the G major in the last measure.

An Additional Improvisational Approach

Another method that I personally use the most as it lends to the most improvisation, is the listen, repeat, and recreate method. I'll first master the transcription. Then on a given day I'll listen to the original recording, play the solo through one or two times, then embark on my own improvisation practice session. During this time I will try to recreate some of my favorite aspects of the solo.

For example, one of my favorite parts of Bird's playing is his rhythmic jabbing or the shifting accents within his eighth note phrases. I have worked on recreating that in my own improvisations, first predominantly using Bird's vocabulary, then applying the same shifting accents to lines of my own creation.  

You can and probably should zero in on one specific musical trait or concept at a time when doing this. With this kind of focus you will most likely make more progress, however you'll still have the rest of the transcription in your ear lifting and affecting your playing. Following are some specific concepts to zero in on in a transcription:
  • harmonic devices - substitutions, extensions and sequences
  • melodic building blocks - motives and shapes
  • rhythmic content - cross rhythms, polyrhythms and accents
  • phrasing -  phrase beginnings, phrase endings, phrase length, anticipating chord changes and delayed resolutions
  • time feel
  • sound
  • energy or intensity
  • use of dynamics and use of articulation
I'm sure there are many others, but I think this list covers the basics. Hopefully, while going over it you've already had an idea of something that one of your favorite players can do that you can't do. That is exactly what you want to tackle!

Memorization and Transposition

One additional way to make the most of a transcription is to take some of your favorite licks or, better yet, some personalized variations and transpose them into all 12 keys. The goal here is to be able to play the lick from memory in any key. This will pretty much guarantee that a specific idea will show up in your playing.

Transcription as Problem Solving - A Practical Example

Personally, I find transcription and transcription practice an excellent form of problem solving. An example from my own practice was tackling rhythm changes. In my formative years I was assigned the blues and variations thereof many times, but for some reason I never really worked on rhythm changes. That resulted in never being completely comfortable over rhythm changes, and in recent times I had wanted to fix that. My approach was to study two rhythm changes solos, Parker's solo on Anthropology, and Don Byas' solo on I've got Rhythm. I went through many of the processes I've described in this post, but two things I really honed in on were Parker's ability to keep his lines melodic while still defining the many changes, and some of Don Byas' harmonic substitutions over the A sections of the changes. After some serious practice (and some breaks from it) I feel comfortable over rhythm changes, and I feel like I've arrived to a point where I can create over the changes instead of just outlining them.

Here is an example of where I've arrived too after a few months of practicing rhythm changes off and on:

The first bridge starting at 0:14 begins with some playing that is really almost directly quoting Bird's playing. Of course, you can hear Bird's influence in less direct playing throughout the clip. Don Byas' influence comes in a place that really doesn't sound like him at all. The first half of the A section at 1:05, though fairly modern sounding, is really just based on one of Don Byas' harmonic devices. My point is that you can hear the influence of these players I've focused on, and they've made a positive impact on my playing. Through this process I've improved my playing specifically on rhythm changes, but I've also expanded other limits of my playing at the same time.

Transcription and practicing said transcription have been some of the primary forces in expanding my basic tool set. I have made some of my biggest leaps forward in terms of improvisation directly related to periods of intense transcription practice. Hopefully, this post has given you some new ideas, or at least some reminders of how to approach transcription in a way that will help you focus on and achieve the next level in your playing. Good luck!

Friday, July 20, 2012

Solo Version of "Cherokee" (Vote for me!)

If you have enjoyed and learned from the blog (and you also appreciate my playing), I'm reaching out to you! Recently I posted about the First Annual Charlie Parker Cutting Contest being hosted by 12th Jump Street broadcast out of Kansas City. I've made my own entry, and I'd like to ask you to please take a listen and vote for me if you like. For anyone who is feeling really dedicated, you can actually vote once a day, so if you happen to remember to vote on repeated days that would be great.  One sax player out of the top five vote getters will be invited to come play during the Charlie Parker Tribute radio show which is the rebroadcast by NPR, so it's kind of a big deal. Voting happens through Monday, August 6th, so please send me some love now and later!

Here is my near minute video (according to submission guidelines 30 seconds to a minute was all they wanted).

You can vote for me by visiting the entries page, clicking on my entry (make sure to click on me, Ben, because there is also a Benjamin), and clicking vote. Thanks!

Friday, July 13, 2012

Low Bb Staccato Test

Try this - play a repeated staccato tongue on low Bb making sure your tonguing isn't too heavy. When playing staccato on a low note it's common to put a lot of tongue on the reed to force it to vibrate immediately. For this exercise you don't want to use a lot of tongue so the articulation should not sound like an accent or a slap-tongue sound, just a staccato.

If you can do this without a problem it likely means you have sufficient air support and your embouchure is effective (it's not putting too much pressure on the reed). If this is difficult for you and it very well might be then here are a couple of things that can help fix the underlying problem.

One of the possible problems is that you have insufficient air support. A simple way to both test your air support and work on it is to do repeated air attacks on low notes.  I'd suggest starting up someplace like low F and work your way down to the bottom. You want to try and repeatedly start each note with just your air, so do not articulate in any way whatsoever. Just let the air start the note, and with sufficient air support you can get a clean clear entrance to each note.  Once you can get multiple clean and clear entrances on low Bb you can feel confident you have sufficient air support.

The second possible problem is that your embouchure is putting too much pressure on the reed as you tongue not allowing the note to sound. The fix for this can be different according to the individual problem, but one thing to try would be slightly lowering your bottom lip as if you were going to bend a note downward.  When doing this don't actually lower the lip far enough to audibly lower the pitch, and make sure you lower the entire lip including the corners of the mouth. Just lowering the middle of the lip will result in increased lip pressure from the sides and result in other problems. Too much embouchure pressure can also hamper your ability to start low notes with an air attack, so if you are having trouble with them try the air attacks with a very slight drop in the entire bottom lip.

Here is a sound clip demonstrating the exercise:

I would suggest making this a regular part of your warm up or daily practice routine, at least until you've mastered it. The increased air support will make the rest of the horn feel easier to play and the increased embouchure control can result in a fatter more vibrant sound.  And, of course, you will also have a greater mastery of the bottom end of the horn.