Practicing via Transcription

Published: September 9th, 2013

I spend most of my practice time working on emulating solos that grab my ear. Of course, transcription is the process of writing out the notation for a piece of music based on an audio recording, and though that's the term I like to use, I rarely take the time to write out the solos I learn.

Here's an example of my latest project, a solo by Chris Potter on Pat Metheny's tune 'New Year':

Getting the solo down:

The first step for me is usually to listen to the solo at full speed enough times so I can sing along with it. This helps me to get a feel for the solo as a whole, and puts the pieces I'll practice later into context.

Once it's time to learn the solo on the saxophone, I'll load it into the Amazing Slow Downer program (which I highly recommend), and starting from the beginning, will create a preset loop with a manageable chunk of the solo. This will mean different things to different players, but for me it's usually a chorus in length, or shorter if there are very difficult sections. I'll loop this section at a slow speed (usually 50% or slower), and play along until I feel like I'm emulating the time, articulations, and other style elements as closely as I can. Once this is comfortable, I'll gradually increase the speed of the loop until it's at 100% or greater.

I'll repeat this process with each subsequent part of the solo until I've got it down in its entirety at full speed. At this point, I've got the entire solo learned by memory, and though this is a great accomplishment, it's only the start of what you can learn by this process.

Taking it to the next level:

After learning the solo in the original key, it's time to really get down to work, and learn it in different keys. As horn players, we tend to want to gravitate to the 'easier' keys like concert Bb, Eb, and F. As improvisors, though, we want to be able to create comfortably no matter what the chord changes are, and other keys can offer a novel sound, even over the same chord progression. To see this for yourself, try playing a song you're really familiar with a whole step or minor third away from the original key, and see just how different it sounds from the original.

Most often, the parts of a solo I'll learn in different keys are the ones which really grab my ear. So in the example of the 'New Year' solo, the triplet line around 1:08 was the one I tackled first. The Amazing Slow Downer program also allows you to transpose audio to different keys (1 octave above and below the original), so I'll loop sections in the same way I did before, usually a half step up, then a half step down, whole step up, whole step down, etc. Ideally, I'll work the line until I hit the low Bb on the bottom side, and as high as I can comfortably play into the altissimo on the top side (currently around the Eb above the normal range of the horn).

Why practice this way?

I particularly like this method of practice first because it holds my attention. For better or worse, I have a really low tolerance for practicing patterns by themselves, but I can practice this method for hours on end without getting bored. Second, it's a great workout because you can address many aspects of your playing all at the same time:

  • Sound/Tone: With each repetition of a section, you'll begin to hear the subtleties that make up that player's style, including articulations, vibrato, note bending, etc. and you'll begin to incorporate these into your own playing.
  • Time: Playing with good time is crucial to improvising well, and playing along with a solo that demonstrates good time is as good as (or better than) playing along with a metronome. Personally, I think it's better because you learn what it feels like to play in time without a steady pulse to guide you.
  • Vocabulary: The musical ideas you're learning can be used in your own improvisations, and learning them in many different keys will give you that much more to draw from when you're soloing. You'll also find that the more you practice transposing ideas into different keys, you'll develop the ability to do it on the fly as you're soloing, which will allow you to play things you've never even practiced before!
  • Technical Aspects: On the saxophone, certain keys just seem to lay more nicely than others. For example, playing in the saxophone's F# major key, you need to decide how to deal with playing Bb and B, which will vary depending on the context. Sometimes side Bb works better, sometimes, 1-and-1, sometimes the bis key is the best option. When dealing with the altissimo, there are a number of different fingerings you can use, and the same holds true. Familiarity and comfort in these areas comes with repetitive practice, and you'll see a great improvement here as well when you practice phrases that exercise these keys and ranges.
  • Musicality of Improvisations: This, I believe, is the most important skill acquired by learning through transcription. There's a reason that some solos move us as listeners, and are more meaningful to us than others. This isn't something that's easy to quantify -- it may be the player's technical proficiency that grabs us, or the sense of time where ideas fit perfectly into the context, or it could be a purely emotional reaction to the sound they're producing. When we practice like this, we don't have to quantify why it moves us, but by emulating that player in that particular moment, we can incorporate whatever it was that moved us into our own playing, and hopefully allow us to produce that type of musical moment ourselves.

I hope you found this article useful. If you have any questions about my method, feel free to contact me using the link above.