Many activities enhance our improvisation, perhaps research through transcription, or further musical investigation through active listening, or the delight of free improvisation or musical sketching. Transcription is perhaps the most often employed, altough students and aspiring musicians frequently under-utilise this activity, generally because they are in too much of a hurry. There are loads of benefits but also potential pitfalls but it is critical that you engage with the process clear in your mind as to why you might transcribe. This is a process of internalisation and works at a number of levels. Of course there is the absorption of information but also time/groove (if you memorise by playing-along with recordings), conceptual approaches and the alignment of technical, conceptual and expressive functions. It is also the learning process that is closest to how we learn to speak, convey meaning and express ourselves. Dave Liebman has written extensively on the subject (see his essays “My Philosophy of Education” and the shorter “Summary of the Transcription Process”). My own (very short) advice is as follows:
If approached with regularity and in the 4 stages outlined below, this is probably your most useful tool at this stage in your development.
1.1 Select a solo for its usefulness. Transcribe in 3 stages:
a. Memorise a segment and sing along with recording. Gradually increase up to 8 bars, 16 bars, a chorus. Don’t move on until you have memorized and can sing a whole chorus with and without the CD. This will measure your retention.
b. As (a) on your instrument – with and without the CD.
c. Now transcribe the first chorus, select and write out at least 4 favourite/useful licks. Write at least 4 variations on each one.
d. Memorise the 4 licks and your variations and apply to you daily practice as described in the “2nd visit” – see “On Practicing V7”.
1.2 Transcribe every day.
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