Transcription - why is it essential for musical growth?

Above all else, transcribing music is the best thing you can do to improve. This is true for any type of musician in any genre, but especially important for those interested in improvisation. There is absolutely no way for you to be able to truly improvise unless you've transcribed. 

Note: The word "transcribe" as used in this post means to listen to and learn, as opposed to reading and learning. Sorry for any confusion.

Why is transcription such a big deal?

You learn vocabulary, technique, rhythm, theory, and most importantly, you get to examine and hear a musician at a level that just can't be acheived by using standard notation or tablature. I'll get into that in a bit, but first let me explain the other benefits.

Vocabulary

You can directly equate learning music to learning a language, and I’m sure you’ve heard people compare the two. Say you’re learning Italian. If you needed to learn Italian as fast as possible, what would you do? Buy a book, or buy a ticket to Italy? 

When you are in another country learning a language, you’re forced to listen intently to what people are saying to pick up the dialect, vocabulary, and tense of the phrases and words. You also pick up gestures and slang unique to particular regions. This can be compared to going to a jam session or concert. As your listening develops, you’ll actually hear a common vocabulary among players. You’ll hear how they construct their phrases, and how they communicate via their instrument. Just like in speaking, every musician has their own unique tone, volume, phrasing, and ideas. 

Also, when at a performance or jam, all of your senses can be engaged - and this is huge. Playing music is an experience, and when you are engaged in the process of transcription, or even just listening for that matter, you are living the music, and that is so important for connecting the dots of how to play an instrument at a high level.  

The fastest way to learn anything is by the process of immersion. That is how the best musicians get so damn good at what they do. They’ve spent a whole lot of time with music in their ears - in bars, at jam sessions, with friends, and listening to records.

Technique

Technique is tied into vocabulary, but is a more physical experience than mental. When you’re working on your physicality as a musician, what you do with your hands absolutely needs to correspond with what you are hearing in your head. As you transcribe a piece of music, you’re hearing notes from the recording and figuring out different ways to play them on your instrument. If a passage is difficult because of rhythm, or speed, you need improvement in that area of your playing. Transcription allows you to simultaneously enhance your technical chops while improving upon your vocabulary. 

Rhythm

When I teach transcription, I tell my students to first transcribe the song or lick they’re interested in, then play along with the recording. This will install aspects of the phrase in your playing, and will improve your ability to hear and improvise in time.

Try to “lock in” as best you can, and if you can’t play a particular passage up to speed, take time to work it up. Playing along with the recording is so crucial to learning because you’ll learn how a certain musician phrases and places the notes in time, and learn how to execute complicated rhythms by learning how a musician phrases, as opposed to learning rhythm with a book. You may notice that some musicians will play behind the beat, and some will play before it. Their phrasing may be choppy and rhythmic, or they might play longer and smoother melodies. 

Noticing and analyzing what a particular musician is doing is great as you listen to the music and reflect on it, but transcribing and playing along is the kind of practice that will show you real improvement.

Theory 

A great way to learn theory is to listen to music, figure out what a soloist is doing, write it down, and analyze. You’ll learn so much more that simply reading about stuff out of a theory book because you’ll hear the solo in context. Where did the soloist place those notes? Why am I attracted to the solo? What is the relationship between the chords and notes being played? 

After asking any of these questions, you can investigate the answers in a theory book or ask a teacher, and you can start to utilize some of what you’ve learned in different keys. It’s great to learn a solo, then practice playing it in all 12 keys. You’ll truly master that solo, and you’ll have a whole new appreciation and understanding of what is going on in keys you don’t normally play in. 

Deep Listening

Transcription allows you to put a musician’s playing under the microscope so you can learn about his or her’s style and vocabulary. But ultimately you get to know the musician at a level which is inaccessible using tab or sheet music. 

Sheet music/tab learning = eye based learning 

Transcription = ear based learning 

Which do you think is better for learning music?

For me, to transcribe is to step into the musician’s shoes and feel and hear what he or she is communicating or feeling. I feel like I'm getting more intimate with the musician every time I hear or play a solo I’ve learned, and I feel like I'm gaining a deeper understanding of what that particular style of music means to me. 

The reason I believe this is because to become a great musician, you need to transcribe, which means listening to single recordings hundreds of times. Each time you listen to that individual recording, you’re picking up something from it. You may not be conscious of it, but your mind is getting better at "hearing between the lines”. 

It allows you to hear stylistic nuances which are impossible to identify when learning from a source other than the recording. This is HUGE! These nuances, which can be pretty much anything depending on the recording, combined with other solos you’ve learned, will shape your unique voice. This quote pretty much sums it up - “God is in the details.” 


So put down your sheet music or tab, go to your computer, tape player, turn table, etc., and just transcribe. There may be resistance, but once you start, it’ll feel great, and you’ll be a better musician for it. Set goals for yourself, and follow through. It’s important to make transcription a priority in your practice routine. It usually takes a little longer than technical practice, so set aside a little bit extra time, and BE PATIENT. Good luck!

Share your transcription tips in the comment section below! 

Living a Love-Filled Life

Do you ever wish you were someone or somewhere else?

Being you isn't good enough, and you feel like you need to work harder than ever to change? 

I've had those thoughts as well, and they don't feel very good. As musicians, it's easy for us to compare ourselves to others, and usually when we do this, it hurts us more than it helps. It makes us think negatively about ourselves, which, in my experience does not inspire me to want to practice. It makes me want to eat ice cream and watch not-so-great SNL episodes on Hulu...

Relatively recently, I've been able to be around some amazing people, like my wife Emily (who does amazing work with creative people), and others that think highly about themselves, don't compare, and are incredible at being completely happy about where they are in life, and creating from that place. I can totally feel it rubbing off on me. 

What does this mean?

Well for one, I'm choosing to focus fully on my life. What other people do doesn't affect me. I can choose to get angry or frustrated at people, or I can choose to ignore, or act passively. Everything is up to me. I CREATE MY LIFE. 

In regards to practicing and being a professional musician, it's like there's been a curtain lifted, and I can see what I want to practice and how I can accomplish those goals much more clearly. I feel like big parts of my ego have shriveled up and died, releasing me from pain that I've felt in the recent past due to fear, living in the past or future, or comparing myself to other musicians. 

One other thing - I've realized THERE IS NO END POINT. Yea, we all want to become better improvisers or whatever, but if you are a person always striving for perfection, you're never gonna feel like you've done enough, and you'll never feel the happy, fulfilling feelings of accomplishment, relaxation, and content.

That is why it's so freaking important to appreciate your ability and playing RIGHT NOW. In this moment. Scratch that - LOVE your playing in this moment. You are absolutely amazing at sounding like yourself - a unique, flawless version of YOU. Yes, there is always more music to learn, but you've already learned so much, and you've already become a better player because of that. It's just going to get better and better. Isn't that great?

How to practice this:

There are many different ways in which I practice loving myself. The important thing to remember is that loving yourself is a practice - life is a practice. The more that you practice, the more changes you'll feel. 

  1. Meditate - take 15 minutes out of your day to actively ignore fear, worry, and anxiety. Be in the present moment, and practice being aware of your breath or tension in your body. 
  2. Do something creative that doesn't involve "working hard" at your instrument - I've just started getting into cooking, and it allows me to have a great time, without any pressure. Cooking has helped me practice being creative and having fun at the same time. I've also learned that there are a lot of similarities between learning how to cook and learning an instrument.
  3. Practice enjoying every note you play - Every single note you play feels and sounds wonderful to you. Make this a part of your routine, and enjoy it. Life is about having fun, so if you don't strive for that in every moment, then what's the point of living?

These are just a few of many things you can do to practice loving yourself. It's a completely personal practice, and the most important thing is if you can feel love for yourself.

If you can't love yourself, how will you love your music?

Music and life are the same and your music is a reflection of who you are. If you can practice living in love and relaxation on a daily basis, your whole life will improve, ultimately making you a better player, but most importantly making you a happier, joy-filled person. 


5 Simple Ways to Become a More Rhythmically Grounded Musician (with Exercises!)

When I started learning, I didn't have anybody stress the importance of solid time, rhythm, and groove. I envied players that could come in perfectly on time and could play more complicated things than me.

They were more grounded "feel" players.

In my experience with teaching and listening to beginners and intermediates, rhythm and timing is something that gets overlooked more than technique, learning songs, etc., but feeling time at a deep level is probably the most important thing to work on as an improvising musician. It distinguishes the advanced level players from the intermediates. On another level, it separates the masters from the could-be musicians. That may be a little harsh, but the great part is that everyone can become a more rhythmic and groovy player - it just requires a little attention and patience.

If you listen to all of your favorite musicians, there's one thing they have in common - an impeccable groove.

It's definitely what makes me favor one musician more than another. Tony Rice and Bela Fleck are two of my absolute biggest influences and despite all of their amazing melodies and incredible technique, the way they place notes in time is the ultimate attraction.

I think one of the reasons time-feel, etc is overlooked is because it's an underlying element in the musician's playing.

We tend to listen to the notes more than anything else, which is obviously important, but try these 5 ways to better rhythmically ground your playing:

#1

Shift your focus to the way in which the master musician shape the individual notes, phrases and solos. Listen objectively to where the melodies lie in relationship to the beat is placed by the rhythm section. This is a great way to start training your ears so you can develop your own rhythmic style.

A couple musicians really stick out to me in terms of the way they feel the time.

Jazz saxophonist Dexter Gordon lays way back on the beat, almost to the point of where it feels like it's dragging.

Jim Mills is a banjoist that exemplifies the sound of "drive", or playing on top of the beat. This creates a push-pull tension commonly heard in bluegrass solos. All of the master bluegrass musicians create drive in their solos to a more or lesser degree.

As I've said before in posts, listening to music is the number one way for you to improve. It's the way to activate certain connections in your mind to do with how you play, and it's the best way to study music.

#2

Another thing you can do in your practice to improve how you feel the beat is work on subdividing the quarter note into eighth notes, eighth note triplets, sixteenth notes.

I've attached some incredibly useful exercises at the bottom of the page. These are some great warmups to do at the beginning of your practice session.

#3

When you learn a song, practice playing it straight and swung with the metronome and solo. By doing this, your placing a different perspective on the way you're feeling the time, ultimately strengthening the way you feel both, preparing you for different playing situations, and it'll help you internalize the song you're working on in a deeper way.. It's also just a fun exercise that you can get a little goofy with :).

#4

Start to think of yourself as the rock. Take on some of the responsibility of holding down the groove. You want to be the most supportive you can be for people you're playing with, so focus some of your practice efforts to becoming a better back up or rhythm section musician.

You'll see that your fellow players will love you for it :).

A good way to start doing this is to listen to master bass players and drummers, and imitate things that they do.

#5

Hang out or take a lesson with a drummer.

Drummers listen and think about everything with a different perspective than the melodic based instruments, and it's so great to learn about music from their point of view. They'll probably want to learn from you as well.


CLICK HERE FOR SUBDIVISION PRACTICE MATERIAL

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For more resources about developing your rhythm, groove, and feel, check out Rhythmic Training by Robert Starer, and Polyrhythms by Ari Hoenig.

7 Reasons Why Slowing Down When You Practice Will Make You Better Faster

This list has some uncommon(but really important) reasons why you should SLOW DOWN when you practice. To expedite the process of becoming the master musician you want to be, you gotta take it easy. Enjoy! 

1. You're Training Your Muscles and Mind to Work Together 

The master musician has complete control over his/her instrument. Simply put, in their body the heart(emotions/feeling) is communicating with the mind(logic/motor control), which is communicating with the muscles to create music. If the mind is more developed than the muscles, you'll hear things and not be able play them clearly on your instrument. If the opposite is happening, your muscles will be controlling what you play, not your heart and mind, and you'll sound more mechanical than emotional. When you slow down your practice, you're allowing your mind and muscles to communicate at a rate that works for both of them. Ideally, you should be hearing things in your "inner ear", and your muscles should be effortlessly executing what you're hearing. Experiment with different tempos and chord progressions to see/feel what needs work. You can also record yourself to hear spots where your playing lacks effortlessness. 

2. You'll Listen to Every Note

Banjo players are used to playing really fast, relying on set note patterns and licks to get through songs. A goal for me is to "hear" every note before I play it. Even on extremely fast tempos, I want to be able to "shape" each note based on how I hear it. Shaping notes is something saxophone players like Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordan, and John Coltrane are masters at. Every note I play should be played with intention, and there should be absolutely no mindless or heartless playing. This is a goal I set for myself, and I urge you to consider it as well.

Slow things down and work on your awareness in a song. For banjo players, you could pick a standard banjo tune or singing song, play for only one minute(slowly), and completely concentrate on every note you're playing. This short period of time will allow you to give each note everything you've got. Mess around with other tempos and chord progressions. Yea, we banjo pickers play a lot of notes, but why can't all of them mean something and contribute to the sound and feeling of the song?

3. You Will Feel the Rhythm and Groove More Precisely  

So many musicians overlook this in the crucial stages of their development. Having good time, rhythm, and groove is probably the most important part of becoming a great musician. You can have the coolest melodies, but if you don't groove or play them with rhythm, they'll sound awful. To practice rhythm slowly, I recommend practicing subdivisions of the beat - so setting the metronome slow(around 60 or 70), and clapping quarter notes, eighth notes, eighth note triplets, and sixteenth notes. Do this methodically until it feels easy to switch between the subdivisions. The more challenging transitions are from eighth notes to eighth note triplets, and from triplets to sixteenth, and back. Once you feel good about that, check out these two books - Rhythmic Training by Robert Starer and Polyrhythms by Ari Hoenig. To successfully and fully feel/internalize rhythm and groove when you are playing, you need to feel it in your body, and work up from a slow pace, so your mind and body can understand what's going on at a deep level. 

4. You Can Focus on Your Breathing

Do you hold your breath when you play? This can hinder you from having flowing, rhythmic melodies. What you are playing is a completely genuine reflection of your body and consciousness, and if you have choppy breathing, chances are your playing is going to sound that way as well. Take time in your routine to see how you're breathing when playing a tune melody, when comping(playing back-up), and when you're improvising. You may be surprised after trying this. If you're gasping or making noises after phrases, you probably aren't breathing fluidly. If you want your playing to sound fluid, slow down and feel the air going in and out of your lungs. You'll notice it actually feels good to breathe :). 

5. Memorization Comes Faster 

Do you feel like you can never quite get the tune your learning under your fingers? Sometimes you feel like you're "BSing" the melody, and you're not sure why it's not coming out the way you want. Maybe you need to slow it down, and really let your body and mind catch up with each other. When you slow a song down and play it through, the troublesome spots are going to become obvious. Make a mental note of these spots, isolate, and slow them down even more, until they are easy to play. Make sure you aren't speeding up or slowing down at certain sections of the song. Patience, and respecting the groove is important to working up a song to a level where it flows and sounds good. 

6. Building Speed is Easier

"Tension is the enemy of movement" - Eric Franklin. This is one of my favorite quotes, and it completely applies to learning an instrument. By slowing down your practice, you're allowing your muscles to form and get used to doing the movement required of them. As you gradually speed the tempo up, notice if there is any tension in your body. You may notice it in your hands, or it could be in your feet, or shoulders. Any tension in your body will affect how you play.  Once you notice it, relax and mentally revisit that area while you practice to see if anything has changed.

7. You'll Develop Focus

This has to do with patience. See if you can play a song super slow, without getting impatient or distracted the entire time. If you can't, this is something to work on. Try to enjoy every note you play. Bathe in the sound that you're creating, and listen intently to what you're playing. Once you start speeding the tempo up, you'll see that fast tempos will be easier to play because you're focus is more developed. Concentration is a huge part of playing in time, and with other people. In learning an instrument, there are so many things your mind needs to focus on, and by slowing things down, you are allowing your mind to be there with your body throughout the process. Take the time to develop your focus, and your musicianship will increase tremendously.


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Ready to learn from me immediately? I’ve released my Practice Strategy Checklist for Bluegrass Banjo! If you want to take your banjo playing to the next level, get “unstuck” from looking at tabs, and start sounding like a pro, this checklist is perfect for you.