When I was in college as a Piano Performance major, I remember seeing a guy on campus casually playing jazz in one of the practice rooms. Later that year I saw him accompany a play that some people from school had put on at a local theater. The way he played mesmerized me. It fit the scenes perfectly. And it was just good music. When I came to learn he’d improvised all of it, I was blown away.
On top of that, he seemed to be actually enjoying himself. Whereas I wasn’t. I was slaving away in practice rooms hours on end, day-after-day, without even having fun. I’m sure much of it had to do with the intrinsically competitive nature of conservatory life. (I was really skilled at comparing myself to others.) Regardless, beautiful music was flowing out of this person whenever he wanted, whereas I had put myself on a strict practice schedule. My days passed under the dark cloud of self-shaming that I had never practiced enough.
This led to a musical burnout so severe that I couldn’t touch a piano for years afterward.
In many ways this was my “hero’s journey”. The decent into the unknown where everything that made me what I thought I was, suddenly was stripped away. I identified myself as a pianist. A musician. And I was going to be a concert pianist. And nothing was going to stop me. Until it did.
That was fifteen years ago. I’ve since gotten back into music, and thankfully with all the pressure gone, I’m enjoying myself again. Just like Mr. Jazz from all those years ago.
That moment must’ve stuck with me because I’ve finally decided to begin my jazz studies in earnest. In some ways I don’t feel worthy to participate in this incredible genre. But it’s where my heart is leading me, and it’s been incredibly fun to start.
I’ve always heard that transcribing jazz tunes is the best way to begin, but I’ve resisted it for so long because, well, it’s hard. I’ve tried to work out of books in the past, but the problem I’ve run into is that it’s far less immersive.
Transcribing melodies and chord progressions — even if it’s only a few bars — is a far more immersive experience which allows me to train my ear. I can also start wherever I want, rather than being stuck in the confines of someone else’s pedagogy.
This is not to say books wouldn’t help. In fact, I plan on purchasing a copy of John Mehegan’s Jazz Improvisation: Tonal and Rhythmic Principles very soon. It’s just that giving myself the freedom to start with any piece is a way to stay inspired in the process.
To begin my transcription journey I chose Thelonious Monk’s rendition of “Dinah” from his incredible album, Solo Monk. It’s not that I thought it easy, but more that the melody seemed comprehensible, and the chords somewhat logical. I also really like it. (Though he does throw in some very colorful dissonant notes that seem signature to Monk which I’m skipping on first pass so as not to get too overwhelmed.) Here’s what I have so far:
I’ve been using an app called Transcribe+, which allows you to slow down a tune. I tried doing it at full speed, thinking it’d be a more authentic way to learn (since such an app has not existed for the greater part of music history), but quickly got discouraged.
One of the advantages of Transcribe+ is it allows you to loop a particular section. Overall it has a really nice user interface which makes the process of transcribing a delight. This is a huge advantage over trying to move the little circle back to a certain second of a track over-and-over on my Spotify app.
I was originally trying avoid the actual transcription part with pencil and paper, but I found there to be too much nuance in what Monk is doing that I had to write it down. Or at least, write down enough to give me a general idea of what’s happening.
What I’ve already found interesting about this is that it’s opened up new ways of thinking about improvisation and composing my own music. For example, I’ve found myself hearing the note and chord before I play it. I’ve also been trying to play a particular chord progression from “Dinah”, but in a different key, then improvising a small melody over it. This helps the chords make a little bit more sense. (Well, as much sense as a diminished-seven chord built on the dominant seven of the five chord can make sense, I suppose.)
I’m really looking forward to continuing this practice. Particularly that of alternating transcription with improvisation. The improvising is a way of applying what I’m learning, I think. Just like one needs to not only immerse themselves in a new language, but also attempt to speak it in their own way. Even if they fumble over and mispronounce words. Which is surely what I’m doing.
There’s something about the spirit of jazz music, too, that I need right now. This time of COVID has forced so much monotony on my days since I now work full-time from home. Jazz is unpredictable. Whereas my Monday through Friday is very predictable. It’s much more viscerally creative than learning classical because it engages my mind and ear in a more dynamic way. This simple practice has helped me feel more alive and engaged with the people around me, my work, and daily routines. So even just for that, it’s been worth it.