Should we or should we not write down everything we transcribe ?

Obviously if it’s an assignment from your teacher, or a tune you want to give to your student or share : you HAVE TO write it down.

But otherwise, let’s think outside the institutions.

I transcribed this tune by Charlie Hunter “Recess”, and it was hard and I made a video because I was kinda proud I pulled it off

Recently someone sent me an email asking me for the charts. And I was sorry to say that I didn’t write anything down. What a fool actually : I haven’t played the tune for a year now !  I would probably have to re-transcribe it … Why didn’t I write it down !!!!!!!

Then I realize that I haven’t write down most of the transcriptions I’ve ever done. Before the internet age, and people posting videos of a themselves playing some-else’s solo note for note, a transcription was something that didn’t leave your bedroom (or the class/exam room). It was for study purpose only, not a way to show off (think about that for a second). So my case today is that I do think that not writing down what you transcribe is good too.

Think about it : you can write down a transcription and never actually play it physically. You figure out the notes using Transcribe or some software, you write it down in Sibelius or Finale, you play the file to check that it sounds like the record. And that’s it : you can post your PDF on line. People congratulate you. That’s cool. But you haven’t produced any sound with your instrument. Your body haven’t experience the music, you literally haven’t FEEL the music. Bottom line : you haven’t learn and internalize anything.

What happens when you transcribe without writing down is completely different.

Lennie Tristano had his student SING the solos they learn before they were allowed to touch their instrument. Writing down was the last step of the process. Learn the phrase and memorize it by singing it. Then you can take your instrument and play it. Analyze it. Eventually write it down.

When you do your transcription that way (even if you skip the singing step), you have to memorize the whole thing (or big chunks), great exercise for your brain. When you spend hours listening and playing along the recording, you get pieces of informations that can’t be put down on paper. And it’s a very very very important process. It’s not all about the notes: the rhythmic placement, the feel, articulation are as important. We all know that no-one plays swing 8th the same way. With this process you experience it ! You live it !

Transcribing for the sake of filling up pages of dots might make you feel like you’ve done your homework, and it’s a good ear-training exercise, but it won’t teach you as much as it could/should. Instead of doing three solos, do only one: but play it with the recording a thousand times, take that time, you’ll learn so much more. The music will get under your skin, you’ll get to the point where you don’t think and just play and listen.

Of corse you will forget that solo after some time. And when you’ll feel like playing it again you’ll be gutted to spend an hour remembering it instead of just digging out the charts. But you’ll notice that if the piece of information from that solo is important/useful to you, it will come back quickly.

Some people who take many pictures of you with their phone won’t recognize you in the street. What really matters, you will remember : pictures or no, charts or no.

And if you want to write it down to share it with the world (teachers, students, friends, band mates, lovely people reading your blog) that’s fine, but for your development as a musician it’s a different story.

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