TRANSCRIBING vs CHANNELING

Every jazz teacher will tell you : “transcribe solos, transpose them in any 12 keys, then take another solo and do it again … and again“.

And again!

But I haven’t heard many teachers talk about another process : ‘Chanelling‘.

As a teenager, I was a Blues fanatic. I would climb up the family tree of my favorite artist, digging as deep as I could (it was before internet, it was more challenging than you kids might think). And one week my band decided that we’d play Albert King’s “I play the blues for you“, and Albert King is a HUGE influence of Stevie Ray Vaughan -my big heroes at the time-, and I could have just thought “I’ll play it like SRV and that’ll do”, No, I wanted to play it like Albert King.

But it was a school week and I probably didn’t have much time to practice : so what I did is that I put 2 Albert King albums on a tape for my walkman. 90 minutes of Albert King, and that was the only tape that I played in my walkman the whole week on my commute to school or during breaks and all : I roughly played the tape twice a day… When I arrive to the rehearsal I haven’t spent anytime on the guitar trying to copy Albert King licks, trying to figure out exactly what he was doing. But when we started playing ‘I play the blues for you’ : everyone in the band shouted “you sound like Albert King !!!!”. I’ve been infused with Albert’s style, and somehow the music I wanted to hear guided my finger. I called that ‘impregnation’ : getting the spirit of the musician.

And I always kept that in mind, and I go through phases were I will listen only to one musician without necessarily transcribing or analyzing, just getting in the spirit, reading books and interview also help. I like to keep my iPhone music library quite small: so that I focus on the musicians I’m into at the moment, and don’t get distracted by something else.

note: keeping a iTune library small and changing is a great way to listen in deep to new music, if you always keep your top 10 favorite albums in your iPhone, chances are you’ll be more likely to skip a new album after a first listen that wasn’t immediately mind-blowing and fall back on good old favorites. But I digress… back to ‘channeling’.

I was always surprised that no teacher, writer, musician seams to talk about it as a valid way of learning.

Recently I was reading an interview of jazz pianist Fred Hersch made by other jazz pianist Ethan Iverson. And Fred Hersch says that he never transcribed anything. Coming from a fantastic professional musicians and renown teacher that’s very surprising! (Dare I say chocking ?)

Here’s what he says :

“Growing up, I didn’t transcribe, but I would sit and do what I would retroactively call channeling. Say I’d listen to McCoy Tyner for a week on end, or three weeks or something like that, just McCoy McCoy McCoy, and I’d sit at the piano and just try to imitate him, or play some tunes that he might play, but try to play them in his way, but it wasn’t about playing the notes, I didn’t care so much about playing his notes, but I wanted to try to think like him.”

I was pleased, I somehow felt validated and less alone. Thank you Fred.

This Channeling process is also a creative way to practice. When you try to “sound like” a musician, you don’t play the exact same notes, the exact same rhythms, but you will create your own way of sounding ‘in the style of…” … It’s like painting from memory. You will focus your attention on details that speaks to you: might be the notes, the sound of the instrument, the phrasing… You will actually make artistic choices without realizing it. The result will be different from the original: yes. And that’s great ! Your process : copying. The result : creating. How cool is that ?!

Transcribing IS a great way of learning, no question about it. And it’s probably the only to really analyze someone’s style in deep. From a musicology point of you, that’s the only way.

But this Channeling process is -in my opinion- the start of a creative path. If you want to a be a creator, writing your own music, lead your band etc … at some point you’ll have to listen to the music that is in you, and at this point there won’t be any recordings to copy, no transcription books to buy and study. No more short cuts : just you and your imagination.

Thanx for reading, until next week : take care of yourself, listen to good music

PS : Ethan Iverson’s blog is amazing, great interviews, great post, transcriptions, check it out !

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