Transcription practice exercise

The other day I came up with an interesting exercise that I am finding has helped me get more value out of the transcription learning process.

My method for working on transcriptions up until now has been to work on mimicking the exact notes that are played in the recording, first listening to each section until I can hum it and then puzzling it out on the instrument (using slow-down technology and copious practice when necessary for any step of the process). This process works well for becoming able to play the notes accurately, but it doesn’t help me understand why they sound good.

So, after I’ve learned a solo (or part of a solo) note for note, the exercise is this:

  1. For each phrase of the solo, I identify what chord shape it seems to be based around, and I keep that chord shape locked in my mind while I play the phrase. (I’m thinking about guitar here; I think for violin or other melody instruments it would be arpeggios instead of chord shapes.)
  2. Once I have the chord shape comfortably identified, I make small adjustments to the phrase, playing other notes from or around that chord shape.

I think that this process allows me to think about the solo differently. The first step allows me to understand in a theoretical sense how to view the notes that are coming out — for example, “In Django’s solo, the first time a D7 shows up, his melody is based around a descending D7 arpeggio with some extra chromatic movement, so I will picture a D bar chord while playing that.” And with the second step, in encouraging myself to modify the solo, I must take the solo and bring it into a mental space I can understand enough to connect my own improvisation with it. For example, it encourages me to explore this question in my mind and fingers: “These notes are based around the D7 chord, so what other notes around the D7 chord could I move the melody to?” I could change it by changing the chromatic motion to diatonic motion, or approaching each note in the arpeggio from below chromatically, or change the phrase to be a straight arpeggio that goes down and up. I can also simply let my emotions lead the melody in a new direction, with the chord shape as a foundation so it doesn’t veer off somewhere unintelligible.

My guess is that if I keep practicing using this method, I will become much more able to take the melodies and stylings that I have learned during transcription and incorporate them into my improvisations during live performance.

As I reflect on this, I think that I have likely done some of this unconsciously when working on jazz violin transcriptions, because I have a firm enough grasp of where the chords are on the violin that the understanding of harmonic significance comes automatically. But it seems I am benefiting from the explicit practice when working on guitar transcriptions, since I am newer to that instrument.

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