How to Maintain Transcribed Jazz Vocabulary

Question by ChrisK
(Toronto, Canada )

Hi Marc,

Thank you so much for dedicating your time for others and help share your experience in studying jazz, cuz sometimes the learning curve does get harsh…

I’m a beginner/intermediate and I’ve just started to routinely transcribe a bit everyday (maybe 5 or 6 solos so far within past year).

Here are my issues:

-I can learn a solo (maybe play it 200-300 times), remember it for a month, and if I move on to other things then some lines slowly fade, although 50% of the time I can still hear the lines.

-Same with licks from these transcriptions; I remember them for a certain period of time, move on, then slowly forget the lines.

So I’m stuck right now in trying to figure out how I can expand my vocab if I forget 80-90% of what I transcribe …

… and whether I should go back and relearn the solos every 3 months let’s say. But then how would I be able to keep up with moving forward? (i.e learn new forms, progressions, new techniques etc.)

I presume that you’ve gone through my phase at some point in the past and figured out a way of tackling this issue.

Could you share some your thoughts?

Thx man!

M-A’s Answer:

Hello Chris,

First, let me congratulate you for creating a significant and meaningful musical habit for yourself. Transcribing is, for me anyways, the most daunting task of all.

Good job! Make sure you keep it up for a while.

This time around (and because I have to answer a lot of relevant questions these days), I will answer simply with some of my thoughts (in point form.)


  • MemorizationWhen you say “I can learn a solo (maybe play it 200-300 times)” I wonder how deep your learning actually goes. Memorizing a solo does not mean that you’re getting the essence of it…As an analogy, imagine if I asked you to memorize 20 paragraphs of highly technical scientific literature (or whatever that’s beyond your linguistic scope.)

    Do you think that repeating that text 200-300 times would be enough to keep it memorized for life? Do you think that by doing so you would get the meaning of it all?

    Same applies to jazz: you don’t necessarily “get” all the vocabulary yet, so repeating endlessly the solo won’t immediately improve your understanding, hearing and … experience!

    Yes, repetition is the mother of memory, but that is, obviously not the only thing you can do to deepen your jazz vocabulary.

    Speaking of which…

  • Deep LearningIf you are forgetting parts of the solos, it is because you didn’t learn deeply enough. (see below the “Slowly!” point.)Do not blame this on bad memory or bad technique. It is simply not internalized enough to come out effortlessly.

    One more comparison :

    While eating, do you ever miss you mouth when using a spoon? Me neither!

    That’s is probably something (along with other basic actions) we internalized very deeply into your body. Imagine how much repetition and training it took to get there!

    I’m sure you now understand that 200-300 repetitions do not suffice in getting something radically anchored into your playing.

    By the way: It’s good sign that your ears still retain most of what your fingers forget! That’s where learning really takes place for music.

  • StudyingThat’s a no-brainer: study favorites licks carefully.-Identify : Key, chords, functions, scales, arpeggios, rhythms, dynamics, phrasing, accents, etc.

    -Play them in many keys all over the fretboard.

    -Find other harmonic application of the same licks.

    -Make up your own licks based on them.

    – __________________ (write your own!)

  • ProcessThe process of hearing, perceiving, listening and finding the notes on the instrument (in fact, all of this sums up to imitating) is more important than the notes themselves…I believe that applies to most artists: the process/work is more relevant than the final product. Our final product is, of course, a nice improvised solo …

    … but isn’t that just a short-lived footprint, a meaningless “line in the sand”? (that reflected how YOU felt, and what YOU had in mind at a specific moment…)

    Simply put: I don’t think you want or need to play entire/parts of transcribed solos when you improvise. DO learn solos, but don’t make a conscious effort to strictly imitate while you blow!

  • Slowly!Playing VERY slowly has been scientifically shown to improve performance in music and sports. (It’s in the neurons; seek out the book “The Talent Code”).Try this :

    Set you metronome at 60 BPM, perceive each click as an eight-note triplets, play a lick from a transcribed solo (2-4 bars).

    Sounds like this :

    1 (click click) 2 (click click) 3 (click click) etc.

    Hard, isn’t?

    The tempo is therefore 20 BPM. It’s probably so slow than you can’t even recognize the line anymore!

    Take the tempo up gradually, but retain the same effortlessness (mind and body) as when it’s played at 20 BPM.

    Work on this for a week or two and you’ll be amazed.

  • Don’t worryI’ve heard famous musicians (like Mike Brecker) say it takes them moths or even years to learn new melodic material well enough.Feel good about yourself: you ARE working hard.

    The complete and perfect memorization and performance of an entire solo (by someone else) is not a good indicator of success.

    Again don’t worry: transcribing is a tool. Work on the transcription, keep listening and when comes the time … let it go!

    You may come back to it in a year… or even in 5 years. You may even forget your favorite licks forever …

    …and it doesn’t really matter at all!

    (What if you can’t play it over and over again to impress your friends!?!)

    Your improvisations and musical abilities will soon be fueled by the energies you put into transcribing and practicing.

    Your ever-evolving sound will be influenced not just by the notes you’re learning from recordings, but also by the phrasing, intensity, overall shape and other devices used by your favorite players.

    Once more: don’t worry. Do it for the love, enjoy the ride.

    When you improvise, always try to let go and make your own musical statements.

I hope this helps,
Practice and transcribe well,
Marc-Andre Seguin

Old Comments for How to Maintain Transcribed Jazz Vocabulary

Jul 12, 2010
Hey MA, thx so much~
by: ChrisK

Hi Marc, I read your reply, it was really insightful, I truly appreciate your inputs actually! It’s so true and your advices made me realized many things and feel more confident, I can’t thank you enough!!

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