ATTN: All Instrumentalists and Vocalists! This post applies to you!
As you’re listening to some music and you hear a melody, a phrase, a motif, or an arrangement that draws your attention because it “speaks” to you and you really like it, you should “T-it-up”! What do I mean by that? You should transcribe it! You’ll benefit whether you “T” all of it, or only a fractional part of it! Just get in there and “T” something up!
I borrowed the title phrase for this post from the world of golf. I’ve been a fan of Tiger Woods for a long time. Through his actions on the golf course and his interviews, Tiger has always demonstrated that he possess a deep knowledge of golf on many levels. He has frequently spoken about the high regard and respect he has for golf’s “elder statesmen” like Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicholas. He’s spoken specifically about the fact that he’s watched many videos of them and studied them.
In the world of music, you’ll find many musicians, including myself, who have the same kind of high-regard and respect for music’s “elder statesmen”. For instance, whenever someone asked The Beatles and Eric Clapton questions like “who most influenced you?”, they’d always name Chuck Berry first as they spoke about their high regard and respect they had for him. Whenever Chuck Berry was asked that same question, as he addressed it in his autobiography, he’d immediately credit his local peers, the great boogie-woogie pianists and the great Nat “King” Cole as he spoke about the high regard and respect he has for them all!
So, I was particularly delighted when one of my students, bass player Nicholas Gendron, originally an ear training student who by the time he signed on with me had already done complete James Jamerson transcriptions on his own by ear, spoke to me about the high regard and respect he has for many of the same great jazz bassists for whom I share the same feelings. When Nick expressed his interest in expanding his ear training studies to include having me work with him on “strengthening-up” his walking bass lines, I immediately suggested that he start right away on transcribing some of the great jazz bassists. I agreed to get right in there with him and do some of my own transcriptions of some of the bass veterans also to share with him in his lessons. So for this post, I decided to give you the complete transcription I did for Nick of what the great Israel Crosby played on “But Not For Me” from one of Ahmad Jamal’s classic albums. You can view the video and download this PDF too!
The information you can get from studying transcriptions is invaluable, and by all means, I strongly suggest that you, and all serious students of improvised music, should do a lot of your own transcription work! Don’t get me wrong. It’s definitely ok to draw information from the transcriptions of other people, however, the benefits of doing your own transcription work will pay bigger dividends because, in doing so, the information you derive gets planted deeper into your musical soul by the nature of the do-it-yourself process.
Whether you do one-chorus, multiple choruses, single phrase, multiple phrases, right-hand only, left-hand only, both hands, partial heads, full heads, partial arrangements, or full arrangements… you’ll be doing something that’s good for your musicianship!
The focus of your transcriptions are determined, of course, by whatever your objective may be at any given time. For instance, you might limit the focus of your transcription to getting the actual musical notes only! Or, you may want to exclude the actual notes and focus on obtaining chord progressions only, as in getting the chord changes of some particular song or tune. Perhaps you want everything… actual notes, chord changes, articulations, and dynamics too! Ear training makes it all available to you.
You can write your transcription work down on manuscript paper using standard music notation, or you might write it down in some other form on unlined or lined notebook paper for that matter! If you have a good memory, you can even skip the writing-it-down process altogether and simply keep it all in your head, as Nick did with his James Jamerson transcriptions. If you can do it, I recommend you do some of both because it’s all good!
At the time of this post, Nick is in Aruba! He’ll be starting his own page within my site soon after he returns so if you’d like to follow Nick on his page, check back in a few weeks and just type or paste his name into any search box on my site.
Remember that although your teacher or coach can point you in the direction of what work you need to do, it is YOU that has to DO the work by practicing!
3: “FIGURE 8” EXERCISES:What are they? How do they apply to piano?
I borrowed the term “Figure-8” from the world of Olympic figure skating. If you aren’t familiar with figure skating, a little background and demonstration on that subject might be helpful.
Please note that I address both questions in the second half of this post.So if you’d like to skip past the “FIGURE 8s” IN OLYMPIC SKATING background/demonstration section that follows next, you can go directly to the “FIGURE 8s” in Piano and Music section by clicking here.
There was a period of time when Olympic ice skating competitors were required to participate in the Compulsory Figures Competition. They had to skate a certain number of compulsory figures into the ice and then re-skate or trace-over the figures. All of the figures were based on or derivatives of the number “eight”, thus the term “Figure 8” skating. At first there were twelve figures but over the years, the number was gradually reduced and by 1973, only three compulsory figures remained. Skaters were scored on how well each figure was initially etched or engraved, and on how well they traced-over each original skating.
Compulsory figures were eliminated entirely from international competition after 1990, so videos and rebroadcasts are perhaps your main avenue of seeing what I hope doesn’t become a lost art form! If you haven’t seen Olympic figure skating in live broadcasts or taped reruns, I’d like to have you take a look at the next several clips from that world because seeing the skaters create and then trace the figures will help me draw a picture of the parallels I see.
When I first watched the introductory commentary clip just below, I smiled when the comparisons of skating fundamentals and the musical scales of a pianist was made because I completely agree with what was said.
The Paragraph Loop figure, with its sub-loop variation within each of its two circles, seemed to be the most challenging of the three remaining figures to skate and trace. This was my favorite event to watch because of the discipline, skill, control, grace, precision, stamina, mental toughness, and strength it took to pull it off. Check out the following really short video clips on “Figure 8” skating before returning your focus to the music world.
“FIGURE 8s” IN OLYMPIC SKATING
Commentary on Compulsory Figures – “They are really basically like the scales for a pianist.”
Clip #1 – The Counter figure is Illustrated
Clip #2 – The Paragraph Bracket figure is Illustrated
Clip #3 – Debi Thomas Skates The Paragraph Bracket
Clip #4 – The Paragraph Loop figure is Illustrated
Clip #5 – Debi Thomas Skates The Paragraph Loop
Setting skating aside, does this illustration of the Counter remind you of anything?
Which of the three answers below do you think would be the most chosen in a David Letterman-like picture association skit or poll? (drum roll please…)
1. A snow man; 2. Three scoops of vanilla ice cream; 3. The notes of a musical triad;
A case could be made for #s 1 and 2 but I think the Letterman answer might be #3, a musical triad! Paul Shaffer might say “Yeah! Let’s run with that one!” as we shift our focus back to music.
“Figure-8s”, as I use the term in piano lessons, are musical figures which, once played, must be repeated or “traced” two or more times and as smoothly as possible in a manner that is figuratively similar to the way tracing was done in the world of figure skating. The length and complexity of the figures may vary but the object is to have your fingers remain in continuous contact with the piano keyboard while you’re executing and tracing so that the figure remains unbroken and true-to-form during the entire exercise.
“Figure 8s” on a major triad
In the videos just below you’ll see me “figure 8” the notes of a C major triad which make my “target notes” C, E, and G. To “figure 8” the notes, I use a 2-note ornament that starts with a scale step above the target note, passes through the target note to a half-step below the target note then returns to the target note so that the figure-8 ornamenting of each target note will consist of 4 tones being played. In short, I “hang” a two-note ornament on each of the three target notes. The video starts with me “figure 8-ing” Middle C by practicing the 2-note ornament around that single note before I move on to practice the same ornament on the other two notes. (See the major triad videos)
“Figure 8s” on a minor triad
In the videos just below you’ll see me “figure 8” the notes of a C minor triad which make my “target notes” C, Eb, and G. To “figure-8” the notes, I use a 3-note ornament that starts with a half-step below the target note then moves directly to a whole step above the target note then makes a chromatic 2-note slide which ends directly on the target note so that the figure-8 ornamenting of each target note will consist of 4 tones being played. In short, I “hang” a 3-note ornament on each of the three target notes. The video starts with me “figure 8-ing” Middle C by practicing the 3-note ornament around that single note only before I move on to practice the same ornament on the other two notes. (See the minor triad videos)
In the context of piano technique, these “Figure 8” piano finger patterns and exercises require the same characteristics as those I mentioned near the top of this post in the ice skating context. As you work with these exercises, practice slowly and strive for evenness and accuracy. Speed will always come to you as a by-product of slow efficient practice!
I encourage you to come up with your own “Figure 8s” too. Your figures may vary in size from very short ornaments, like the ones I used in this post, to longer phrases, like the one in the interactive picture just below.
With the use of rhythmic and pitch variation, the possibilities are virtually limitless!
Of course all of the exercises discussed and demonstrated in this three-post topic, as well as any you may make or find elsewhere, won’t give you the ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound or be faster than a speeding bullet! However, if you are persistent, patient, and do the exercises I recommended in this post in all 12 keys, your fingers will learn to do things and go places they’ve never gone before on the piano keyboard.
It doesn’t matter how much you may already know or how much you may learn about the inner workings of music theory. If you are going to be a “player”, you need to have a minimum of at least an adequate technique to go along with your theoretical knowledge and know-how. With an inadequate technique, you will surely experience lots of difficulty in executing musical ideas and expressing yourself on the piano. If your fingers have not been trained, your brain telling your fingers exactly what to do will have no effect because your fingers just won’t cooperate! They will not be able to follow the orders issued by “headquarters”!
So, to help you build or maintain your piano technique, here is the 1st tip in this 3-part series.
1: SCALES: Start with the major scales. Practice them in the one-octave range and play them using the traditionally recommended fingering for each of the 12 scales. Try to make this practice, as well as your practice on all rudimentary items and drills, as fun and as musical as possible by practicing with some sort of accompaniment track or rhythm track. Find a tempo marking that allows you to play evenly and accurately, then incrementally increase the tempo. The video just below shows me playing three metaphorically named major scale variations in the key of C.
1 – The “Stagger Lee”: Mostly 16ths but the 8th notes on beats 1 and 3 yield a staggered effect.
2 – The “Cloud Nine”: This extends into octave #2 to get the 9th scale degree from the “cloud”.
3 – The “Michael Phelps”: After descending each time, go “under water” to change direction.
After you’re comfortable with playing all 12 major scales, move on into the one-octave dominant 7th, dorian minor, half-diminished and diminished scales. I encourage you to play these one-octave scales using your own rhythmic and style variations! After that, you should expand this activity into some multi-octave ranges and include chords, inversions, and arpeggios. Whether you “swing it” or play it “straight”, be sure to keep everything in a groove and have fun!
1: Anyone who is fluent in any spoken language can learn to improvise and play jazz. 2: People who say, “I can”, and people who say, “I can’t”, are both right!!
I have a great group of students who frequently bring music to class in which they’re interested and who’ll periodically introduce me to musicians of whom I was not aware. Recently, on such an instance, I was introduced to a superbly wonderful Ukrainian musician and I am now his newest fan!
While researching this person, I came across a specific statement he made, and that same statement was echoed verbatim by two of his followers, both of whom are amazingly gifted and extremely accomplished young musicians in their own right! The ages of the two young musicians are 12 and 20-something!
The statement, with which I could not disagree more, originates from an assumption they’ve all made that they “can’t improvise”. All three of these fantastic musicians say they love jazz and they all believe and say they “can’t improvise”. They say have to “read everything”!
To all three of these beautiful people I say, if you love jazz and you really want to play jazz, please discard the “I can’t” phrase from your vocabulary forever! Then find your way to a person like me who can help you because teachers and players of this music may be found in just about every country throughout the world! Art Hodes (1904-1993) was a great jazz pianist from Mykolaiv, Ukraine.
I never played in Ukraine but I did play in several communist countries before the “Iron Curtain” was brought down and I’ll tell you that in every country I played, I met some pretty awesome jazz musicians who could improvise very well. Jazz music is really appreciated and loved around the world.
Remember. Art Tatum said, “You have to practice improvisation, let no one kid you about it!”
So it’s going to take some serious work and it won’t happen overnight but if playing jazz is something that you really want, then don’t let some hard work stand between you and your goal and get out of your own way by ridding yourself of the “I can’t” affliction if you have it! Get a coach and get busy! The positive effects it’ll have on your life is well worth the time and investment.
The AC #7 mystery man is the late Phineas Newborn, Jr. (Ta Da!)
A big thank you to all the contest participants but since no one correctly identified my mystery man, I’m going to post the winning prize link in this post along with a couple of other links that showcase this musical giant. That way, if you’re not familiar with Phineas, you can check him out a little then seek more if you like what you hear and see.
Phineas Newborn, Jr., was a piano genius from Memphis, Tennessee. Although he was very well-known and appreciated among his peers, devoted followers, and loved by his friends, he was an artist who deserved much wider general public recognition.
For me, one of his many career highlights was an album he recorded with strings titled, “While My Lady Sleeps” where he sight-read the whole date in first-takes, and the orchestra gave him a standing ovation after every song!
During his live performances, Phineas would often play a couple of songs at the front of a set or during a set with his left hand only–melody, accompaniment, improv-solo and everything would sound as if he were playing with two hands!!!. Words can’t describe the feeling that his attentive audiences would experience when he’d finally bring out his right hand, during the middle of one his deep single-hand explorations, and add it to the high-fever level of excitement that he would have already generated with his left hand alone! He’d raise his right hand and then down it’d come exploding onto the piano and BANG! The audience would collectively gasp in pleasure! I’d often cry out, “WOW!!” It was an emotional experience that you actually felt and you really had to see and experience it live! He was truly an awesome musician!
He loved to play piano, he loved to laugh, and I’m proud of the friendship I had with him for the short time I knew him. R.I.P. Phineas.
Phineas (left) and Art at Boston’s Logan Airport –photo by Deb Claffey
Contest Winners Link (audio) – Phineas made this recording in 1951 with “Lou Sargent”, which was a pseudonym for Luther Steinberg. Phineas was twenty years old on this recording and at that early age, you can hear his mastery of blues and boogie-woogie piano styles!
If you like boogie-woogie, blues, and jazz piano, I recommend you to listen to as much Phineas Newborn as you can find.
To all the people who didn’t win this time (everybody!), these types of contests and “Silly Games” will occasionally appear in Art’s Corner so spread the word and stay tuned.