I received an email today from M., who’s in college now and interested in working on Broadway one day. He asked me about a comment I made a few weeks ago.

I wrote an article talking about how I got my current gig, and I gave the advice that younger musicians shouldn’t over-emphasize their theatre experience when hustling this job. Broadway, in my opinion, prefers musicians that have learned different musical styles from outside of Broadway. Here’s the section:

Whether its true or not, Broadway music is largely seen as a derivative art form among the Broadway musician community. Look at shows like Jersey Boys, Million Dollar Quartet, In the Heights – these shows showcase rock n roll, country, hip hop and salsa – none of which originated on Broadway.

The last thing you want to say, therefore, is that you learned to play R’n’B by playing a summerstock version of Dream Girls. Broadway wants authentic players that have learned music styles from the source, not from itself.

I really think this is true. I just don’t feel like you can learn jazz by playing musical theatre scores. You have to learn jazz by playing jazz.

And so, M.’s question to me was this:

I am classically trained and I personally feel any style other than classical has been learned from playing MT repertoire. I feel that I am very limited because of this. I feel intimated and do not know where to even begin learning these styles.

[Do] you have any advice on how to learn jazz, blues, gospel, latin etc…?

That’s a good question, M.

Commercial Music in Theatre

First off, there are plenty of good gigs for classically trained musicians in the New York theatre scene. Shows that are in the traditional theatre style might be a good fit – for instance the current revival of Porgy and Bess or the long-running Mary Poppins. These shows showcase old-school theatre or operetta styles and need great classical players.

However, Broadway’s musical styles have always followed popular music trends, and you can see that with today’s shows as well. Most of the shows on Broadway today are shows that require commercial musicians that understand how to play jazz, rock, funk and world styles.

The Twenty Year Itch

As a side note, I’d just like to register my own complaint about Broadway music – yes, we follow popular music trends, but must we follow so far behind? If you look at the shows open on Broadway right now – Jesus Christ Superstar, Mamma Mia, Godspell, Rock of Ages, Priscilla, Memphis, etc. – not one of those shows features music that was written less that 20 years ago. Among other reasons – how can we instill a passion for theatre in younger audiences if we ignore music written during their lifetime?

The exception this season, of course, is Once which features music from the 2006 movie. Bravo, Once. Where is everyone else? No indie rock musicals out there? No bachata musical?

Anyway – M., here’s my answer (and I’m sure others will have valuable answers in the comments below).

The thing about commercial styles of music – by which I mean most non-classical styles – is that they can’t be learned from books and sheet music. The rhythm, groove, and feel of commercial styles needs to be heard and felt.

So my best advice is to transcribe different styles directly from recordings.

Recordings

And – these days – there’s no excuse not to transcribe. When I was coming up it was difficult to get access to recordings of different styles – recordings cost money back then (imagine!). Now you can get a Spotify subscription for $10/month and have almost anything you’d ever want.

For example – just the other day I found a Spotify playlist for every song in the Real Book. Are you kidding me? Do you know know how hard it would have been to gather all of those recordings together when I was in jazz school? Now there is no excuse to not have intimate knowledge of several different versions of each jazz standard.

Actually – I’ve thought a lot about this recently – I’m anxiously awaiting a new breed of musician to come out of the Spotify generation. There are kids growing up today who have unprecedented access to every style of music recorded over the last 100 years. I can only imagine what kind of musician I would be if I’d been listening to Miles at birth instead of discovering him – like most white, suburban kids of the 1990s – as a teenager in my high school band room.

The musicians that come out of music school in 20 years will have no excuse not to be monster players. What kind of jobs will be available to them…well that part is anybody’s guess.

Transcribe

Back to transcribing. M., transcribing gets better as you go. It’s tortuous as first, but addictive as you get the hang of it. Here’s how you should start:

Find a recording of a new musical style that you really dig. Put in on your phone and listen to it over and over. Listen to it as you’re walking to class, while you’re eating, when you wake up. Sing along to all of the solos, know the form, figure out the instrumentation. Get to know that recording really, really well.

Then – after that listening phase – sit down at your instrument and start playing along. Figure out the key, the harmonic structure, pick out of a few key notes. This is how I like to start – I just get a cursory feel for the harmonic content of the song. Some musicians are much better at this part – even without perfect pitch they can start picking out almost all of the song on the first go. Personally, I’m much slower at this, especially when I started out.

Then take sections of the song and learn every note. For example, I was once trying to learn to play a better jazz blues. I took the recording of “Freddie the Freeloader” from Kind of Blue and transcribed Wynton Kelly’s solo from 0:45 to 2:13. That’s a great solo to transcribe, actually, because you get to play along with Paul Chambers (bass) and Jimmy Cobb (drums) and their swing is so killing on that whole record.

And that’s the thing with transcribing – you are picking up not just the notes, but the rhythm, groove and feel that I mentioned before. You’re picking up on all the thing that sheet music can’t teach you.

Then transcribe more. Learn the difference between Basie swing and Ellington swing. Listen to the play between bass and kick drum in disco music. Listen to where the open strings are on Simon and Garfunkel recordings. Figure out what the hell that voicing is that Chick Corea is using on [insert Chick album here].

Write It Down

Under NO circumstances are you allowed to even glance at any published sheet music during this process. You’ll quickly find that sheet music is a poor representation of music, anyway.

However, that said, the next step is to write down what you’ve transcribed. This part can be particularly difficult – especially on, say, Charlie Parker transcriptions…so don’t start with that. But it gets easier.

Jason Crosby Solo TranscriptionHere’s an example of something I transcribed a few years ago. Jason Crosby plays a great Hammond solo on Susan Tedeschi’s version of Don’t Think Twice. I loved it so much I had to transcribe it and play it myself. Here’s a copy of my transcription.

Of course, you don’t have to write it out in Finale like I did – but it doesn’t hurt to practice those Finale chops. You’ll need those, too, when you get out of college.

Keep It Up

I think any commercial player will agree that learning musical styles by ear is the best way to absorb them into your playing. And I think everyone can all agree that it’s not an easy thing to start to do if you’ve been classically trained and haven’t learn music that way before.

But it’s invaluable. It’ll change your playing. And more importantly, it’s absolutely necessary. It would be nice if, instead, we could just go on tour with a great swing band like our past legends did…but those days are long gone. The best thing we can do is learn the recordings inside and out.

Although – by all means start a band and go on tour making new music. Then write an indie rock musical so I can play it.

(In 20 years.)

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4 Responses to Learning Musical Styles with Transcription

  1. Great advice. I’ve always viewed transcription as a shortcut for applying theory and technique. Whenever I’m not sure what to practice, I transcribe one of my heroes and usually find something to work on in the first 8 bars.

  2. Casey says:

    Great article. Great advice. Great wit. Now, I’m off to transcribe!

  3. Daniel says:

    There is technology that makes it possible to slow down a recording significantly without changing the pitch. Naturally, this makes things like transcription easier. I’m curious. Do you think people should avoid such tools and learn to transcribe at full speed, or would you encourage people to use them, at least when they are getting started?

  4. Jeremy says:

    I personally think that musicians should use this technology to analyze their own playing as opposed to using it as a crutch to lean on. I think it is more beneficial for any musician to approach their first transcription head first with all the frustrations and challenges. This allows room for growth and learning. To depend on today’s “fast-paced,” “get it now” technology for learning a transcription would only handicap a musician’s natural ability. Great Read! Thank You!

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