Putting It Together

I wish I had understood early on the value of getting away from notes on paper and getting everything in my head. During my days in music school, I memorized scales up the wazoo, but the actual applications that scales are intended to serve were things I consigned to paper. I remained glued to my Real Book, and to solo transcriptions such as the Charlie Parker Omnibook. Those are fabulous tools, but they’re just a means to the end. The goal is to download as much as possible of what they contain into one’s head and fingers, moving the music from the paper to the player. I didn’t make that connection for quite a while. Consequently, I had the ability to play scales and scale patterns at lightning speed, but I was lost when it came to actually making music out of them.

However, once I started memorizing a few of those Omnibook solos, something interesting happened. Suddenly my fingers began to find their way through the music. I began to develop my inner ear, and to connect it with my instrument in a very organic way. I worked mainly on blues and “Rhythm” changes–and the work paid off. The next step–actually transcribing a few solos myself, starting with a simple Wayne Shorter solo and moving on to Cannonball Adderley–provided even bigger dividends. The process of listening analytically, laboring over challenging musical passages, opened up my ears still more. I haven”t done a lot of transcribing, but I can vouch for its value in developing as an improvisor.

I definitely plan to sit down and transcribe a few more solos soon, and I’ve got just the tool to help me: a program called SlowGold. Available as an Internet download, it allows the transcriptionist to slow music down without changing its pitch, to the point where even very fast, complex passages, a la Michael Brecker, become accessible for analysis and memorization. You can select short passages and loop them, so you can hear them over and over at the tempo of your choice. You can also change the key to whatever you please. Ah, the wonders of digital technology!

To be honest, I haven’t really worked with this great resource yet, but it’s on the slate for 2008. The process for me involves analying short sections of a solo and writing them down. But the goal is always memorization.

Until you’ve memorized a solo, it’s not really yours–but once you’ve memorized it, really got it down cold, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how it begins to leak out into your playing in creative bits and pieces. You’re developing your inner ear–and as you do, your technique will follow. You’ve still got to spend plenty of time doing technical studies, but now you’re giving a focus to those scales, arpeggios, digital patterns, and licks. As you continue to hang actual musical flesh on your technical skeleton, you”ll love how the ideas begin to flow, and how your chops allow you to execute what you hear in your head fluidly and convincingly.

By the way, if you’re concerned that you’ll sound like a Phil Woods or a Charlie Parker clone if you memorize those players’ solos, don’t worry about it. In the first place, would it honestly be such a terrible thing to sound like Phil? If you ever do, count yourself very, very blessed–and congratulations! In the second place, if you want to find your own voice, trust me, you will, and memorizing solos is probably the shortest route to doing so. Learning from the giants doesn’t mean you become those giants. You’re simply embracing a wise, extremely practical tradition of jazz: going through others in order to arrive at yourself.

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