Piano players tend to start off by learning to read simple songs and play them. Then we are handed more challenging music as our teachers see fit. We read that too. And that is a good way to learn. But being handed the music that has already been written down will only take you so far as a musician. Which is fine too. But for me, the real fun comes when you hear something that you just gotta know what they played, and figuring it out for yourself. This can be done on paper with notation, or just 4 bars at a time as you memorize. All the professionals I know do this on some level.
One of the first transcriptions I did was a jazz piece played by Dave McKenna. Dave McKenna was famous for his walking bass lines and sounding like he had 3 hands all the time. I think the tune I did was called “Yesterdays”. Not “Yesterday” by the Beatles. “Yesterdays” is a jazz standard and it was very difficult for me to hear what he was playing. But I worked at it and wrote out every note I thought I was hearing and got to work. Special thanks to my incredible teacher Lori Mechem for pointing me in that direction. Lori and her husband Roger Spencer now own their own jazz school here in Nashville called “Nashville Jazz Workshop”. She was one of those special teachers I really needed as a young man. She taught me how to transcribe and the value of it.
Side note: I took a handful of lessons from a talented piano player here in Nashville named Matt Rollings. He was doing sessions a lot but he squeezed in a few lessons for us road guys when he could. I remember going to his house one day for a lesson and he was working on a transcription he had written out. I don’t remember what it was but it was “Back Home in Indiana” changes in Gb. And it was fast. Seeing what he was working on just confirmed once again…. This is how you get better.
The process of writing out that first transcription was tedious but well worth it. I have learned other solos without writing them out which is easier in some ways. But then I can’t go back and read them down and I think I forget some of the cool stuff I had figured out.
I have transcriptions I’ve done of Oscar Peterson, Dave McKenna, Wynton Kelly, Monty Alexander, Gene Harris, McCoy Tyner and more. I also have some country transcriptions of Matt Rollings, John Jorgenson (gtr player) and some that I don’t know who played it but it was cool.
Each transcription stretched me and made me a better player. I do have some transcriptions that I actually just purchased… already written out for me. I have an Art Tatum one I’m working on now. I have some Benny Green ones. Dr. John. Professor Longhair. Monty Alexander and McCoy Tyner. There is something lost when I have it handed to me. But sometimes, for time’s sake, it’s better than nothing.
It’s important to play right along with the recording when you are able. Get every nuance as close as possible to the original.
I take it a step further because this is the fun part. Grab an idea from the transcription and change it! Make it into something of your very own. Try it in different keys. See how it feels. Maybe you can unlock what the player was really thinking along the way.
I remember swearing off any more scales at one point. I had had enough of scales. I stopped practicing them and instead just did transcriptions. I’m pretty sure I got better in most ways. I was more creative. I had great ideas. But then I got to where I could not pull them off like I wanted to because I had neglected my technique so much. This may not be the case for everyone. But for me, I really need to do both. I have since learned new ways to practice scales while keeping it very interesting and I’ll share that another day. But being able to play something new that I transcribed myself may be the greatest joy I ever get to feel.
Obviously, we don't know everything. But we do tend to think differently. Here are some of my thoughts on piano and maybe some on life. I play piano for Tracy Lawrence, produce new artists, write and practice piano.