Transcribing a Big Band Chart

(ed: originally January 2009. Comments for 2021 follow.

At the time of writing this, John’s chart wasn’t published, as pretty much nothing was back then then. Happily, over the years John has published many of his excellent arrangement. Go buy them and support music, directly to the creator if you can.

If you compare scores, you’ll see I came pretty damn close. But the reality is without access to unmixed recordings, you’ll never get every single note in every single inner part. There are things you simply can’t hear, and too many ways to voice things that sound identical. You have to settle with something that gives the sound and effect of voicing. If a tree falls in the woods, and all that. I’ve learned over the years the point is the sound, not the notes.

That said, I’ve gotten a lot better and faster in the 10+ years of doing this. Wait till you see my Thad Jones and Kenny Wheeler score and analysis!

I’m tempted to rewrite all of this, but I’ll restrict it to minor clarifications.)

Part I: Introduction

Musician friends! I thought some of you might be interested in seeing a big band chart put together in real-time for a working band. Though I do my own arrangements, I also like to transcribe tunes from other arrangers. Not only do I get a lesson in their writing style that you just can’t get from looking at scores, I also get a good chart that nobody else has. Good vocal tunes are hard to find. None are published.

I find transcribing large ensemble tunes by ear is a totally different ballgame than doing small group charts. You really have to know all your voicings, and be able to identify them by ear. 4-part block, 5-part drop-2 and 4, basic ensemble, triads with melody 8vb, clusters, etc. There’s just no way to pick out every single instrument’s line in the mix.

OK, the chart. It is I Love Being Here With You arranged by incredible John Clayton, Jr., and sung by Queen Latifah. I actually started work on this in October, but I only spent an evening or two on it, and it’s been idle ever since. You are witnessing me transcribe it in real time.

The first step, obviously, is to listen to it a bunch of times and love it. So that’s what we’ll do. Go ahead, put it on your iPod (ed: wow, so 2009) and listen!

I chose this tune, thanks to our trumpet player Peter, who is a great scout for new tunes. It’s a good fit for our band. It’s also a style that our singer Britt will nail to the wall. Finally, I like it. It’s John Clayton, and has a ton of interesting stuff in it that I want to see how it works. So, rule #1: write for the band you have now. Rule #2: you gotta like it.

Next up: the tools I use, and the rough sketch.

I’m back?

Apologies for the delay, to all my zero readers. Just rummaged through my defunct Facebook page for some old content which I’ll be releasing soon.

LFCC Progress

It’s been about a month since I started LFCC, and I’m still only part way through phase 1 – which is interval-based diatonic scales with directional changes. I’m nearing completion of just the first page, and in major only. That’s 14 exercises x 12 major keys, going from q=80 up to at least q=160, often up to q=200. It would be a bit faster if I stopped at 160.

The rest of just phase one is the above in minor (1 more month) and then both in 4ths, 5ths, 6ths, 7ths, and octaves. Each interval group is 4 exercises, so this roughly 5 months at the current pace.

Adam suggests 6 keys per week (3 in major and minor) and says “in one direction”… which is unclear. Is that one exercise (up, down, up/down, down/up) or all four?

In order of difficulty, I would say they are:

  • #1 – diatonic scale (12345678)
  • #14 – 4 note segments, up/down (1234 5432 3…)
  • #18 – 4 note segments, down/up (4321 2345 6…)
  • #8 – 4 note segments, up (1234 2345…)
  • #10 – 4 note segments, down (4321 5432…)
  • #4, #22 (dup) – thirds up (1324 3546..)
  • #26 – thirds up/down (1342 3564…)
  • #26 – thirds down/up (3124 5346…)
  • #24 – thirds down (3142 5364…)

Note that due to the direction changes, some of the “thirds” exercises are mixtures of thirds and seconds (22, 26, 28), while others are thirds and fourths (24).

I’m not sticking to 6 keys per week at the moment, but rather going as quickly as possible. For the easy keys, I can often knock off 6 keys (e.g., FCGDAE) for one or two exercises in a single session. For the harder keys, 2 exercises (e.g, Db/F#) in one key is more like it.

Some Critique

I have to guess exactly what phase each exercise is in, rather it being explicit. Each exercise should be marked with a phase number. I believe Phase 1 is pages 1-3, measures 1-67.

The log sheets are organized one page per exercise, iterating over 12 keys. I think it’s better to have one key per key, with only 2-4 exercises on it. After doing an exercise in one key, it’s easier to stay in that key for a while than jump around.

Similarly, I think it’s easier to do all the majors first, and then the minors; or, pair the majors with their relative minors (C major with A minor) as they share much of same notes. The former is more challenging since it gets into F# and B much faster, but it’s helping break bad habits faster.

Don’t Learn It Wrong (IV)

Optimizing The Loop

After you have done this a few times, it should become clear what mistakes you make, and if they fall into a rough category. Jot these down as they occur to you, and return to playing; don’t bother trying to write it nicely. Over time, patterns will emerge.

These will all be specific to you. As an example, here is my analysis:

  1. Don’t really “get” the whole exercise just yet. Countermeasure: back off tempo a few notches or play half tempo, while listening carefully.
  2. Flubbing a finger pattern. Countermeasure: identify and log the pattern, possible cause and solution. Before each repetition, reflect, and think of that pattern before starting again.
  3. Losing focus. This is a big one for me, that I had to break it down further.
    1. Visual distraction – metronome flashing, movement or stuff in the background. Countermeasure: stay more present, close eyes, change location if needed.
    2. Wandering mind – solving problems while playing; thinking too hard about a fingering or countermeasure while playing, instead of listening.
  4. Too long break between repetitions – immediate muscle memory has faded.
  5. Too short break between repetitions – no chance to reflect and absorb the previous results.
  6. Not listening enough – visualizing finger patterns, notation, intervals, keys, etc., rather than letting your ear lead you.
  7. Micro-focus – at faster tempo, thinking of each note individually becomes counterproductive. Think of the sounds or accents in larger increments.
  8. Regressing badly, Tired – If suddenly everything is going wrong, move to a different exercise or quit the session. No shame, you can always come back to it. Don’t Learn It Wrong!

Ronnie Cuber, “Moanin'”

Here’s one the first solo transcriptions I did when I got back into music after college. I started corresponding with Chuck helping him with some arranging chops, before he left Seattle to go study with Mike Abene at MSM. We both fed each other lots of music for a few years. His solo transcription chops are top-notice, while I focused on ensembles.

This transcription has been floating out there forever, it’s about time to take credit for it.

moanin

I’m not quite happy with the accuracy of this as it stands, in the intervening 18 years or so, my ear has gotten a lot better. But it’s mostly there.

Badass.

Suffice to say, I cannot play this. Chuck could. Altissimo eludes me on bari where it doesn’t on alto.

Don’t Learn It Wrong (III)

Now the real fun begins. We’ve figured out what to play where to start. You can probably guess how to get it up to target tempo. Let’s make that sprout grow!

The “DLIW” Main Loop

Without looking at the music, play it twice in a row perfectly before increasing tempo.

What follows may look overly detailed and pedantic, but it is a very efficient and fast in practice. I dare say it gets fun, after you see quick progress.

Get A Good Foundation

  1. (Optional if difficult) Run fingerings at half-tempo, with no sound
  2. (Optional if difficult) Run fingerings at full-tempo, with no sound

Ramping Up To Target Speed

  1. (Optional) Play the music at half-tempo, with sound
  2. Play the music perfectly twice – stopping as soon as you make a single error. You can play it more than twice, but if you make a mistake, you still have to do twice again.
  3. If you play perfectly twice, increase the tempo. Depending on how you comfortable it felt, or how fast it is – this might be 10bpm, sometimes less. I tend to jump 10+ if it was easy, and use the next metronome mark if not.
  4. If you fail twice in a row, go back to step 1, but not optional this time.
  5. If the whole thing is a mess and you don’t get it after 2 or 3 tries, reduce speed to 75% and start over.
  6. Go past your your target tempo. Usually, the next increment isn’t too hard. If you feel like exploring what your upper bound is, keep repeating until you fail. It can be tempting to keep working on these, but really just quit while you’re ahead.
  7. Finish decisively. If you explored your upper limit, the last few might feel little shaky. Go back to your target tempo or just above it, play it twice, and call it success.

There! You’re done! If you log or record your playing, you’ll find the number of times you played it correctly significantly outnumbers the times you haven’t.

Extra Hints & Tips

  • At any time, play it at half-tempo to refresh it in your head. This doesn’t count as a failure, but it also doesn’t count as doing it correct twice in a row.
  • You can stop playing before making a mistake, it is neither success or failure, as above. You can do this as many times as needed. My mind sometimes wanders, and this is helpful to get it back on track.
  • This works best when you don’t look at the music while playing. Memorize it enough to start, only looking when not playing. This develops the mind’s eye and ear and frees you from visual crutches.
  • Feel free to jump tempos by more than the standard amount, if any are just too easy. After two or three tries at a slow tempo, sometimes things just “click” and you can jump quite a bit.
  • As tempos get higher (say, around 170) it helps to start it at half-tempo every time.
  • If you look at the metronome, aim to do it twice without. We need to use our ear more than our eyes.
  • Don’t rush. Take time to reflect on the success or failure. Let it sink it, but don’t overthink it. Identify one thing that might be holding you back, but move on.

If all went well, your sprout now is a hardy plant in full bloom.

Don’t Learn It Wrong (II)

Now that we have the correct mindset for learning, let’s describe one specific way of Not Learning Things Wrong.

As I worked through the first LFCC exercises that were challenging (which were downward thirds in keys like F♯ and B major) and working them up slowly, I started optimizing the process to work through them quicker. It even started to be a bit of game after a while. To my surprise, not only did this save time by skipping certain things, it actually made progress faster because I made less errors going forward.

The One Commandment

Thou shalt stop immediately after a mistake. Do not power thorough the rest of the exercise! Just stop, and start again. This applies throughout this entire process. This is, essentially all you need to know. Everything hereafter is just working within that constraint.

Getting Started

  1. Decide what you’re working on. In LFCC, is it decided for you – in this phase, each exercise is a two bar pattern of diatonic notes in various permutations. The goal is ♩=160. But if you’re learning something, you’ll have to choose what subset to work with first.
  2. Decide what you’re not working on. In my case, I need the technique to be clear, but I’m not working on tone, dynamics, or expressiveness. That doesn’t mean play horribly, just don’t pay attention to what’s not on the table.

Find Your Baseline Tempo

Next is to find the fastest comfortable tempo you can start at. Don’t just start at the target tempo and work your way back, remember, that only makes you start off with a weed. But also don’t start at some too-slow tempo, you’ll just waste time and bore yourself.

Here’s one way to do it, and I admit this might be a too detailed and systematic. The important part is start either where you are reasonably sure you can do it, or the midpoint if unsure.

  1. Take your goal tempo and divide it in half. OK, ♩=160, we start at ♩=80. Set your metronome there.
  2. If it’s really tricky, trial-run just the fingerings at half-tempo. Leave the metronome set at the candidate tempo. Don’t blow into the horn yet. If the exercise is eighth notes, then run the exercise as if they were quarter notes. If your phrase has multiple note values, use the smallest one for each, regardless of the value. Aim for the cleanest possible move that you’re comfortable with, pay attention to how your fingers feel. This way, you can hear any clunking and blipping that might be masked by playing.
  3. Trial-run the fingerings at the candidate tempo. Same as #2, just at the real tempo.
  4. Play it at the candidate tempo. As soon as you make a mistake, stop. You only get one chance at this part of the game.
  5. If you played it twice correctly in a row, change the tempo halfway between the candidate and target, in this case: 80+((160-80)/2) = 120. Repeat until you find your upper failure limit. That is the tempo where you make your first mistake.
  6. When you fail, play at 75% the speed, (80*3)/4 = 60. Repeat until you find your lower limit.

For the curious, we are binary searching to find the best starting tempo while minimizing mistakes.

Next up, working that exercise up to speed.

Don’t Learn It Wrong (I)

DLIW” is the working title of how I’m attacking each exercise in a more systematic way.

The concept here is unsurprisingly… don’t learn it wrong in the first place. And the way to do this, is to play it correctly more times correctly than not. Many, many times.

What do we usually do with ad-hoc practice? Play it over and over until you get it correct, right? But all we’ve accomplished is learning it wrong – we’ve screwed up 50 times and done it right twice.

Those aren’t very good odds for performing it well.

I realize this is old news to all the real musicians in the world — “perfect practice makes perfect”. But for the life of me, I can’t recall ever being specifically instructed or reading how to really do this. So we’re left to figure how practice perfectly, and it if we can’t figure that out, well, now we’re stuck.

Simply saying “play it slower”, while true, isn’t enough. What if I can’t play it at q=40, and my lip can’t hold out the notes that long – how much slower can I go? At that point we have to explore alternate ways.

How to think of it

I think as like a growing a small plant. Call it “weed theory” of practicing.

You start with a tiny, fragile sprout. Each time you play it perfectly, at any tempo, that nice little sprout grows a little bigger. Each time you play it imperfectly, it dies a little bit.

Because of its frail initial state, it doesn’t take much to kill it. Worse, once you do kill it, a weed grows in its place. Just like the sprout, every time you play it badly, the weed grows. Now you have two problems! First, stop making the weed grow (“when you’re in a hole stop digging”). Then, kill it – play it perfectly many times. And even then you only get the sprout back.

That’s a lot of work to end up where you started.

Putting it into practice

With this mindset, now we can evaluate every action against both the short term result (did I play it right?) and the desired long-term result (am I learning it right?). After all, playing it right means nothing if you don’t learn it right.

This was a revelation, and it made the work both more enjoyable and more efficient at the same time! Less head-banging on hard stuff. Suddenly, progress through even difficult exercises took half as long as they did, if not more.

As I write this now, I realize it even applies to performance.

It’s now obvious after sight-reading something, there is a limited window of time before we ingrain bad habits. The longer we wait, the harder it is to fix. Now we have a concrete idea of what to work on next, and why.

Maybe this is why all the good players I know tend to take pictures of even moderately-difficult charts on the bandstand. I always wondered why they did this. Surely the pieces was easier for them than it was me, and I didn’t have much trouble. The difference was they were perfecting it, and I would get it 95% right. They were solving their technique problems long-term by preventing bugs from creeping in, and I wasn’t. Maybe that’s why they’re so much better than me! Huh, funny that.

We’ll get in to the specifics, next.

Phase 1 – Horizontal Scales

I lied earlier. There really was no Phase 0, I just thought of it as such to figure out where the baseline. Phase 1 is learning all major and melodic minor scales at q=160. Embarrassingly, this is likely the first time I’ve drilled scales with a metronome.

Despite that, this went quickly, completing nearly all of the major scales at 160, except for the quickly-corrected flubs in Eb and E, described previously. Minor required starting at 130 and drilled up to 160 quickly. Again, not so bad.

img20210130_20070158

Since there more more interesting exercises were in later phases. I decided to move on and revisiting these tempo later, rather than push each one to their upper limit.

A few things learned:

  1. Working chromatically upwards through the keys isn’t that great. It’s better to move through the circle of fifths (C, G, D, A, E, etc.), starting in a comfortable key like F or C. This way the notes are mostly the same as the previous.
  2. If you haven’t worked through all your scales yet, this might take a while. Otherwise, it’s worth combining Phase 1 and phase 2 together.
  3. Since these was fairly easy, it was clear that I didn’t have a game plan how to fix any problems should serious ones show up. In fact, I wasn’t really sure I did all that wonderful in the first place. A few of them I did OK at 160 but didn’t feel perfect.

These weren’t that obvious at the time, but become apparent in the next week or two. I’ll have plenty more to say about these in upcoming posts.

Of Honesty & Pills

Christopher Still:

My first step was to buy a decent recording device. I then rearranged my schedule to include regular practice sessions. Midnight until 3am was the only time I was free, so I also had to find a place to practice that wasn’t my apartment building. Finally, I found a practice buddy who shared similar goals.

I wasn’t sure how to reevaluate my entire way of playing without a teacher, but I wound up creating a great plan–I bought a recording of orchestral excerpts played by Phil Smith (former Principal Trumpet of the New York Philharmonic). It included brilliant commentary and stellar examples of all the audition repertoire I had been struggling with. More importantly, it represented a style that was widely accepted as the industry standard.

I gave myself the following challenge: I would record myself playing every excerpt on the album until I matched Phil Smith. I would emulate Phil Smith in every wayIf it didn’t match, I had to figure out why and record it again. This was not an easy goal, and I worked towards it for years.

Now that’s dedication.

BTW, he’s 2nd trumpet in the LA Philharmonic.

Chris and I started at Crane at the same time. We used to share the long drive from Long Island up to Potsdam, often singing and air-instrumenting to The Cure and Yes. He was a seriously good player back then, and I wasn’t, though we both did play in the top big band.

If you want to take it to the next level as a professional, check out his program. Someday, I may be ready to take that particular honesty pill; right now I have a few years of neglect to catch up on.