Category Archives: general

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.

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.

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.


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.

<Music Goes Here>

Happy 2021!

Oh, right. Excuse me. This year certainly will be terrible for musicians.

You telling me people still blog? People read blogs? Hasn’t social media made long-form writing obsolete? For that matter, any writing longer than a sentence or two?

In the words of the great Phil Collins… I don’t care anymore.

Social media is bad for me, and it’s bad for you, too.

Anyway, I’m stuck at home just like all of you, figuring out what to do musically. Well, this is something… and I do have a few things I’ve been sitting on for years that might be worth sharing.


Right off the bat, I’m to going to plug my favorite music blog – Bret Pimental, woodwinds. His writing is consistently the most useful content on woodwinds (in fact, music performance) I’ve ever encountered. In a deceptively simple and short amount of text, he manages to pack in an enormous amount of wisdom. (Seriously, buy his book, even if you already know how to play. It’s a great gift.)

It’s also the only music blog I follow. I’m not even going to begin to pretend I can push out the excellent content that Bret consistently does. But I’m inspired to give it a go.