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Why Transcribe So Much?
Why do you transcribe so much music? Isn’t that just stealing? Can’t you write your own stuff?
Think of this way… a jazz player will memorize solos. All musicians practice. Orchestral players memorize famous solo passages and repertoire. So what do composers and arrangers do?
That’s right, we transcribe music by ear. Put it down on paper. If you, don’t you should. Let me explain.
Why Not Just Read Scores?
The goal of composing for large ensembles like this, is to get the sound that’s inside your head down on paper so it can be performed.
You can go a long way with studying scores, and you need to do it, but it’s not enough.
First reason is availability. Most modern scores are simply not published, or if they are, it’s probably something that everyone already knows anyway. What if you want to learn how an unpublished composer puts things together?
Second is you need to really win the knowledge for yourself. It’s sort of like trying to play a jazz solo from written music. Music is not the notation, the music is the sound. If you just snatch out lines, harmonies, and voicings from other scores, it won’t sound right when you go to use it. The voice leading won’t be right, the orchestration won’t be consistent.
The best way is to transcribe and keep doing it, all the time. It’s practicing. Want to get even better? Transcribe something by ear, and then check the score afterward to see how close you got.
The more you do it, the easier writing and arranging gets, because now all these sounds are in your head. They’re part of you.
OK, Strings Are Fun Too
Here’s a little preview of a new project for Lauren.Its-Time-Shout
Writing for strings is pretty damn cool too, given their extreme range.
I’m doing two orchestrations for this. One for the studio, where we can overdub in woodwind parts and not have to deal with instrument changes. A second for live performance, where physical reality constrains the orchestration.
The second one is a lot harder given that I need to put the strings somewhere. Dropping them entirely would destroy the charm and grandeur of the piece, so this is a fun puzzle to solve.
For the live version, I’m adapting these soaring lines into the saxophones and rhythm. I’m undecided though, maybe it will be better replacing the saxophone with a piccolo, 2 flutes, and two clarinets to capture all these high notes.
You might notice I have about four or five projects and post threads going on at the same time. That’s pretty much how I work… inspiration can’t be scheduled!
Reversing the band adaptation (1)
Since we have a “young band” score to start with, the next step to restoring the full brilliance of the orchestral score, is finding the differences between the two and seeing if there is any pattern to them. We can do this with visual inspection and a cursory listening, and then a more detailed listen.
Rather obvious is the orchestration. No strings, but we do have the saxophone family. I’m also reasonably sure there is no baritone (a “small tuba”), alto clarinet (seriously, how many bands really have these?), and probably the bass clarinet. When writing the band score, John had to find out where to put the string parts… either omit them, or mimic them in the winds, saxophones, percussion, or combinations thereof. He also had find “something to do” for the other instruments even if the color is not needed.
Don’t forget that this was conceived as a vehicle for Whitney, who has enough vocal firepower to project over an entire orchestra. This adaptation doubles the melody everywhere, so, it looks like it’s intended for use without vocalist. Or, a student vocalist who needs the melody doubling to counteract any limitations in technique.
Most, if not all, of this melody doubling is unnecessary. The places where John does so in the original are then color choices. The excess doubling then detracts from the orchestral colors. The jazz-influenced middle section (11-18), is particularly apt here. The soft string, horn. and wind colors are just harmony and countermelody, which lets Whitney use a softer, more intimate tone. This also sets up the contrast for the dramatic “B” section to follow.
Second, concert bands usually have multiple people on a single part, which is rarely true for wind ensemble, jazz bands, and orchestras. So we have to be mindful that the band version is written for that, and adjust backwards accordingly. A unison line on 8 flutes sounds very different than two flutes in octaves.
The main thing with student editions is instrument ranges, as the extreme ends of each instrument are more difficult. We put up with all that difficultly (French horn players can relate here) since they also have the most personality and interesting colors.
Examples: the flute never goes higher than a Db, which is clearly to avoid the complicated altissimo fingerings. But the flute has another usable octave on top of that. Similarly, the top fifth of the oboe, bottom fifth of the bassoon, are missing. The clarinet is missing both the top and bottom octaves due to its wide range.
Lines are either moved around to other instruments to cover the range where it matters, changed octaves, reharmonized into an easier range. That’s just the woodwinds; it goes on for every other instrument. The main point is this is lot of color we need to restore.
Fourth, rhythmic changes and simplifications. The main snare pattern is offset by a sixteenth-note to make it easier to play and for the band to come in correctly. Trumpets replace 32nd notes with sixteenth to avoid double-tonguing. Flurries of 32nd notes on the winds are reduced to glissandos, which can be faked. We can restore all of these those and let the players figure it out.
It’s been a busy summer actually playing music instead of writing about it. As we ease back into winter, I’ll be doing a lot more posting.
Also, I finally have a business name for all my music services: No Rehab Music.
Why the name? Dunno. I’m messed up in many ways, and probably would fail out rehab.
A month or two after coming up with the name, it dawned on me that’s it’s also a tribute to one of my favorite singers. Totally unconscious decision, until I spent a semi-lucid evening listening to the amazing breakout Frank.
RIP Amy. You still are influencing generations of singers and writers.
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.
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
- (Optional if difficult) Run fingerings at half-tempo, with no sound
- (Optional if difficult) Run fingerings at full-tempo, with no sound
Ramping Up To Target Speed
- (Optional) Play the music at half-tempo, with sound
- 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.
- 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.
- If you fail twice in a row, go back to step 1, but not optional this time.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Take your goal tempo and divide it in half. OK, ♩=160, we start at ♩=80. Set your metronome there.
- 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.
- Trial-run the fingerings at the candidate tempo. Same as #2, just at the real tempo.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.