George Philippopoulos

On the art of transcription: a conversation with BA Jazz graduate George Philippopoulos.

How did all the universally acknowledged master musicians in the history of jazz, from Lester Young and Miles Davis to Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday learn to play? In a world before music conservatoires and jazz teachers, they painstakingly transcribed solos by their favourite players from records and tried to work out what was going on.

Although jazz education has become more formalised since then, jazz is still a fundamentally oral tradition, and many concepts and ideas are too subtle to pass on in books and lectures – to learn them, it’s important to work in the same way the old masters did, by transcription and immersive listening.

Recognising its significance, our students spend time improving their skills in transcription and it forms an integral component of our BA (Hons) in Music (Jazz) degree programme.

Here, we caught up with jazz graduate and Greek guitarist George Philippopoulos to find out more about the intricate ‘art of transcription’. In this article, George provides some advice on his approach to transcribing some of the greatest ever recorded jazz solos alongside some top tips for those looking to develop their skills in this area.

Why is transcription so important?

Transcription is one of the principal factors which contributes towards a musician’s learning. It is a way to gain instant access to the vocabulary of the musical genre in which a musician is immersed within.

You can simultaneously practise your technique and time feel, whilst learning about the different geometries and harmonies which are imprinted on the improvisation of each musician.

How did your time spent studying at Leeds Conservatoire improve your ability to transcribe?

I consider myself extremely fortunate to have been taught by some of the best tutors around who guided me through constant interaction and encouragement.

Since our very first week at Leeds Conservatoire, we had to learn Chet Baker’s solo in ‘It Could Happen to You’. All teachers, and especially my mentor, Jiannis Pavlidis, kept stressing the importance of transcription and how to try and get the most out of every solo that I transcribed. During my studies at Leeds Conservatoire the way I understand music has broadened significantly and as such how to do and analyze a transcription.

How do you identify potential solos to transcribe?

Anything with a different approach to what I would normally play in a piece can potentially be a future transcription, meaning that the options are infinite.

Which areas (e.g. melody / rhythm / technique / harmony) do you find easiest / hardest when working on a transcription?

The melody, the harmony, and the rhythm are the fundamentals of music. After you establish the melody and the harmony, you need to show diligence to the rhythm and the articulation. Many times we play the same notes in a transcription, but unless we pay attention to all of the above, it will not sound right.

How important is being able to sing a solo for the purposes of transcription, prior to using your instrument?

I remember being constantly told during my studies at Leeds Conservatoire that “If you can sing it, you can play it”. Being able to sing a melody means that sooner or later what you have in mind can be played on your instrument. A musical instrument is after all the means of expression for what is in our heads – in terms of our thoughts and feelings.

Do you use technology to slow down the recording whilst maintaining the pitch?

I use the ‘Amazing Slow Downer’ app which is necessary for practice or the ascertainment of the melodic line, etc. For the more difficult parts, I begin at the speed where I can play the part correctly and the articulation is correct before gradually raising the speed until it reaches the original tempo.

To what extent do you need a solid understanding of harmonic language prior to attempting a transcription?

If you wish to gain as much as possible from a transcription it would be ideal to have integrated knowledge of the harmony, along with the musical scales and the arpeggios in order to be able to analyze and truly comprehend what each musician does on the solo each time.

Does the process end once you’ve transcribed the solo? If not, what analysis do you do afterwards?

No, it certainly does not end. The important part is where you analyze the phrases and start making variations in order to be able to use them in your own playing, yet not in the sense of copying them as much as using the algorithm behind them.

What advice would you give to someone who is new to transcription? Which guitar solo would you recommend an individual starts with?

Transcribe the solos you are really into. Also, make smart choices by opting for pieces that are in line with your experience and skills in this area. Then, try to take on something more challenging each time you do a subsequent transcription.

The first that came to my mind is Grant Green’s solo on Cool Blues.

Could you briefly tell us a little bit about your career to date?

It has been an absolutely amazing musical journey so far! Upon my return to Greece, I focused on teaching guitar lessons both privately and online covering different kinds of music, like Jazz, Gypsy Jazz, Fusion and Blues to mention just a few, as well as preparing students for study at university or conservatoire level. Aside from that, though, I also perform live with my various bands, each of which has a different music style that corresponds to the kinds of music I teach.

What’s coming up next for you in terms of projects?

I plan to keep teaching and performing live with my bands. I do, however, have an upcoming project in collaboration with some very talented musicians where we combine the sound of Jazz, Progressive Rock, Fusion and Blues, with some original tunes of ours. This has taken a lot of patience and hard work, but I’m sure the result will be rewarding. I’m also planning on uploading more videos on my YouTube Channel.

Discover more about our BA (Hons) in Music (Jazz) programme

Our Jazz faculty has developed a range of instrument specific resources to help prepare individuals for conservatoire study. Check out our Jazz Preparation Pack for Transcription here

Follow George on YouTube here

Find out more about what our successful graduates have been up to in our Alumni Profiles

Are you a Leeds Conservatoire graduate? Reconnect with us here

RT @LeedsDrama: Great to be in such great company! Thanks for your support😁
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