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Arranging and Transcribing - by Mark Stefani
One of the most common questions posed to me over my twenty-six years of music instruction is: "What can I do to significantly improve my playing on a daily basis?" This is, without a doubt, a very important issue for the evolving musician. Time, or the lack of it, makes your decision about "what" to practice on a regular basis a critical one.

Before I elaborate on the specifics of this subject, let me briefly describe what criteria I use for determining why a particular area of study might be considerably more valuable than another.

Learning music is a complicated process, involving ideally all of the student's skills simultaneously. The ear, the intellect, visual awareness, and physical technique all should blend in perfect harmony during the course of learning or performing. But that, unfortunately, is not always the case. Players develop certain "comfort zones" that are usually linked directly to their possession or lack of the above-mentioned skills. It's extremely common, for instance, for a guitarist to learn music strictly by ear, often without a clue as to what is going on theoretically, or how that music might appear in standard notation. Guitarists are also traditionally famous for over-accenting their technique, especially speed, without really listening or paying attention to whether something truly sounds good or not. These players possess major "gap" areas, simply because they don't address the use of all skills when they set about to learn or play something.

The bottom line is that any musical pursuit that doesn't involve all skill levels and senses is an "inferior" one. I'm not saying that those endeavors are without some merit, but to isolate a skill area without involving the others is just an unrealistic way to deal with musical growth. And, from what I've seen, players have an extremely difficult time applying knowledge that's been learned in this manner. Now, what are some "superior" pursuits?

Arranging and transcribing are two of the best, if not the best ways of guaranteeing your musical evolution on a consistent, daily basis. Let's define these areas, since each is quite broad.

Any time that you write a melody, chord progression, or bass line, you are arranging musical elements to suit what you hear. The arrangement, or composition, can be for group or solo guitar. Other examples might include chord-melody renditions of popular standards, rhythm guitar parts, horn parts, string parts, solos, etc.

Transcribing is the art of learning music by ear at first, then tackling the process of "breaking-down" the rhythm and writing/scoring the project. Typical subjects might be instrumental solos, melodies, bass lines, or chord progressions from sources of your choice.

Successful arranging and transcribing involves the use of all of your musical skills at the same time, so though it may be frustrating and challenging, the rewards easily justify the effort. And as you experience considerable growth with regards to your skill levels, the "frosting on the cake" is that your musical vocabulary will continue to grow with each and every project! So, all in all, your knowledge in general will keep evolving on a daily basis.

It's not that important, in many cases, how much you practice but "what" you practice. If you arrange and transcribe each day, you'll never look back. Good luck!

Mark Stefani is a guitarist, teacher, writer, and founder of Vision Music, an educational website offering over 600 pages of FREE learning resources, including guitar lessons by top professionals, jam tracks, articles, songs, sheet music, and more. Visit:

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