(Originally published with the Art of Worship, Jan 2016)
About a year ago, I decided to study jazz. I had seen a few of my friends play background music at a restaurant, and realized that learning this genre would allow me to take different kinds of gigs, rather than just really loud rock-and-roll. Plus, I’d be able to play an archtop, and play weird notes. What was there to lose?
It started off terrible; playing over chords sounded like running scales up and down. So I upgraded from scales to arpeggios. Unfortunately, it now sounded like running arpeggios up and down. Not much improvement there.
At the time, I was working on my general classes at IVC (the local community college) and auditioned for the big band. Miraculously, I got in, and was promptly in over my head; my usual four-chord church music didn’t change keys this fast, or include intimidating chords like G7#5b9. But taking a solo was the worst of all; I had no idea how they were supposed to sound like, and had a really flaky knowledge of the underlying fundamentals. This changed when the band’s pianist suggested that I try something called transcription.
Transcription is just a fancy term that means learning a solo/song/phrase note for note, trying to imitate the phrasing exactly, and possibly writing it down. I’d always heard of the term, and thought (pridefully) that it was very unoriginal to steal ideas like that. I also (judgementally) thought it was something only the most obsessed nerds did. I made the excuse (lazily) that reading music is exceptionally difficult for guitarists.
(How do you get a guitarist to stop playing? Put sheet music in front of him!)
Eventually, though, I started learning solos by masterful jazz musicians like Charlie Parker and Wes Montgomery. Learning by ear took so long because the notes flew by so fast. And whenever I’d try to write it all down, it’d be really messy, and sometimes I didn’t know what symbols to use. I ended up looking to transcriptions other people had done. Here’s an example of one I referenced: Wes Montgomery’s version of “Satin Doll,” as transcribed by Steve Khan.
Looks complicated, right? But as time went by, I found myself slowly sounding more and more “jazzy”; I began to pick up on some underlying phrases and ideas. It really demystified the genre for me, and it forced me to use my ear carefully to pick up all the phrasing nuances and quick changes. I also became more comfortable with standard notation. While I am far from mastery – perhaps even competence – it totally changed the way I play. Now, when people hear me play, they quickly recognize my sound/vocabulary as very “jazz-ish.” Many people call the process “picking up the jazz language.”
Of course, you don’t have to transcribe just jazz, or music; this concept applies to all kinds of art forms, languages, professions, sports, skills, and forms of communication. It’ll have quite the positive impact on how you operate (assuming you imitate something/someone good!).
How does transcription relate to our walk with Christ?
I believe that the concept of transcription (or for that matter, picking up any art form or language) parallels the process of discipleship.
The bad news is that we were born into a post-fall world, and have all fallen short of God’s glory by replacing it with our own pride. As a result, our communication with God is cut off; no matter how many good things we know or do, they’re just filthy garments to Him (Isaiah 64:6).
This is further evidenced in scripture; for example, Isaiah 1:17 begins with the phrase “Learn to do good.” Although it’s a very simple statement, it reveals and implies a simple truth threaded throughout the Bible; we simply do not begin life knowing how to do good. Since Adam and Eve’s decision to disobey God, hide from Him, and blame each other (instead of repenting), we are now weighed down by sin.
The good news is found in John 3. Jesus mentions the solution: being “born again” by the Spirit, who helps us hear the voice of God. Continuing His metaphor, as a new Christian “baby,” you don’t know anything about the language; you babble syllables (just like I was babbling scales and arpeggios without knowing their meaning) and cry (just like I was whining about how hard jazz was). But when babies are surrounded by mature people who know the language, they are immersed in it, and slowly begin to pick up key phrases like “Daddy,” “Mommy,” or “hi.” Before long, they’re pretty fluent, and just can’t stop talking! Now, they can continue to learn and grow up.
One other parallel is that in transcription you’ve got to focus your ear. Many guitarists (and musicians in general) get frustrated with their musical growth, because they follow their muscle memory and habits – focusing on just playing things – instead of their ear and the meaning of the notes. Similarly, in discipleship, you’ve got to listen to the Holy Spirit (repent), instead of muscling your way through life with old works and habits.
Just like how transcription is helping me learn the jazz language, discipleship allows us to learn the language of God’s Kingdom. You can do it in a few ways, but there are two specific ones that I’ve learned from the most (in my short 20 years of living): from scripture (Romans 10:17), and from example (1 Corinthians 11:1). In this way, we can stop faking it through our own works and own power, and truly learn what it means to follow Christ.
1) Transcribing from Scripture
One good example of transcribing from scripture is the Lord’s Prayer; If you’ve been around Christianity at all, there’s a pretty solid chance you’ve heard it. It’s the example Jesus gave His disciples for talking to God. It’s easy to check it off as just another memory verse, but I’ve recently begun to understand why Jesus emphasized it.
When I was younger, my nature was to pray mostly for myself (don’t we all?). I’d just ask for new toys, video games, good grades, and that God would “bless the food so it may nourish our bodies” (the usual dinner prayer). But when I began to pray through Matthew 6:9-13 and study it with my pastor, I realized that Jesus’ first – and last – move was acknowledgement of His Father’s nature and His will’s priority.
Pray, then, in this way:
“Our Father who is in heaven,
Hallowed be Your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.
Notice that Jesus mentioned the Kingdom twice! The other things are sandwiched in between (daily needs, interactions with others, and resistance to temptation/sin), because they all depend on God’s nature and will. That’s when I learned that prayer wasn’t requesting things from a genie as much as acknowledging the Father and giving Him priority. I had to learn the importance of putting God’s kingdom first (Matthew 6:33), and I learned it by reading/reciting/meditating on Jesus’ words when discipling the twelve. No wonder it’s so important for us Christians to learn the Kingdom language. In that spiritual kingdom where operate, by definition, the King’s will/word is priority number one.
This works great with scripture in general (the Psalms being especially applicable), by the way, and I think this concept contributes to scriptures’ importance. By copying and internalizing Christ’s words, we begin to be more like Him. Our phrasing, actions, words, and lives begin to parallel.
Transcribing from scripture works especially well when Christians do it together! At my church (Center Church in Irvine, CA) we use call-and-response readings of scripture. Another great way to apply this is studying the Bible together!
2) Transcribing from Example
Transcribing from example is another key way to learn the language of the Kingdom. I was blessed to grow up under some great mentors; one example was my friend Kenzo. When I was in high school, he saw a need/curiosity/desire in us younger kids for scripture, and took us through the book of Romans every Tuesday night.
What really struck me, however, wasn’t his expertise or fluency in Koine Greek, or even his lofty theology; to the contrary, he’d often acknowledge passages that were difficult for him to understand. Yet, instead of making it an excuse for himself to not teach, he opened the floor for discussion and shared what he knew (John 9:25). What I learned was that most of the time, the teacher is also a learner; it’s a shame when we back off from discipleship because we feel unworthy. I’m sure Kenzo would say that he learned something from that study group. And that humility really resonated with me.
After that Bible study finished, I was motivated to follow in his example. I didn’t know everything about scripture, but decided to start teaching a Friday (later moved to Saturday) night Bible study. We celebrated our third year anniversary a few months back (December 2015). In the process, I’ve learned so much about what it looks like to know/apply scripture, engage with humor and honesty, lead people clearly, ask the right questions, share the Gospel, and be present in peoples’ lives.
I should clarify that the point here isn’t to idolize people, as we all fall short. But we should continually see Christ sanctifying and working in other disciples, and learn as much as we can. In this way, we edify other believers while showing spiritual fruit to non-believers. Now that’s teamwork; it’s how the body of Christ was meant to function! We share the “spiritual DNA,” so to speak, from the Holy Spirit to each other.
As Christians, this is how we grow. It can’t really happen any other way! We’ve got to learn from God’s words (Romans 10:17) and follow people as they follow Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1). I pray that as you continue your spiritual/musical journey, that you would pay attention to these sources of vocabulary. Continue to learn the language of the Kingdom – and tuning in to the Holy Spirit – through scripture and example.
One last thing; have you ever heard the quote “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery?” Well, when we imitate and learn the mindsets, mannerisms, and words of Christ, we are continually maturing into our identity: image-bearers of God (Genesis 1:26). I believe that is a very sincere way to worship God!
(All scriptures taken from NASB, using biblegateway.com)