Friday, December 5, 2014

Q&A with Nick DiSebastian, Music Transcriber

Last year I worked with professional music transcriber Nick DiSebastian to have him notate all 18 tracks on The Etcetera String Band's out of print Bonne Humeur album of early Caribbean dance music. Nick is a Berklee College of Music grad and is currently on tour as the bassist for the band Town Mountain.  I have also taken a couple Skype lessons from him and one impromptu in-person lesson when his band came into town.  I thought it might be fun to do a QandA with Nick on the topic of transcribing music.   

Describe your musical background and any current music projects.

I started playing the guitar when I was 10. I loved to play rock and soon got into jazz. In high school I played guitar in the jazz band, started playing the bass in the orchestra and sang in the choir. I also played in a jam band. I went to college for Music Education. While in my late teens I attended a bluegrass festival and fell in love with the sound and culture. I soon picked up the mandolin and started playing guitar in a local band. Seeing young people playing on stage at festivals made me decide to transfer to studying performance as opposed to education. I began studying at Berklee College of Music where I learned much more about theory and ear training and was surrounded by inspiration. After graduating I continued to work as a guitarist accompanying vocal classes at Berklee and gigging around Boston. From Boston I moved to Nashville where I began playing with various local and touring bands. In 2013 I started my transcription business. I currently tour full time with the band Town Mountain as the bassist along with teaching private lessons and staying very active with transcribing. Guitar is still my main instrument and the quest of learning will never end. When I have time off from touring and transcribing I like to play bluegrass and jazz on the guitar.

How did you get started transcribing? What skills do you possess that make you especially suited to this task?

I always had a knack for hearing and figuring out music. In college I realized the value of notating music. I also learned more in depth ear training skills and how to use notation software. My mentor named John McGann had a transcription business very similar to mine. I admired what he had created with his business. When John passed away I decided to start my business. Since transcribing professionally my ability to hear and quickly analyze music along with my notation software chops have gone through the roof.

Why would someone want to have music transcribed? Isn’t there value, in the long run, to trying to work it out on your own?

Along with learning to play the notes and use the techniques of your heroes there is a world of music theory knowledge within transcriptions. The key to gaining this deep knowledge of theory is by knowing how to analyze music and notation. Learning directly from the masters aids everyone’s musicianship. As a transcriber I’m functioning as a time saver (by keeping you playing rather than deciphering) as well as an educator.

There is a lot of value in figuring out music for yourself but many musicians don’t yet possess the skills to hear and understand music theory enough to figure out what is going on in a recording. Along with transcriptions I offer lessons on analyzing music as a means to get the most out of learning to play a piece of music.

What are the most common types of transcription requests you get? Is there a style or type of music that you wish you received more requests for?

The most common music that I receive to be transcribed is bluegrass and fiddle tunes for the guitar and mandolin. I am on a big Gypsy jazz kick these days. I would love to get more work transcribing that style for guitar. The challenge with transcribing professionally is creating business. There are always more outlets for advertising. Touring full time restricts the amount of time I can spend transcribing but I would like to take my business to a Gypsy jazz advertising outlet within the next few months.
What is the strangest piece of music you’ve ever transcribed?

A fella named Lanny Fields had a big collection of music by the Etcetera String Band transcribed ;-). That was a bit out of the norm but I’m rarely surprised. I often receive messages via my website by first time customers for all different styles. Just this past month I transcribed Bryan Sutton, Jimmy Page, Dan Fogelberg, Sandy Denny and Django Reinhardt. I love the diversity. It keeps me on my toes and is constantly exposing my ears to new music.

Has transcribing other people’s songs or solos helped you with your own compositions and improvisation, and understanding of how music works?

Transcribing has helped my musicianship in many ways. The most obvious is that it has made my ability to hear and analyze music much stronger. It has also opened my eyes to compositional and improvisational techniques. There is a bit of neutralizing that happens when turning all different types of music into spots of ink on paper. The subtle differences in feel and embellishments from piece to piece interest me. For example transcribing the same tune by two different players (ex. David Grier vs Norman Blake) exposes me to different approaches to tone and interpretation. I like that!

You also give lessons via Skype. What is your approach to teaching using this medium?

Teaching on Skype has its advantages and disadvantages. The advantages are being able to teach from anywhere, any time WIFI is available, and staying connected with transcription customers, just to list a few. The disadvantages are not being able to play at the same time with a student and possible bad internet connection.

Each student is unique. I’ll always ask a new student what they are interested in learning and then move on to accessing their knowledge of music and ability on their instrument. Building a strong foundation in technique is the first skill I like to focus on. From there I like to work on a bit of theory. Once the more technical (sometimes “dry”) topics are covered I will get into a piece of music with the student. Analyzing what is going on in the music, how to play it and the emotions it conveys are what I really like to teach. That’s what learning and making music is all about: playing, feeling and expressing. Throughout all of the topics that are covered in a lesson I reiterate practice techniques to ensure that the student will be working on their material in the most efficient, effective and enjoyable way.

If you could only teach one thing to all students, what would that be?

If there was one thing I could teach students it would be for them have a strong sense of what they like and why they like it. Once the intention is set the path becomes clear.

More information about Nick DiSebastian's music transcription services can be found at  Nick's debut CD is called Window View; avalable here:

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