6 January 2014

Jazz Education Review: Jazz Improvisation by Coursera

SJM editor and vibraphonist Charlie Anderson reviews the Coursera online course in Jazz Improvisation. This MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) is a free online course taught by Gary Burton, suitable for all instruments.


    This free, five-week course on jazz improvisation is run by Berklee via Coursera.org. It’s essentially the first five weeks of the twelve-week Jazz Improvisation course that normally costs $1,200. Each week students download lecture videos presented by Gary Burton, together with other course materials such as lead sheets and playalong recordings.

    The first week of the course, "Improvisation as a Language", involves listening to and analysing a Gary Burton solo. In the video lectures, Gary Burton makes some interesting analogies between music and language and how jazz is a conversational form of storytelling. The assignment for the first week is to analyse Gary’s solo on Sea Journey and improvise over the chords to What Is This Thing Called Love.

    Once students have submitted their assignments they then have to do peer assessments on at least five other students. This would be quite a daunting task for a beginner but for more experienced performers this is a good opportunity to offer constructive advice. Inevitably, on a course that is free to anyone, there are the odd unhelpful, or even hurtful, comments but a vast majority of peer assessments are positive and constructive. 

    After completing the peer assessments they are then given the grades allocated by their peers. This system helps students get an overview of what other students have done and gives them a chance to reflect on how their assignment compares to that of others. There is also ample opportunity to have your Soundcloud recordings reviewed on the excellent forums where students can swap ideas and discuss assignments, and mouthpieces etc.

    The second week, "The Improviser’s Vocabulary", is essentially a week that covers scales and scale choices. The assignment is to write out a set of scales before playing and improvising using them. This was quite straightforward and listening to other students perform this assignment gave me a good idea of the varying abilities of people taking the course. A thorough knowledge and fluency of scales and modes will help you get more out of the course.

    The third week was certainly a much bigger leap into music making, entitled "Making Scale Choices In Real Time". Most of the people who drop out of the course do so in the first two weeks, often realising that they do not have the necessary scale fluency or theoretical knowledge to keep up. For this week the assignment is to analyse 500 Miles High by Chick Corea and choose which scales you would use to improvise and then play and improvise over it. 

    By the fourth week you start to get a real feel for the course and what is expected of you. Entitled "Harmony for the Improviser", Gary Burton covers the chords. The assignment is to analyse Memories of Tomorrow by Keith Jarrett (scales and compositional elements) and then play and improvise over it.

    The final week of the course, "Theme and Variation" covers thematic development. This brings the course to a nice conclusion as it covers jazz improvisation as a form of storytelling (another language analogy). The assignment, developing a theme over a blues and then playing and improvising over Olhos de Gato by Carla Bley, is both challenging and rewarding.


Advantages of the course

• It’s free!!

• It’s Gary Burton!

• Good downloadable video resources that you can go back to at a later time.

• Good quality playalong tracks. 


How could they improve the course?

    I found the course was very analysis focused, which reflects Gary Burton’s approach to music. This might appeal to some, though others might just want to get on with it. However, it always helps to step back and analyse pieces of music before tackling them and of course it helps to know the plot before telling a story.

    I would have liked to have seen students being provided with better charts for assignments, catering for transposing instruments. Also, the peer assessment process can often feel a little awkward at first and it helps to have both a thick skin and a sense of humour, as well as appreciating that everyone is on a different point in their learning journey.

    Whilst it’s made clear on the Coursera website that this course is not suitable for beginners, a similar introductory course that covers the basics of jazz improvisation would be invaluable.

    There are three main phases that you go through during the course, Submission Phase (working on assignments), Evaluation Phase (doing peer assessments) and Results Phase (getting your grade). I would have found it useful if I’d been given email alerts to remind me of assignments as it’s quite easy to forget or lose track. The online quizzes are easy to pass as you can re-take them as many times as you like (or as many times as it takes you to get them right).


    Overall, I’d say that it’s great value for money (did I mention that it’s free?) and definitely worth trying. A few students even take the course more than once as the value is often in the course acting as a motivator for practice and getting feedback on your progress.


The Jazz Improvisation course runs throughout the year in January, April, July and October. The next course starts on Monday 27th January.




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