Review: Berklee’s Free Improv Class on Coursera

Berklee College of Music is once again teaching a five-week, online class on jazz improvisation, starting July 19th. Is it worth your time and effort to enroll? I completed the course the first time it was offered, back in the spring. Read on for my review…

Assuming the format remains the same as last time, here’s how the class works:  Each week covers one broad topic and features several short video lectures in which the instructor (multiple Grammy award winner Gary Burton) explains and demonstrates the material. There’s usually a quiz, which you can retake multiple times before the due date.

The real fun is with the weekly assignments. Most weeks Prof. Burton gives you one or two tunes to work on. For each tune, you download a lead sheet and an mp3 of backing tracks (similar to the Jamey Aebersold play-alongs). Record yourself jamming along to the music, upload it to SoundCloud, and submit your link to the Coursera website.

Obviously, it’s not possible for Gary Burton to personally listen to and grade each of the tens of thousands of submissions, so he doesn’t…  you do. Well, you grade and comment on five (or more) of your fellow students, who are randomly and anonymously selected for you. Meanwhile, other random students are grading you. Your score is the median of all the grades, so you wind up with a sort of “wisdom of the crowd” effect.

This “peer review” process of grading sounds like it shouldn’t work. But, in its own weird way, it does. I loved listening to how others approached each tune, and I found the comments they left on my work to be (mostly) helpful.

Incidentally, the course is open to players of any instrument. I wound up reviewing bassists, vocalists, violinists, and even a steel drum player. Naturally, I took the course with my accordion–and I wasn’t the only one!

But a warning:  This class ain’t for sissies. When originally given, it was titled “Introduction to Improvisation” despite being anything but. They’ve since retitled it “Jazz Improvisation”. A bit vague, but better.

You really need to know your instrument (at minimum, be able to play minor and major scales in all 12 keys) and have a basic knowledge of intervals and chord theory. You should be able to recognize musical notation, but you don’t have to be a strong sight-reader. This being a jazz-based course, classically-trained players should be prepared from some differences in notation, not all of which will be explained.

Like any new class, there were several glitches during the first run. There was a much weaker instructor and TA presence on this course that in others I’ve taken. As a result, the powers-that-be were often frustratingly slow to respond to problems. Let’s hope that the changing of the course title is an indication that they’ve listened to feedback and have ironed out a lot of these issues.