Coursera - Introduction To Improvisation by Gary Burton

Jake Beamish
Jake Beamish

Jake is an amateur musician and bass player living in the Midlands, UK, with experience in teaching and function gigging. He has studied an Application Diploma in Musicianship at Leicester College. He is also interested in the future of the music industries and writes about it (and other things) on his blog at

I signed up to the Coursera course 'Introduction to Improvisation' after seeing a friend's recommendation on twitter. The course instructor was the acclaimed jazz vibes player Gary Burton, who is also a lecturer at Berklee College of Music. I had imagined the syllabus to cover conceptual ideas about jazz improvisations; explaining phrasing and story-telling perhaps - but in fact the course was solidly based in music theory. Most of the guidelines Gary delivered over the weekly video lectures were simple, and applicable in a live playing situation; offering an insight into the almost instantaneous thought processes that Gary and other very experienced jazz men employ when playing solo.
The basis of the material behind the course was a list of the 10 'most commonly used' scales, and which kinds of chords they related to - using jazz tunes as working examples. We were given a lead sheet of the tune and were asked to become familiar with the melody, chord progression, and possible scales we could use over it when improvising. We'd then upload recordings of our own playing onto SoundCloud where it could be listened to and assessed by fellow students.

This method of learning (along with a few quizzes) worked well for me, because as soon as a particular method was introduced, I memorised it by immediately putting it into a practical, real-life situation.
Some aspects of the course weren't so technically great: recording advice provided by Gary at the start of the course seemed a little backward (I'm paraphrasing: 'when recording you’re playing over the top of the provided .mp3 file, position your computer microphone between your instrument or amplifier, and an external cd or mp3 player'). Also, some of the quizzes required text submissions which had to exactly match pre-written answers. For example, I answered a few quiz questions in lower-case - when they needed to be capitalised to register on the quiz as correct. This wasn't specified in the Quizzes section of the course, and was only resolved by communicating with other students on the forum.

Overall, I enjoyed the course. I didn't submit all of the work required to pass, but I feel that I've taken in the methods taught over the five weeks and will find them really useful in the future - they are techniques that no-one can truly master and will surely remain in my practice routine for years to come.

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