Review: Coursera Introduction to Improvisation – Final Thoughts

Having completed the 5-week Introduction to Improvisation course on Coursera, I do have a few thoughts to share for those considering trying the same course.

First, though it is marketed as an introductory course, it does assume facility with one’s instrument, fluency in reading standard notation, chord symbols, and some level of ability in musical analysis. Though it might be overwhelming for a beginner, it does have appeal for more intermediate or advanced players, or those with theoretical capabilities that are still developing their playing.

Second, as reflected in the discussion boards, the content is not what many assumed it might be. It is a jazz oriented course, yet it does not focus on jazz standards. Instead, the repertoire is drawn from a more modern selection using more contemporary harmonic concepts than the tunes which make up so much of the jazz canon. For instance, there is literally no mention of playing on II-V-I progressions, one of the quintessential movements in jazz.

A related issue is the pace of the class. There are very few exercises (only Week 2 features scalar drills), and the assigned tunes often use many different scales over relatively fast chord changes. This could again frustrate a student trying to master the fundamental concepts.

Finally, the peer review assessment’s vary in their utility and insight. While there is no clear alternative for a class this size, the grading system and comments often seem arbitrary and too subjective. The reviewers may not be in a position to provide accurate feedback, yet are required to do so to fulfill the course requirements. And, unfortunately, the discussion forums often devolve into the kind of thoughtless jousting we so often see from online anonymity.

Despite these criticisms, I did find the course to be a worthwhile project. The backing tracks provided are high-quality, the repertoire is quite interesting, and Burton does provide some very useful insights in his video lectures. Perhaps the greatest asset of this class was the opportunity to record and share my improvisations on a weekly basis, constantly self-evaluating, and comparing my playing to that of my fellow students.

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One Response to Review: Coursera Introduction to Improvisation – Final Thoughts

  1. Vinny Stefanelli says:

    I also took the free online course and overall I enjoyed the course but I found that it was more of a brief overview of the intro to jazz improvisation. The points that he covered were good but not very continuous and not very comprehensive. It was a good experience and nice to get feedback by peers but it would have been excellent to have some feedback from Mr. Burton (most likely logistically impossible to do!)
    Vinny Stefanelli

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