Traditional Coursera drop-out post, or “What is this thing called MOOC?”

I know no one was expecting me to, but I was really looking forward to Coursera’s “Introduction to Improvisation” (Gary Burton, Berklee). I’d really hoped I’d not have to be writing this kind of post – I genuinely wanted to improve my musicianship and, though I don’t quite come from the same tradition as Gary Burton, I have a lot of respect for what he does.

To prove that I ain’t no lazy drive-by drop-out, here’s my recording of Lesson One: Assignment One. That’s me on hammond organ, the rhythm section (piano, bass, drums) is from the Coursera-provided backing track. (the closing chorus demonstrates why I’ll never get a gig in a posh hotel…)

The challenge was to improvise over an arrangement of a jazz standard, “What is this thing called love?” (Cole Porter, 1929)*. Like many jazz standards it is an old show tune, and – in the right hands – a very beautiful one. For example, Ella Fitzgerald does a very straightforward version at a slower tempo. She neatly illustrates the “form” of a jazz standard in starting off by stating the tune, then including a bit of improvisation, then back to the tune.

In instrumental jazz it is generally taken a fair bit faster (for example, The Bill Evans Trio), but it has the same overall shape. The Bill Evans version starts with a very quick statement of the tune on the piano, leading into a much longer improvisation that departs much further from the tune and incorporates all three instrumentalists. But they arrive back at the original theme at 3:55.

You’re probably wondering where the tune was in my version – the answer is that we were never told about the tune or even that it *was* a jazz standard. So whereas Evans can use the tune, or previous interpretations of the tune, as a starting point for doing something else, we were not given that option.

What I mean by using the tune is taking clues from the shape and form to provide inspiration for the stuff I play afterwards. For instance, the tune repeats the first bit (we call it the A section) twice, then does another bit (the B section) and then goes back to the A section. In the A section the notes of the melody are all grouped fairly close together, where as there is a big leap up to higher notes for the B section. And there is a rhythmic motif (DAA-da-da-da, DAAAAA-DAAA) to the melody that repeats, and also serves to anchor where the chord changes go. Listen to the Ella version again and you’ll hear it. (non-musicians: you will, trust me)

There are as many ways to improvise as there are improvisers, and to his credit Gary Burton did try to leave this assignment wide open to allow for this. But some of his assumptions about improvisation did permeate.**

In assignment two we were asked to analyse a solo he had taken over the same song – but large hints were dropped that we were expected to place what he was playing in terms of the harmonic relationship to the underlying harmony (we had a chord chart and a transcription to help us). But this kind of analysis ignores two things:

  • any rhythm section worth it’s salt will be mucking about with the harmony underneath the top-line improvisation. They will be following it, adapting to it, echoing it or even steering it by their choices of notes and rhythms. So the underlying harmony is not, and never should be, entirely static.
  • If you are choosing a scale for every chord you will (unless you are super-amazing at jazz) be creating a solo that doesn’t tell a story, that doesn’t really flow. It will be lots of tiny, quite likely very interesting, bits that don’t really fit together. And really annoying your rhythm section who are trying to follow you and contribute musically to what you are playing.

To branch into a non-musical metaphor, it’s like the difference between learning phonics and learning to read. Phonics (letters and group sounds) are tools to allow you to analyse words to figure out how to say them. But if you can work out the word from the context you have read it in, you don’t need phonics and they will simply slow your reading down.

We were given a harmonic progression shorn of contextual clues, and then encouraged to break down any remaining context by treating each point in the implied harmony as an individual world in itself. This is a great impetus to want to learn chords and scales (“what scale do I use over a Dm7 b5??” comes the cry from the forums) but it is not – in my reckoning – a good way to actually learn anything about improvisation.

You could take the “correct” scale for each chord and zoom up and down it really fast all the way through the piece. But it would sound horrible, because it wouldn’t be telling a story, and it wouldn’t be possible to join in and add to the story.

In this way, it highlighted a limitation of xMOOC pedagogy in that by addressing students in isolation, there is little opportunity to co-create narrative or respond to each other. If you treat each learner as playing in isolation you produce a generation of musicians that know every scale for every chord, but don’t know how to listen, react and contribute

Stuff like DS106 (especially) and Phonar do this brilliantly. For both there is a huge range of tools and approaches that could be employed to tell stories, but the emphasis is on the telling of the story and the story is told by many voices.

“What is this thing called MOOC?
This funny thing called MOOC?
Just who can see a pedagogy?
Why should it make a fool of me?

I tried a MOOC, one wonderful day
It took my try and threw it away
That’s why I ask the Lord in Heaven above
What is this thing called MOOC?”

(and @dmuviv records the vocals in her best ‘Ella’ voice…)

* Amber Thomas will know it as the tune from that bit in “Fifty Shades Darker” where Christian and Ana arrive at Le Picotin.

** Other Courserians (born under the sign of Courserius?) complained of an over-emphasis on written music, and a focus on top-line as opposed to rhythm instruments.

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