Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Music MOOCs: Review of Four Online Cousera Music Classes

This year I had my first experience with MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses).  I took four music classes being offered by Coursera.  These classes were all free, although participants do have the option of paying a fee of about $50 to receive a verified certificate for the course.

During the summer I took two simultaneous 5-week classes:  Fundamentals of Music Theory by the University of Edinburgh, and Developing Your Musicianship by Berklee College of Music.
The Fundamentals of Music Theory course had a whole team of talented instructors involved (in particular Zack Moir and Nikki Moran) and was really well planned out.  You can tell that a lot of work went into creating this online class.  They covered a lot of ground over the five weeks, and I definitely learned some things that continue to help with my understanding of how music works.  The course did delve into more than what most musicians will need from a practical standpoint, but students who successfully complete it will have a solid foundation in music theory.  I would be most interested in taking additional courses offered by this team of instructors from the University of Edinburgh’s Reid School of Music.
While the music theory class was going on, I was also enrolled in Developing Your Musicianship, Berklee College of Music.  This class took me out of my analytical comfort zone and required a more organic, aural approach to music.  The instructor, George W. Russell, Jr., is very enthusiastic in his videos.  His excitement for music and teaching is infectious.  A good part of the class is devoted to ear training; bringing out skills I didn’t even know I had!  The content of the class was fairly easy and fundamental, but taking this class has definitely helped me become a better musician and has started me on a path toward thinking about music more aurally and less visually.  It was great in combination with the Music Theory course, and vice versa.  Developing Your Musicianship included a fun assignment and peer review component at the end. 

During the fall I took simultaneous courses:  Introduction to Guitar and Jazz Improvisation.  Both were through Berklee College of Music.
The Introduction to Guitar course starts very basic, with the absolute beginner in mind.  Although my knowledge of music is beyond novice, I haven’t applied much of it to guitar so I wasn’t bothered by starting at such an entry level.  It’s nice to have a refresher, sometimes.  The teacher, Thaddeus Hogarth, has a very clear and precise way of explaining concepts.  If you ever plan on teaching music, he would be a good person to emulate.  The class does progress as rapidly as can be expected over the six weeks.  By the end, you’ll be picking melodies and strumming barre chords, which could prove to be quite challenging for beginners.  This class requires students to post recordings to Soundcloud each week and also review your peers’ weekly recordings.  For this reason, the class took up more of my time than the classes I took over the summer.
Gary Burton’s Jazz Improvisation class was the most difficult of the four.  It’s the only one where I felt that I was at risk of not passing.  I learned that I was completely ignorant to the thought-process of an improvising jazz musician.  It will take me a while to fully absorb and implement the concepts taught in this class, should I choose to do so.  This course does provide a new way of looking at music that could be applied (to varying degrees of success) to all styles of music, not just jazz.  To really understand this class, you have to grasp each new step along the way, and then work on it for years and years.  The videos for this class were shorter and less detailed than the other classes, leaving it up to the student to fill in the blanks him or herself.  This course was also the most time consuming – at least 5 or 6 hours a week were spent studying, practicing, doing assignments, analyzing lead sheets, making recordings, posting recordings, taking quizzes, reviewing peers.  It was a lot to keep up with for a class that I was taking on a whim, for no credit or certification.  Unlike the Intro to Guitar class, where I felt like I was more advanced than the students I reviewed, in the jazz class it felt like everyone was way more experienced than me, which they probably were.  My musical submissions paled in comparison to most of the students I graded, although this form of jazz improvisation doesn’t always equate to good music, especially if it just sounds like aimless soloing over chord changes.

In summary, I was very pleased with my MOOC experiences.  Musically, I feel like I’ve learned more and grown more over the last 5 months as a result of these courses than at any other five month period since I took up playing music.  Most importantly, this experience was the instigator for liberating me from sheet music dependency and opening up the joys of playing music from the heart.

I would most definitely take additional free online music courses from Berklee or the University of Edinburgh Reid School of Music (especially those on the subjects of ear training, composition, non-jazz improvisation and world music), as well MOOCs on French, Spanish, Creative Writing, Prose Poetry or Flash Fiction if those were being offered.

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