Vibraphone master and jazz guru Gary Burton describing “Introduction to Improvisation,” an online course offered by Berkleemusic through Coursera. Image courtesy of coursera.org

My bandmate Paul Rippee is one of those high-achieving people who make me shamefully aware of how lazy I am. The other day Paul was excitedly describing the free classes he’s taking through Coursera.com. They sounded fantastic, but I was wishing he’d wrap it up so I could get back to watching The Simpsons “Weekend at Burnsie’s” for the eighth time. Eventually Paul’s enthusiasm beat me down with guilt and I was forced to look up from the TV and promise to enroll in the same class he was taking: Berklee College of Music’s Jazz Improvisation taught by a famous jazz guy I’d never heard of.

I like the idea of improving myself, however, my tendency to be easily distracted by shiny objects may not make me a good candidate for online classes. Sure, I’ve done a lot of online research (mostly exploring guitars, amps, and the breeding habits of Eastern European models), but the idea of actually watching an entire semester of lectures on jazz sounds about as engaging as sitting through an eight-part BBC series on folding laundry. But my biggest concern with this jazz course is that I suck at jazz. I have pedestrian taste—I’m drawn to simple melodies and picturesque lyrics. The only “jazz” I enjoy is old stuff like Louis Armstrong, the Nat King Cole Trio with Oscar Moore on guitar, and the poppy-hillbilly jazz of Les Paul and Chet Atkins. Modern jazzers are too cool for my old school, and they tend to be a tad condescending ... like I’m stupid for liking what I like.

I decided if I’m going to be a college student again, I’m going to do it right this time, unlike the last time when I wasted four long years high on stress, binge studying, and being oh-so-lonely in the library as I toiled and grade-grubbed my way to a respectable GPA. This time around, I pledge that if I do any homework or attend class, I will do it while I’m totally wasted, probably ordering and eating an entire deep-dish pizza during each assignment. These are the terms of my higher learning.

Enrolling was regrettably easy. I’d hoped it would be complicated so I could get frustrated and quit before I started, kind of like when I try to bank online. Once I’d enrolled, Coursera emailed reminders of the classes, homework, etc. Yesterday, when I found myself on tour with nothing to do but hang out at the venue, it became very hard to ignore these reminders, so I went to cyber class.

I started with a four-minute video called “How This Course Works” where Professor Gary Burton said, “Each week there’s a concept or two that will be explained, and homework will relate directly to that concept.” After viewing roughly two minutes of the video, I skipped ahead to this week’s assignment. First I was to listen to, analyze, and critique a version of a song with somebody (perhaps Professor Gary) playing a piano solo.

The second I released my so-called song into the universe, I regretted not tuning the guitar or even listening to the recording.

I’m not a critical guy, I try to find the good in everything and ignore the bad because my mother taught me that it’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice. But that’s normal me. The new student me is not nearly as diplomatic. I wrote that the piece lacked melody, had too many notes, and seemed to be chasing the changes. I sounded like a total know-it-all dick.

After verbally bashing the sample version, I downloaded the track and chart and then borrowed a guitar and a mostly functional practice amp that live in the back of the bus. Not wanting to waste a lot of time learning anything, I played through the song once, then hit record on my phone. As promised, I was as sober as a well-tested lab rat during this entire process. By the third or fourth take, I had a little melody sandwiched between a bunch of tired old licks that I applied like a pet doing tricks. Not a lot of thought, emotion, or expression in it. I titled the final take “Week One’s Weak One,” then submitted my assignment and shared it on the student message board.

The second I released my so-called song into the universe, I regretted not tuning the guitar or even listening to the recording. My playing was probably pretty horrible. Now physical evidence of my limited ability is forever caught in the web. To make matters worse, I’m actively asking others to judge me on the student forum. This is a terrible idea for a professional musician. What if people who hire me hear this and think “Jeez, John sounds like he plays guitar with his toes instead of fingers. I will never call him again.”

This got me thinking that maybe I should hear what Professor Gary has to say, incorporate his knowledge, and hopefully gain a better understanding of jazz improvisation. So today I went back and watched the better part of two class videos for a total of seven minutes of viewing. As it turns out, week one demonstrates the relationship between spoken word and music.

Professor Gary said that some jazz instructors teach common musical phrases that students memorize and then apply to songs. This is the equivalent of learning a few key words in another language. Anyone can quickly learn how to order an omelet in French, but it takes a lot more to be able to communicate any complex thoughts that may jump into your head when you move to Paris. It comes down to learning to tell a story with notes, like you’re speaking through your instrument. Had I watched these lectures before I did my homework, I would have avoided my cliché riffs and tried to work in a melody that says something.

I’m a terrible student at this point in my life, but I enjoyed my first week of class. Burton verbalized a concept I’ve carried around for years, but could never express clearly. I have less than one hour invested so far. Not surprisingly, there have been no breakthroughs in my playing, but maybe I’m a tiny bit more aware of what I should try to do. I may or may not complete any more assignments, but if I do, you can bet I’ll feel pretty smug—like a fancy-pants college boy should. I may even sign up for Spanish next semester.