I thought I would bring you up to date with how monkmy learning about jazz improvisation is going. You may remember in a previous blog I referred to the fact that I had signed up for another Coursera course. They are a brilliant idea – free (mostly), on-line learning, but I did find the first (and last) one I did on song writing quite stressful. I’m determined to have a more relaxed attitude this time around. If they let me I will go along with the lessons but not complete the assignments. I won’t get a certificate but that’s OK. Yes, it does feel a bit like coping out but it also feels like being kind to myself.

The course is really quite demanding from what I’ve seen of it so far, admittedly only the first lesson but I don’t think it’s going to get easier. For one thing the course requires participants to record themselves improvising to a backing track. The aspect of the last course – song-writing – that nearly saw me certified insane (as opposed to a song writer) was the technical challenges of recording myself playing my guitar and singing the lyrics I had written for my assignment. Having recorded the song then I had to turn this into a digital audio file (mpg) and post in on line. Sounds simple when you say it quick but it wasn’t and with deadlines pressing it nearly sent me bonkers – ask Mrs Summerhouse, she’ll tell you. And the deadlines, always deadlines.

And this is just one stressful aspect of the course. The other big one is the content of the course itself. As I’ve said in other blogs, jazz can be quite complicated. Hard for the novice to understand. Country and Western it ain’t. I’ll take just one exchange from the discussion forum to give you a hint of the complexity of the subject.

An example response to one question. You will have to take my word for it but this is by no means the most complicated exchange on the site.

In fact you can talk about modes even in a tonal context. For instance, you can see a ii-V-I in major as either implying one single key (e.g., C major) or three modal scales from that same key (e.g., D Dorian, G Mixolydian, C Ionian). Seeing it modally also helps remember that on V and I you should treat with care the dissonant perfect 4th. Moreover, modulation happening so frequently in jazz, I personally prefer to say that a certain chord is, for instance, an X Dorian or a Y Lydian than to say that it is, say, a bVI7#11 relative to some “main” tonal center. It’s also a matter of preference, but I think that often it is theoretically easier to analyze harmony with modal colours than with tonal functions.    

And just one example response to this :

D7 leads to G7. In it’s basic sense it is a 5 to 1 resolution (say it like “five one”). D7 contains notes D F# A C. Keep in mind the 3rd and 7th notes ie  F# and C. Now look at the notes in Ab7; Ab C Eb Gb. The 3rd and 7th are the same as the 3rd and 7th in D7, F#/Gb and C. Because the 3rd and 7th are the two notes that are essential to define the chord quality and these two chords share the same 3rd and 7th they are “swappable”. So when you read a “b5 substitution” you can work it out for any chord. For G7 the 5th chord is D7 (ignoring the fact we have more than one dominant chord), now flatten the 5th note of the D chord; A to Ab. That’s the root of the b5th substitution chord hence Ab7 is a b5th substitution for D7. Hope that makes sense.

And I have no doubt it does make sense to somebody who knows a lot about these things. Unfortunately, that’s not me. Given time and a lot of research I could probably work out what all this means but the one thing you don’t have in this course is time, not if you do it with the intention of achieving a certificate and hence meeting all the deadlines. This is not to mention (except I have) grading the work of other students (another somewhat stressful aspect of these free courses). And that’s how they make them free, the students do the grading and feedback work. And fair enough too, there are probably hundreds (more?) students taking the course from all over the world, there’s no way the course tutor could do all that grading. So, yes, fair enough but it’s still another source of stress.

You may have got the impression that I’m lining up my excuses for not engaging properly with this course, and you would be right, because I do feel like I’m ducking a challenge here. And, as I’ve said several times in these blogs, you have to keep challenging yourself in retirement, keep stepping out of your comfort zone. Learning new skills is a good thing. But there are limits.

Of course there is no point complaining about the complexity of the topic, that’s the way it is, I guess. But I confess, I have to find a way of making it easier for me at any rate. If I can’t then there is a danger that I will walk away from learning how to improvise in jazz altogether. And I don’t want to do that.

To end on a brighter note (ha) my Monday night classes are going somewhat better. Except in a continuing ‘be kind to myself’ approach, I didn’t go last Monday. Still, never mind, I’m learning little bits and didn’t feel quite such a twat at the last one. I’m developing strategies for sounding OK while not sinking beneath the water that is the complexity of jazz improvisation. In this blog I will give you one example of a strategy, it won’t mean a thing if you’re not a bit musical but you will get a sense of its simplicity by comparing how many words it takes me to describe it compared with the exchange above. It is this, I look at the last chord, take the sixth note of that chord, make it minor and play in that same key all the way through. If I stray from this key (make a mistake), I tell myself that it’s OK, I’m just improvising. That’s jazz, that’s retirement.

Now I’m going to watch Theolonius Monk (a young version in photo at top) on Sky Arts 2, work out what key he’s in. He didn’t need to worry about retirement, he died when he was 64.


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