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Did they just say, “39,000 students enrolled in my Improvisation course?” OMG!

Gary Burton's online courseClearly the new frontier of education is online.  Back at the dawn of the internet, no one imagined such a possibility, so let me fill you in on some history.

By the year 2000, online education was starting to appear around the USA. First it was a few colleges offering academic courses commonly required in the first year or two by many schools. At about this time, my alma mater, Berklee College of Music, began to consider the possibility of offering music instruction online. I am proud to say that during the final years I served as Executive Vice President at Berklee, my main project was creating an online music school. (I retired from Berklee in 2004 just after the online school was launched).

To accomplish this I worked with a team of very talented Berklee educators and technicians to create the structure and technical design for the courses, an effort that started pretty much from scratch, being as music is much different from traditional academics. In 2003, Berklee’s online music school, known as Berklee Music Online (, was launched, and now ten years later it is safe to say it has been a huge success. The program boasts over a hundred courses created and taught by Berklee professors and instructors, covering subjects from guitar playing to record production, music business, arranging, song-writing, and so on.

Watching this venture grow into a vibrant educational program, I suppose it was just a matter of time before I wanted to get in on the action. Before I was a full time administrator, my favorite Berklee activity was teaching improvisation. So with encouragement from Berklee’s current leaders, I set aside some time to prepare my own online course, creating 95 demonstration videos, along with text explanations, play-along tracks, and so on – everything that could help communicate the skills and thinking involved in jazz improvisation. My course launched in January 2012, so I am now completing my fifth semester teaching online. My classes include students from a virtual United Nations of countries: Australia, Japan, China, Singapore, Malaysia, Chile, Brazil, Argentina, India, Great Britain, Russia, and pretty much every European country, along with plenty of USA and Canadian students, of course.

What is unique about teaching online is the interaction that takes place between the students, as well as with the teacher. Students learn as much from each other as they do from the lesson materials, I think. And, I have had a ball with the course, holding weekly online chat sessions and grading assignments from wherever I happen to be while I am on tour. As long as I have internet access, I can teach.

I will continue with my Berklee course well into the future, I am sure. Meanwhile, a new movement that started a few years ago by some Stanford University professors called MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), has taken off like a rocket. Coursera the Stanford-based consortium for online education (, now offers over 300 courses for approximately 1.5 million students world-wide, in this format: All courses are completely free and open to anyone. Among those 300-plus courses now on offer is a new one: “Introduction to Improvisation by Gary Burton.” My new Coursera MOOC launched on April 29th, and already over 39,000 students have enrolled! That is almost impossible to fathom, but I’m looking forward to the challenge. I created all new videos and content for this course, and I will oversee it along with teaching my already established Berklee course. So, hey, if you’ve ever wanted to know more about improvisation, check out one of my courses.

Join the discussion about these courses on my Facebook page,


  1. Luciana

    June 2, 2013 (00:52) Reply

    Hi Mr. Burton, I’m Luciana Rosa, a Brazilian cello player classical trained. I feel honored to have the opportunity of taking your online course. I’ve learned a lot this last 5 weeks ! This is my first online course, and previously, I took a traditional improvisation course , years ago. I can assure you that I ‘ve learned much more at the online course. Not only because your teaching is great, organized,full of nice tips and comparisons, but also because I do learn a lot with my colleagues. Any doubts that I have about the lectures and assignments I can clarify them at the forum, and most of the peer reviewers leave me constructive feedbacks. It has been a wonderful experience. Now, after long years since my first attempt to learn how to improvise, I feel much more confident about how to practice and how to think about improvising. Thank you for your efforts in building up this online system of learning. It really can help thousands of people around the world.

  2. Ted Rockley

    June 2, 2013 (07:29) Reply

    Congratulations, this is easily the biggest thing to happen to Jazz and Jazz Education…ever! As someone involved with Jazz Education with the UK’s National Youth Jazz Orchestra, NYJO I applaud this joint venture between Berklee and Stanford. Whatever else it will grow the audience for jazz. 39000 Courserians means 78000 ears being given the chance to open a bit wider and discard the shackles of Pop! This is one of the best investments Jazz has ever made. More interest will translate into more sales of recordings and tickets for concerts and clubs. Jazz for too long has been the Cinderella of music. Gary shows how accessible AND fulfilling modern jazz can be without alienating an audience or pandering to commercial pressure.

  3. Byard Pidgeon

    June 2, 2013 (12:27) Reply

    Taking this course has taxed me more than anything I’ve done for years. It’s very difficult for someone returning to music after a long absence from playing, but is definitely worth the challenges and the long hours in terms of the increase in knowledge…of course, putting the knowledge effectively into action is yet another challenge…sigh…many more hours…but enjoyable hours. Thanks.

  4. Pedro de Alcantara

    June 2, 2013 (18:50) Reply

    I would live to thank you very much, Gary Burton! It has been a great learning time for me while o was taking the introduction to improvisation course! (actually i’m still taking it, and I’ve got one more assignment to finish). Anyway… Gary Burton is not only a great musician, but a exelent teacher. I’ll he looking to the upcomming courses of you!

    Pedro de Alcantara.


    June 3, 2013 (03:09) Reply

    Maestro lo felicito y admiro, ese sería mi sueño, poder instruir a miles de personas de diferentes nacionalidades.Me gustaría unirme a ese gran proyecto.

  6. Robert

    June 4, 2013 (13:22) Reply

    I saw three, maybe four years ago film on youtube, 19 years aged Pat Metheny played with Gary Burton. Metheny used crunch sound and plays as young McLaughlin. One year later or a little more Pat Metheny recorded album which would stay icon of jazz – Bright Size. Very soon video disapeared because of copyright. Since then, I suspected that Gary helped Pat in making somehow turn to his greatness. My dream stand true, Gary was teaching me jazz improv….:) Im so gratefull for that, Gary, so gratefull.

  7. M. Glaser

    June 13, 2013 (21:23) Reply

    Hi Gary,
    I am one of the 39,000 who started the course, and now I’m very curious to know how many, besides me, finished it! I have a music degree, I hang around a lot of Chicago jazz cats, and have even taken some improv training already—but this course definitely challenged me! And, being anything but a “digital native,” (more like a “perplexed pensioneer”), the technology aspect was equally challenging! I have to admit I had to put more time than I expected into the course, but got several tools that I look forward to developing and sharing. I can’t wait to get my “letter of completion” just to give me a few bragging rights. Thanks for making your knowledge available to us.

  8. James Avakian

    July 11, 2013 (02:40) Reply

    Thank you, a valuable training resource for vibraphone.

  9. Mauricio Barceló

    August 19, 2013 (10:34) Reply


    Estoy sumamente agradecido por el curso de improvisación el cual es excelente y de gran ayuda. Jamás pensé que esto fuera posible y ojalá podamos seguir recibiendo el apoyo y así tener un mundo con más y mejor música.

  10. Raffaele Milani

    August 24, 2013 (16:24) Reply

    I decided to spend my holydays in following your course, and it was a good time!
    Many thanks, Mr Burton.
    Many thanks all the staff at Berklee.

    Looking forward to hear you in Italy soon.

    Raffaele Milani
    Lecco, IT


    October 24, 2013 (13:05) Reply

    Greetings from Palmira – Colombia
    many thanks to Gary Burton and everyone at Berklee for the opportunity.
      to learn from one of the greats of jazz.
    are very encouraging and motivating their leccciones.

  12. Lawrence Siden

    November 10, 2013 (00:02) Reply

    Mr. Burton, I’m so delighted to have found this great site and wonderful course.

    I’m writing to ask if you would post some stats about your survey results. I’d like to know how many students enrolled Anne what are the distributions of age, gender, musical experience and instruments from your survey results.

  13. Roberta Turner

    March 4, 2014 (15:18) Reply

    Prof. Burton, your most recent 5-week jazz improvisation course is now ending, and it has been wonderfully helpful. Having barely survived a “French phrase-book” type improvisation course at an “onland” college, I can appreciate that your online course really teaches useable skills of analysis, listening, and theme/variation creativity. Thank you for giving us your unique course, and for making it free, and for your detailed, patient explanations of how to get going on doing the assignments/recordings. And, yes, fellow students teach us lots, too. Although far from proficient, my improvisations are already better than I ever hoped, and you gave us plenty to work on long after the course ends. Thank you.

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