Online improvisation courses are everywhere these days. Ads for these courses often pop up in your feed in places like Facebook. But how do these courses compare? They have a lot of features worth noting.
Today, I’m going to do a specific comparison of “Chad LB” vs “Donna Schwartz” courses – that is, courses from “Jazz Lesson Videos” and from “Donna Schwartz Music.” I want to give you an idea of how I believe they stack up against each other.
There are instrument-specific sites and courses out there. And there are also courses more oriented to style and improvisation in general.
There are courses and websites designed somewhat around a specific instrument (like sax, for instance). There is “Sax School,” there is “Better Sax” and there is “Online Jazz Lessons” featuring sax courses by Eric Marienthal. These sites do offer material on improvisation. But they orient it to one particular instrument.
There are also more “generic” courses out there, too. Websites like “Learn Jazz Standards” offer materials that are oriented toward the ideas of ear training and developing an improvisation style, no matter your instrument.
Although Chad and Donna are both sax players, the course materials I’m doing a review of here are not specific to saxophone. They are useful to any wind player looking to learn to improvise.
The reason I zeroed in on these two courses is pretty simple, really. I’ve purchased materials from both of their sites. I’ve worked with these materials a bit, poked them around the edges and gotten a feel for what they offer.
Having used these materials from both sites now, I’ve also gotten a bit of a feel for how they work, how they’re laid out and how they can benefit (and sometimes frustrate) the user.
What’s in common between these courses
1) They only help you if you put the effort into working the materials
I’ve written before about music being a language and how the musical phrases we practice become part of our “vocabulary” to speak the language. The materials in these courses give you “musical vocabulary” to make this improvisation more “second-nature.”
But you have to practice the stuff. You have to do it frequently, and repeatedly, if it’s going to become a natural and fluent thing.
In short, no matter which of these courses you choose, YOU are going to be the biggest factor in whether or not the materials help you succeed.
2) Both courses provide you with both written materials and audio tracks to rehearse with
No matter which site you get this stuff from, you’ll find they provide you with printable materials with musical phrases that you can learn (and you need to learn them in all 12 keys, for it to be truly useful and to make you truly versatile).
They also offer “backing tracks” – typically mp3 files which you can use to play along with these different phrases provide so you not only play the phrases but you hear them in a proper “musical context.”
So how do they differ? Some parts of these courses are easy to “compare.” Others, not so much.
How much does it matter? Well, that depends what you’re looking for.
First of all, I’m going to say that both of these web sites provide courses that are pretty popular. They both have glowing testimonials from students who have used the materials and have apparently benefitted greatly from using them.
Comparing some aspects of these offerings is relatively easy, but I’m not sure how useful the “easy to measure” parts are a help in learning what you get.
In some ways, comparing these courses is like comparing a 4×4 to a Tesla. Each has it’s own benefits, depending on your target. You don’t want to take the Tesla offroading; you don’t want to take the truck as an economical vehicle for a cross-country trip. But you don’t want to venture off the beaten path if you don’t know where to charge the Tesla.
I decided to do this “comparison” because I’ve purchased materials from both. Some things I like; some things drive me crazy. Perhaps what I’ve found can help you figure out where to plunk down your cash.
The fact is, these materials are presented differently, and in some important ways, so much that I found the differences enough to prompt me to do this review. Because at this point, I’m prone to pursue more of the materials from one of them, and the other I might, but reluctantly.
So, let me try to articulate some of the differences (some objective, some more subjective) that cause me to feel as I do about the offerings they bring to the table.
1) Presentation of the materials
The courses I’ve done from Donna Schwartz present like a 3 course meal. The courses from Chad LB present more like a smorgasbord. Only if you don’t know what you’re looking at, it might feel more like a DoorDash delivery.
Don’t worry. Chad’s materials aren’t as bad as a six-drawer microwave stand from Ikea or anything. But you need to understand that Donna Schwartz courses are presented as courses – they are laid out in a structured format, with a path and a flow on the website.
Donna Schwartz courses are more “structured.” Chad’s courses are more free-form and “do it yourself.”
The materials I’ve purchased from Chad (Jazz Lesson Videos) come in the form of a download. You get a download link to a ZIP file that contains printouts and mp3 files. You open the PDFs and you find printable materials with the phrases and licks they present as licks to learn, and a set of mp3’s which are backing tracks to play over with those licks.
On the other hand, if you get one of Donna’s courses, the materials are divided in sections and are presented as sections of a course on the site. They work well on desktop or mobile. It’s easier to understand which materials go with different backing tracks. And she has instructional videos in the lessons which give you an explanation of the layout of the materials so you understand what you’ll be looking at and working with.
For me, on this one, Donna +1, Jazz Lesson Videos -1.
Next, a worthwhile point:
2) Ease of downloading materials
This structure vs free-form between Donna’s courses and Chad’s materials can be a two-edged sword. If you know where you’re going and you already have an idea what you’re going to do with the materials, Chad’s are easier to work with. Chad’s materials (Jazz Lesson Videos) come in a single download. Once you have it, you can go into that folder and open, play, etc.
Donna’s stuff can be downloaded, too. But so far, I’ve not seen where you can download it all at once. You click on each PDF and each mp3 individually, as you go through the lessons. And it’s only from there that you can download them – individually, as you access.
A small point if you are working online anyway. But if you want the portability factor, then on this one, Donna -1, Jazz Lesson Videos +1.
3) The “plausibility factor”
What I mean by this is the “can I actually see that person playing like that and imagine that I could ever play like that?”
I don’t know if you’ve ever watched any of Chad’s videos on YouTube. But if you have, many of them start out with him playing on and on like he is auditioning as a writer for a Kenny G ad lib solo. And while I appreciate the technical ability, I’m hard pressed to appreciate it in a way that I can picture myself playing like that (or even that I’d want to).
Maybe this is more of a reflection of my relatively “lesser” ability to play compared to Chad. But as much as I marvel at the technical ability he displays when he plays, I’m hard pressed sometimes to hear the musicality in it.
I remember that Kirk Whalum has often said that he knows many sax players will be remembered for their technique. He believes he will be remembered for his sound.
The fact is, when I hear Chad play, I’m impressed by his prowess. But when I hear Donna play, I’m impressed that I think I can play that well, too.
Very subjective, to be sure. But Donna gives me vocabulary to work on that I can picture myself using in a “musical sentence.” With Chad, not so much. So on this one, Donna +1.0, Chad -0.5.
4) How useful (real) are the phrases they present for me to learn? (Are they more “musical” or “mechanical?”)
For me, this is a huuuuuge thing. I think the value in these courses is in presenting phrases that “sound like something.” I can see the value of learning licks. But learning endless runs of notes that “mechanically” line up with the chord progressions isn’t enough; the musical phrases you’re learning need to sound, well…. they need to sound “musical.”
For me, sounding musical means learning the notes in phrases that have a feel you’ll want to actually play.
Now, I will say that perhaps it’s just me; I’m not much of a bebop kind of guy. I’m more a blues and smooth jazz kind of guy. So maybe people who gravitate to bebop will more appreciate and perhaps more easily “feel” phrases the way Chad lays them out.
But Donna’s materials are oriented more toward an emphasis on learning phrases in rhythms. They seem that way, anyway.
Again, this is sooooo subjective. And it’s also probably subjective in that I know Chad offers some materials more along the lines of etudes and the like. But it seems his materials are more “mathematical” somehow, and Donna’s are more “get the sound with the feel” to me.
So again, arguably subjective, but I give Donna +1 and Chad -1 on this point.
5) This, for me, is a big, BIG deal. Understand how these courses present the materials differently for different keys.
This is one area where I am well-pleased with what Donna Schwartz offers in her materials. The Jazz Lesson courses are very disappointing in this regard.
When you’re learning these phrases, you want to learn them in all 12 keys. To learn these phrases well, in a way that is useful, you need to think in the key you are playing. It is (in my opinion) important to have these licks written in the keys you are playing.
I was stunned and disappointed with the materials that Chad provides in this regard. He does have some materials in 12 keys but it is all marked up with accidentals!
Sorry, but to me, that is just not right and not helpful, not at all. I need to see the phrases written with the key signature that I’m playing in. If I see it written in the key of C, but it is marked with accidentals all over the place to make is sound like I’m playing in the key of B, then it “sounds” right. But I’m not “hearing it” or “learning it” right – in the key of B without doing the “musical algegra” in my head all the while I’m trying to internalize these phrases.
This was so frustrating to me that I wrote to them about this.
I asked why they did this and didn’t write these licks in 12 keys, with the key signatures shown rather than marking the crap all over everything with accidentals for the key of C.
Their answer was most disappointing. Essentially, they told me that other jazz books do this, too. (I don’t care. That doesn’t make it right.) And also, with some of their licks, there are so many accidentals anyway because of all the chromaticism that it doesn’t really matter much anyway.
I personally think that is just a little “dumb,” to be honest. I think in terms of 1 to 8, not in terms of which fingers go up and down for a given sound. Ironically, that is the end goal, I guess – getting to the point where you anticipate a pitch and your fingers match it without going through the exercise of thinking “that note is a B, and a B is fingered like this.”
But you don’t get there by two wrongs making a right. We do best thinking in terms of what notes are natural to the key we are in and which notes are accidental to the key we are in.
To me (and I don’t think this is all that subjective) this is a HUGE deal. In fact, it is huge to the point that in order for me to benefit from some of his exercises, I’ve gone through and personally transposed them using MuseScore to rewrite his licks in the REAL KEYS, removing “accidentals” that are really the natural notes for the keys the exercises are in.
This is almost a show-stopper for me and it might be for a lot of people. On this one, my (fairly objective) score is Donna +1, Jazz Lesson Videos -2. (Sorry, Chad.)
6) Donna Schwartz provides tracks in different tempos. Chad only provides them at the one (fast tempo).
This is something that might vary from one package to the next with either of these sites. So, in that regard, if I’ve missed it on this one, it would actually be good to hear from any of my readers who can set me straight on this point.
But of the materials I’ve gotten from both, it seems Donna provides tracks in different tempos. Sometimes slow and fast, and sometimes slow, medium and fast.
Ironically, this might not be that big a deal for everyone. And I work around a problem like this anyway.
For me, there are two options to deal with the need to play the tracks slower to reinforce more accurate hand patterns until you can pick up the speed.
One way of dealing with this issue is to download a tool onto your laptop that allows you to play the tracks more slowly. There are apps you can download to do this. Alternatively, you can go to this web page and load the song, and then play it back at any tempo you like.
Alternately, if you have Band In A Box, you can write out your own chord arrangements and play them back at any tempo you choose. For many, this is a simple enough solution. But if you don’t or are not inclined to want to, the web page link is perfect for slowing these tracks down to a good tempo for you.
On this one, (objective, but easily fixed) I give Donna +0.5 and Chad -0.5.
I think you probably already know where I think the money is better spent for most people. But if you add up the (somewhat subjective) scores, you get the following:
- Presentation -> Donna, +1.0, Chad, -1.0
- Ease of download -> Donna, -1.0, Chad, +1.0
- Plausibility (the “I can do this too” factor) -> Donna +1.0, Chad -0.5
- Usefulness of the phrases in real life -> Donna +1.0, Chad -1.0
- 12 keys are WRITTEN in 12 keys -> Donna +2.0, Chad -2.0
- Tracks in different speeds -> Donna +1.0, Chad -1.0
TOTAL: Donna Schwartz +5.0, -4.5
I guess you need to read this “cumulative score” like a tennis score. You can often watch a tennis match where the final score is 6-0 but the players are pretty evenly matched.
My conclusion is that, for me, I find Donna Schwartz courses a lot better for a number of reasons. But that doesn’t mean the Jazz Lesson Video courses are “bad.”
But you do need to be aware of these differences if you’re thinking of plunking down some cash. And you might not be like me. Perhaps, for you, Chad’s stuff will work better for you.
But I hope I’ve at least given you something to think about. My compliments to Donna Schwartz for a very elegant interface for her courses, and for presenting these materials in a way that leaves me feeling I can do it, too.
And my hope is that someday I will be able to shred like Chad.