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I've completed Herbie Hancock's Masterclass; this is my honest review of the course. Herbie Hancock is one of those jazz and post-bop legends that, even if you don’t think you know him, you probably know some of his work.
He started his career with trumpeter Donald Byrd’s group, joined the Miles Davis Quintet shortly after, all while redefining the role of the jazz rhythm section. He is credited with being one of the main proponents and creators of the post-bop sound as well.
“Cantaloupe Island,” “Watermelon Man,” “Maiden Voyage,” and “Chameleon” are some of his best-known works, but his 80s hit “Rockit” is also quite widespread. His tribute to Joni Mitchell, River: The Joni Letters, also won him the 2008 Grammy Award for Album of the Year, a rare feat for a jazz album.
But what about his MasterClass? Does Hancock offer the best online jazz lessons? What can you learn from this legend? We consider all this and more in this hands-on review.
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What Can The Herbie Hancock Teaches Jazz Masterclass Help You Achieve?
The trailer to Herbie Hancock Teaches Jazz opens with Hancock himself playing a flashy jazz lick on a Fazioli grand piano (which are known as rather unique pianos).
As Hancock explains, people don’t care about theory – “that’s not music,” he says, “that’s craft.”
In addition to harmony, melody, composition, and improvisation, Hancock promises to help you develop your own sound.
In the introduction, Hancock also says he’s going to be talking about clusters, chord voicings, counterrhythms, and an expansive view of music.
The course focuses heavily on jazz, as well as Hancock’s own compositions, but most musicians can benefit from the course if they take it with an open mind and study Hancock’s approach to music and building a music career.
The best type of student for this course, however, is one that:
- Can play piano
- Knows how to read standard notation
- Wants to learn jazz
- Is interested in expanding their musical horizons
- Or some combination of the above
So, does the course deliver on these promises? What more can one discover on the inside? Let’s take a look.
How Much Does The Masterclass Cost?
MasterClass offers three membership plans. All give you access to their entire content library, with 100+ classes across 11 categories. These plans are billed annually (though they are broken down into monthly pricing on their website).
MasterClass is home to a variety of courses. In addition to music, you can find classes on cooking, visual art, makeup, and more.
The main incentive for upgrading to higher priced plans is that you can watch the courses on more devices simultaneously. You can also download the content for offline viewing on iOS devices.
The plans are as follows:
- Standard: $20 monthly (billed annually)
- Plus: $27 monthly (billed annually)
- Premium: $30 monthly (billed annually)
Overview Of The Herbie Hancock Masterclass Content
So, what’s included in the masterclass?
What’s the format of the course, and how is the content delivered? What are some actual lesson titles, and what can you expect to learn?
That’s what we’ll be covering here.
What Is The Format Of The Masterclass?
The Herbie Hancock MasterClass is mostly contained within over four hours’ plus worth of videos. But it also comes with a professionally designed 166-page workbook, for which we will be offering an overview here.
This is one of the most extensive workbooks we’ve seen for any masterclass. In it, you can expect to find:
- A brief bio for Herbie Hancock
- Professionally taken pictures of Hancock
- A list of things you might need to aid you on your learning journey
- Instructions on how to use the workbook
- Chapter summaries
- “Take It Further” prompts, which you can use to supplement and augment your learning journey
- Notes sections
- Sheet music – there is quite a bit of music showing Hancock’s melodic ideas, improvised harmonization, scales, and more (if you don’t know how to read standard notation, this might be a good opportunity to start picking it up!)
Although 166 pages is quite a bit, if you were inclined, you could certainly print it out to make use of the “notes” section.
One other feature that might be worth touching on is the Community (or “The Hub,” as the case might be). This is the members only forum where you can connect with other MasterClass members and students.
As you would expect, the MasterClass community is a large and diverse one, which means the discussions are too. Finding the right conversations could prove a bit of a challenge. Fortunately, there is a convenient search function you can use to find specific topics, posts, users, or categories.
There is always a great deal you can learn from others and their experience, so if you do end up joining MasterClass, it’s always nice to know there is a way to connect and interact with the community at large.
How Is The Masterclass Delivered?
The moment you become a MasterClass member you can access the entire Herbie Hancock Teaches Jazz MasterClass.
How Much Training Is Available Inside The Masterclass?
The masterclass comes with a total of 25 video lessons, including:
- Introduction (02:28)
- A Human Approach to Music (07:21)
- Improvisation (11:17)
- Learning by Listening (13:03)
- The Two Basic Jazz Forms (7:44)
- Listen and Learn: “Oleo” (05:51)
- Piano Basics (14:21)
- Piano Exercises (14:01)
- Improvising Alone (08:50)
- Expanded Improv Techniques (16:56)
- Jam Session: Improvising Together (12:15)
- Composing (13:43)
- Recomposing, Rearranging, Reinventing (11:58)
- Jam Session: Two Approaches to “Watermelon Man” (10:16)
- Working As a Composer (11:18)
- Chord Voicings (13:50)
- Case Study: Reharmonizing “Round Midnight” (11:26)
- Ravel’s Creative Harmonies (06:57)
- Expanding Your Harmonic Horizons (13:25)
- Listen and Learn: “Maiden Voyage” (08:52)
- Rhythmic Musicianship (16:01)
- Jam Session: Rhythm in “Actual Proof” (09:22)
- A Musical Life (13:33)
- Listen and Learn: Watermelon Man (05:44)
- Closing (02:36)
So, the total runtime of the MasterClass is four hours, 23 minutes, and eight seconds, which is substantial.
As noted earlier, there is also an extensive 166-page workbook and a community forum you can share your learnings with.
Some Actual Lesson Titles And What They Help You Do
In this section, we’ll be looking at several lesson titles from this masterclass, and what you can expect to learn inside each.
A Human Approach To Music
Hancock explains that jazz is like a conversation with musicians and the audience. The feelings affect the music. Jazz is all about exploration and discovery, he says, like astronauts in space. He adds that the human experience gives him a rich tapestry to draw from as a musician.
The critical lesson here is that music isn’t about music. Music is about life. When your life becomes about music, there’s no life in your music. You must put life in your music.
The Two Basic Jazz Forms
Hancock explains that there are only two formal forms of jazz – the 12-bar blues, and rhythm changes (many songs have been written using this form). This explanation is helpful in that it can remove some of the mystery of jazz, which can seem abstract and random from the outside looking in.
In this lesson, Hancock also touches on:
- Blues licks. Hancock shows the two blues notes that define the genre, along with a bunch of awesome licks he picked up along the way.
- Blues players worth taking inspiration from. Hancock shares several blues players he was influenced by and encourages viewers to learn from too.
- Improvising over rhythm changes. Hancock says there are some unique ways to approach rhythm changes. Then, he demonstrates some of his own licks and ideas.
As Hancock explains, there are times when you want to deliver a melody, but don’t necessarily have anyone backing you up. And when you’re playing alone, you aren’t obligated to stick to a specific tempo.
As well, when improvising alone, Hancock feels no restrictions in terms of harmonies or anything else. He plays as he feels led.
So, improvising is about playing freely.
In this lesson, Hancock also covers:
- “Maiden Voyage.” Hancock offers one of his most known songs, “Maiden Voyage,” as a case study for improvising alone.
- “Sonrisa.” Hancock demonstrates how “Sonrisa” is normally played, as well as how he would turn it into a solo piano piece.
Ravel’s Creative Harmonies
In this lesson, Hancock opts to take a deep dive into French composer Ravel’s pieces and adds some interesting harmonies to them.
He also demonstrates creative things you can do with the V chord.
In this lesson, Hancock shares:
- How to play in the pocket. When Hancock talks about playing “in the pocket,” he’s referring to playing right on the edge of the beat.
- Donald Byrd’s secret to speed. In his early years as a jazz pianist, Hancock was a competent ballad player. But he didn’t feel comfortable playing fast. One of Donald Byrd’s tunes was fast, and while Hancock found himself able to keep up with the changes, he had a tough time improvising over it. Hancock asked Byrd if he had any suggestions, and Byrd told him to take a form and write out an improvised solo you can hear in your head. After writing out about a dozen ideas and practicing them (but not necessarily to memorize them), Hancock found himself able to play faster.
- Tony Williams’ innovations. Hancock says he learned a great deal from Miles Davis drummer Tony Williams. Hancock explains Williams was the type of drummer that broke all the rules and conventions.
- A case study. Hancock demonstrates complex rhythms in “Actual Proof.” Hancock says he wrote some of the phrases in the song backwards on purpose, which makes the piece feel as though it’s not in 4/4 time, even though it is. Hancock says it takes a lot of work and practice to be able to play complex rhythms comfortably.
A Musical Life
Hancock explains that your ego can sometimes get the best of you as a musician. And creating a hierarchy around yourself can be disruptive to your creativity. He says there are no better human beings, let alone better jobs. This, in many ways, reflects Hancock’s philosophy on being inclusive (more on this in a moment).
He also shares on:
- Learning from collaborators. Hancock likes to work with people who have open hearts and open minds. And because he likes to keep learning, he tries to surround himself with great musicians. He likes creating win-win situations whenever and wherever possible.
- Being inclusive. When writing with another musician, says Hancock, trust is the most critical piece to making it work. Others might come to you with ideas you may not like. The trick is to find a way to complement them, or to make the idea work in some way. Don’t be too quick to reject anything and see if you can find another way of looking at it.
- Life fueling creativity. Hancock says life fuels creativity, because music is a story about life – the real things that happen in life. He says it’s not a waste of time to have another job, or to have interests outside of music. For instance, you can’t connect with people that have 9 – 5 jobs (and that’s most people) if you haven’t had one yourself.
- Dealing with insecurity. As human beings, we often feel insecure about creativity. Hancock says not to let it stop you. Things may not always go as planned in life, but if music is your passion, then you can’t give up on it regardless of what happens.
- Recognizing your true self. As Hancock was graduating from high school, he was beginning to consider what his major would be in college. He was interested in music as well as technology and science. He wasn’t sure whether he could get a job with a music degree, so he chose electrical engineering as his first major. But he found himself flunking all the classes because all he could think about was music. So, he ended up changing his major to music. He recognized his true self and embraced it.
A Breakdown Of The Herbie Hancock Course Content
Herbie Hancock’s masterclass doesn’t focus on just one thing. There is quite a bit he covers in terms of philosophy, performance, collaboration, technique, composing, theory, and more.
So, in this section, we’ll be offering a bit of a breakdown of the distinct types of content on offer here.
Hancock spends quite a bit of time talking about collaboration, living a musical life, why he loves jazz, inclusivity, and quite a bit more.
Talk to any experienced musician, and you will likely discover that they think deeply about their work. Not just the craft of music, but also what music means to them, how they write, how they work with others, and more.
Hancock’s approach to music is more about expression than anything else. Some musicians like to “stay within the box” and play it safe. But Hancock tends to express himself more freely, which is reflected in the way he thinks about playing the piano and the keyboard (as well as his many compositions).
The main lessons that find Hancock talking about how he thinks about life and music are:
- A Human Approach to Music
- Piano Basics
- Working As a Composer
- A Musical Life
Of course, there is quite a bit of talking throughout, and the course is chalk full of Hancock’s approach to music, the piano, and jazz. In other words, there is some overlap with other sections of the course.
Piano, Theory, Technique & Improvisation
Not surprisingly, there are quite a few lessons covering piano, theory, technique, and improvisation.
- Learning by Listening
- The Two Basic Jazz Forms
- Piano Basics
- Piano Exercises
- Improvising Alone
- Expanded Improv Techniques
- Chord Voicings
- Ravel’s Creative Harmonies
- Expanding Your Harmonic Horizons
- Rhythmic Musicianship
Naturally, piano players stand to benefit the most from these lessons. That said, even if you play other instruments, there will be some takeaways.
For example, even as a guitar player, how hard you pick or strum the strings has an impact on your instrument’s dynamics. The piano is the same way, and Hancock demonstrates everything from “soft” touches to using his full arm to strike the keys harder.
The exact motions of the technique vary, but the concepts remain the same. You can create dynamics by altering your technique.
And, of course, when it comes to music theory, we’re all talking about the same thing. It’s just that we may think about it or approach it differently than others.
Obviously, Hancock has his own approach. And it’s fascinating to see how an experienced and innovative jazz player thinks about it. In his case, he doesn’t put many limitations on himself. For him, playing and making music is more about self-expression and playing freely than anything else. Taking life’s experiences and translating them to music.
From improvisation to thinking differently about harmony, there are plenty of lessons that expand on the craft of playing music, and regardless of what instrument you play, there is always something to be learned from this masterclass.
Composing & Arranging
This masterclass features several lessons on composing and arranging, including:
- Recomposing, Rearranging, Reinventing
- Working As a Composer
- Case Study: Reharmonizing “Round Midnight”
Hancock says we all need to start somewhere. And sometimes we feel burdened by looming deadlines. There isn’t really a secret, he says. The secret is to start. Start with the first note or the first chord. Begin building on it, and soon enough, you will have something to work with and expand on.
He says it’s important to express emotion and feeling in your music, because the market wants to hear about real life experiences, not contrived ones. Hancock finds life a rich creative well to draw from.
In this section of the course, you will also discover some aspects of how Hancock collaborates with others. For instance, he used to work with a bass player who would come up with new bass lines for every song every night. Hancock urged him to play the same bass lines on certain songs like “Chameleon,” because Hancock would more easily be able to utilize the new ideas he had written for the songs.
Some nights, though, the bass player would still show up with a new bass line. What Hancock learned to do is figure out a way to use the bass lines he liked, in the same song, or potentially other songs. And that is the essence of recomposing or rearranging.
Hancock also shares about embracing new technology like synthesizers when they first came out. Although he was largely criticized for this move, he was learning something new, and he valued the experience of branching out and trying new things. He decided not to listen to naysayers and continued to innovate as he saw fit.
Hancock has worked on over 20 commercial jingles. He says in that line of work, it’s all about the product and not necessarily the music. He says not to be discouraged by such opportunities, even if the music isn’t the focus, as it’s an opportunity to get paid. Plus, it can expand your own toolbox as a writer and performer.
He also shares that scoring a film is quite a bit different than making an album, as the score ultimately belongs to the director and not the artist. Music is often used to enhance an emotion, or even soften a moment in a film. That means the music won’t always be front and center.
In this section, you also get to learn about music publishing. Donald Byrd encouraged Hancock to hold onto his music publishing, which can be a significant source of revenue for artists. Hancock says this was one of the best career moves he ever made.
So, while this might not be the most extensive section of the course, there’s still a great deal of depth to it, and there are a lot of practical things you can learn about building your own music career too.
Watching Hancock perform solo, and with a band, is one of the great joys of this masterclass. Seeing how he interacts with other musicians is a true pleasure, and there’s much that can be learned from these moments alone.
The performance section includes:
- Listen and Learn: “Oleo”
- Jam Session: Improvising Together
- Jam Session: Two Approaches to “Watermelon Man”
- Listen and Learn “Maiden Voyage”
- Jam Session: Rhythm in “Actual Proof”
- Listen and Learn: “Watermelon Man”
You can either watch as Hancock takes masterful command of his Fazioli grand or take advantage of a multitude of sounds on his KORG Kronos keyboard with a drummer and bassist. Both are compelling.
Regardless of whether he’s chording, playing the melody, or taking solos, Hancock is a virtuoso worth watching and studying.
My favorite moments were Hancock jamming with his band, as you start to get a sense of how his playing fits into the context of a group playing together.
His solo piano playing is still incredible in its own way, but the jam sessions are a nice breather from what is predominantly a masterclass centered on Hancock at the piano.
Herbie Hancock Masterclass Review, The Verdict – Good Or Not?
Little known fact – Herbie Hancock has been a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles since 2012. He teaches at the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music and is the chairman of the Herbie Hancock Institute of Jazz. So, you shouldn’t be surprised to find that, in addition to being an excellent musician, Hancock is more than a capable teacher as well.
One of the value propositions of any MasterClass course is that you can expect high-definition video along with professionally designed workbooks. Production values are high, and this is no different for Herbie Hancock Teaches Jazz. In this case, the workbook contains plenty of examples, so there is less mystery in trying to figure out scales, melodies, harmonies, and the licks Hancock plays (but the workbook doesn’t necessarily contain all of them).
Is this the ideal course for beginners? Not necessarily. This isn’t to say you can’t learn something from it, no matter what level you play at. But a certain level of proficiency on your instrument is going to make a significant difference, making this a better choice for intermediate to advanced players. Sight reading is secondary to using your ear, improvising, and even mimicking the licks Hancock plays. You can learn a great deal just by watching him in action too.
Although piano players may stand to benefit the most from this course (because they can mimic Hancock’s hand movements), by all means, other types of instrumentalists can gain something from watching, copying, or even jamming along with Hancock.
Does it appeal primarily to jazz players? Yes. Though you shouldn’t necessarily think of it as a complete history and explanation of jazz theory, chord theory, or even music theory, it does demystify jazz quite a bit, which is the mark of a good teacher – they can take complex subjects and make them more digestible for the student.
For those looking to expand their musical horizons, it can also make for a great course.
And it does deliver on its promises as well. You can’t necessarily sit and watch and get it all, but if you watch a lesson, refer to the workbook, and go and try the musical examples or assignments, you can internalize more of the content and pick up more.
So, this is not a “sit back and take it in” type course. It requires you to be an active participant to get the most from it.
In terms of price point, it’s more than reasonable. For what you get, it’s a great deal, in fact.
So, can you learn jazz from Herbie Hancock? Absolutely you can. Does he offer the best online jazz lessons? That depends on who you ask. But as noted, he does a great job of demystifying the genre, which can make it less intimidating, and more appealing, even to the player who hasn’t played a note of jazz. Overall, we recommend this MasterClass.