In addition to working on technique and group skills, the Jazz Band Masterclass groups go into the tradition of jazz as a whole. The century-old genre has strong ties with the oral arts as well as improvisation. Performing for an audience is important both to the development of these students’ skills and jazz itself.
By filling the rehearsal year with approximately a dozen concerts, at which several groups come together to perform at each, Antoniuk gives every student the chance to experience playing live in front of friends and family.
“Beyond just learning a skill and getting better at their instruments, [the students] have to look ahead to the fact that they’ll be playing a handful of songs at a club,” he said. “It puts a little extra energy behind what they’re doing, those good nerves and anxiety really help focus and make those folks get a little bit better a little bit quicker.”
On average, each person stays in the group for four to six years; however, while some students leave after only a few months, others have continued to come back since the inaugural class. Many go on to perform occasional gigs at weddings, restaurants and museums, but some have become professional musicians thanks to their participation in the program.
“I think they find it such an important part of their lives, it’s just something they can’t find elsewhere,” Antoniuk said. “They keep coming back, they see themselves growing, they hear themselves playing better, and they don’t have to do the organizing or choose the music. They can just show up and do their thing.”
Approximately 125 people were in the program last year, and the number remains close to that today. Those students have chosen to take a step in reconnecting with their past, an undertaking that can be difficult after leaving any hobby behind for a period of time. Whether it’s sports, writing or music, taking former passions and fitting them back into a busy schedule sometimes requires the right nudge.
“These are people who loved music as a kid — and so many of us do, and we move on to our busy lives and making money and paying mortgages, and sometimes those important loves and dreams get set aside,” Antoniuk said. “I’m so inspired by anyone that goes back and reconnects with something they loved earlier in life.”