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Making Online Jazz Instruction Work

By Michael Doan

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In this era of social distancing, a worldwide group of adult amateur jazz musicians is able to trade musical riffs while sitting in their living rooms. With Jazz Wire, Jeff Antoniuk has assembled hundreds of players to learn, play, and communicate as if they were in the same space.

For the past two years, on www.jazzwire.net, Antoniuk has been one of the sole voices in jazz music education with interactive lessons online. He gives short weekly video talks with tips on playing and improvising on jazz tunes. In turn, the musicians are posting up to 800 comments, including their own audio or video versions each week, usually with improvisations. The others comment on them and Antoniuk usually comes up with suggestions.

“With COVID-19 always a risk, many of us can’t be together physically, and we’ve never felt more separated as human beings – and as musicians – than we do right now,” says Antoniuk. “Jazz Wire is intended to connect us and support each other as we play jazz, no matter where in the world we are.”

From Annapolis, Maryland, this longtime jazz saxophonist has signed up a growing group of 250 people across the globe for his paid site Jazz Wire, many of them first attracted by the free “Digging Deeper” jazz videos he has provided for years.

It all began about three years ago when Antoniuk was tapped to play in Duke Ellington’s “Nutcracker Suite” with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Someone suggested that he do a video series on what it is like to prepare for the concert, mistakes and all.

“I fell into enjoying doing videos, and I decided to put out weekly short videos on YouTube providing tips on playing jazz,” he says. His “Digging Deeper” videos, also on Facebook, started gaining traction and he was getting 8,000 to 10,000 hits per week from amateur musicians all over the world.

“I began to get emails from people asking if I taught and where they could get lessons,” he says. “Well, I have no way to open a location in Cincinnati or San Diego.” So Antoniuk created “Jazz Wire.” He posts different lessons in three sections – one each for novice, intermediate, and advanced players. Each lesson is song-based and includes ability-specific suggestions and insider tips.

Most importantly, students are encouraged to comment on each video, ask questions and post a version of themselves playing parts of the song. The other musicians will often comment on each other’s playing and Antoniuk usually joins in with more comments, too. The community aspect of Jazz Wire is what sets it apart from other educational sites and jazz programs.

The instrumentalists are asked to commit to at least six months, at $49.50 per month. Besides the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, there are participants on Jazz Wire from such places as Hong Kong, Portugal, Australia, and Belgium. Antoniuk also includes the members of the 16 band classes he manages as part of Jazz Band Masterclass in Annapolis and Washington, D.C.

He says, “Unlike other educational sites, I know the musicians. Everyone who is playing has played for me.” Before they join the community, students are asked to send in two recordings of themselves playing. Antoniuk then creates a personalized practice plan and playing evaluation for each player.

A lot of emphasis is placed on the give-and-take dynamic of these communities at Jazz Wire. “What I remember about college [North Texas University] was hanging out with other musician friends, having a pizza, and talking about the music,” Antoniuk says. “This was the community experience we all value in a high-quality university experience. I learned more from that than the lectures.”

The online Digging Deeper videos and Jazz Wire are, ironically, leading to more jazz education in the “real world.” Through popular demand, Antoniuk has produced one-day jazz workshops in Toronto, San Diego, Pomona, California, and elsewhere, attracting people who have seen his Digging Deeper videos. He also gives workshops around the world, and last July musicians from anywhere could attend his Maryland Summer Jazz workshop online.

In a typical recent “Red Community” or intermediate weekly video post, Antoniuk talked for 16 minutes about the song “Alone Together,” which the group had been studying for three weeks. Sitting on a piano stool and holding a saxophone, Antoniuk explains the use of the harmonic minor in the song and why that is usually a better choice than the Dorian mode. He improvises on the song himself, and he notes that a Sonny Stitt lick on “Alone Together” is entirely in harmonic minor.

In the comments section later, one Jazz Wire saxophone-playing member posts a video of himself improvising on “Alone Together,” based on the previous week’s lesson. One commenter writes: “So interesting.” Another writes: “Nice playing. Your swing sounds a bit like dotted eighth notes rather than true swing. Just my perception. I like the ‘Summertime’ quote!” Antoniuk chimes in, “You are definitely achieving your goal of ‘not just noodling around in the key’ but really getting inside the chords. The Stitt lick is a great model to follow, isn’t it?”

When the sax player asks if there is anything he can improve on Antoniuk says, “Have you spent any or much time with harmonics on the sax, as a warmup and tone building exercise? I think that beefing up your sound and core would be a great ‘next thing’ for you to work on.”

The participants like Antoniuk’s singular focus on adult amateur/semi-pro musicians, which are too often neglected in the marketplace. “I feel I have made more progress in the last 17 months on Jazz Wire than I had in the last 20 years,” says Norm Rose, a 63-year-old saxophone player from San Mateo, California.

Florian Ziegler, a trumpet player from Munich, Germany, likes the deadline that he creates for himself after each weekly lesson to post a recording before the next one. “I am motivated to practice much more intently,” Ziegler says.

Adds Kim Senior, a Burlington, Vermont, guitarist, “The daily feedback by Jeff is more useful than weekly or monthly lessons from some teachers.”

Others note that Jazz Wire helps them connect with other musicians who can talk about jazz. “There are continually fewer gigs and jam sessions these days,” says Jim Kangas of Indio, California “I have ended up meeting many of my musical friends online first.”

Another likes the evaluations that Antoniuk provides for new members. Says Joel Pierson, a saxophone player, “I jumped at the chance to submit two demo recordings to be told what my strengths and weaknesses were.” He attended a live workshop with Antoniuk in which “nothing was scripted. It all just flowed off the top of his head which told me he has a very deep knowledge and instant recall.”

What does Antoniuk see as the future of online jazz education? He is eagerly waiting for the technology to come on line that will make it possible for musicians all over the world to offer a satisfactory real-time playing experience. Currently, there is too much of a time gap in telecommunications signals for this to work well. Scientists, however, are hard at work, and like any technology, it’s only a matter of time.

He says, “It would be great to have a Jazz Wire bass player in Tokyo, a drummer in India, and a saxophone player in the U.S. jamming in real time any hour of the day or night.”

Learn more at www.jazzwire.net and www.jeffantoniuk.com

Michael Doan is a retired Washington journalist for The Associated Press, U.S. News & World Report, and the Kiplinger Editors. Currently he is a jazz pianist and vocalist for the Tunnel Creek Vineyards in Rosboro, North Carolina. He has played with the Jazz Band Masterclass in Annapolis, Maryland and the Jazz Workshop band class in McLean, Virginia. 

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