It Was About the Music

by Daniel Chmielinski, B.M. Jazz Studies

The drive from Chicago to New York City is about thirteen hours. Since flying was out of the question due to the large double bass coming along for the trip, we decided to take on the thirteen-hour trek. With the car loaded up and my dad in the driver’s seat, we set off; only 900 miles between me and the audition that my entire musical career had been leading up to. It was Juilliard, the big one.

It was the last stop on the college audition tour, and by far the most challenging. With only about 40 students in the entire program, I felt my chances of getting in were slim at best. Lots of thoughts run through your head on a drive of that nature. You really hope that you perform at the top of your ability and leave absolutely everything you have on the table. You hope that all of your hard work pays off and that you don’t let nerves hinder you. Mostly though, you just hope that it goes as smoothly as possible.

When I arrived, I immediately recognized most of the other bassists auditioning. In an age focused so heavily on social media, you are incredibly in tune with the “who’s who” of your age bracket. You know who has won what audition, who has been featured in what bands and who has won what competitions. You may never have met them in person before, but you know who they are. Being that they only called back 9 of us, this was quite intimidating.

I threw myself in the practice room and waited to be called in. I didn’t have much time though, as I was called in not long after I finished warming up, cursing the fact that my last name starts with a C as I headed towards the room. (Why couldn’t it have been Zhmielinski?) Immediately, my heart began to race as I was greeted by 15 faculty members sitting behind a table only a few feet from where I was supposed to stand, in a rhythm section with Helen Sung on piano and Luca Santaniello on drums. As they began to introduce themselves one by one, I wanted to yell “Yes! I know who you all are!  I have your records; I’ve seen you in concert. This is really unnecessary.” But with each name, the tension grew.

And then, somehow, my attitude completely flipped. My incredible state of nervousness had transformed into incredible excitement. I was excited at the thought that I could have the opportunity to work with all these incredible musicians on a daily basis. I was about to play the music I loved with a world-class rhythm section for a group of people whom I had admired for years. It was then that I realized that they were on my team. It became solely about the music at that point. My ego shut off, I heard “start whenever you’re ready,” and I began to play.

It would be a lie to say that the audition was not tense. It most certainly was, but somehow the previously stated rationale got me through it. I knew that I was giving it my all, and whatever happened afterward was not a reflection of how I performed, but rather how they perceived it. I knew 110% was coming out of my instrument, firing on all cylinders, and that was that. You don’t think, “Gosh I really hope they’re enjoying this” in the moment, you just go for it. It is a surreal experience.

I was fortunate enough to get my acceptance letter a month later, and am currently living out the dream playing the music I love and learning from people who are some of the finest jazz musicians and educators in the world. Whether the letter said yes or no, I knew that what I left in that room was me. I gave them who I was as a musician, as a person, and as a student. And as chance would have it, they liked me.