Plenty of college students talk about living the dream.
UW-Eau Claire’s Connor Pietrzak is doing it.
The senior music major is playing trumpet on the first national Broadway tour of "Miss Saigon," a long-term professional gig that will have him playing multiple shows a week in cities throughout the United States and Canada.
“I’m so excited to live my dream,” Pietrzak, a native of Sherwood, says. “I love playing in pit orchestras and to play this book specifically, is very special. This book really tests every part of my playing: Big round orchestral playing, lead trumpet, dark chamber playing and a lot more.”
Even more impressive?
Pietrzak is still a UW-Eau Claire student.
As he travels the country as part of a national touring company, he is completing coursework online so he can graduate in December from UW-Eau Claire.
He also will perform a final student recital on campus in October during a break from his "Miss Saigon" tour.
Performing throughout the country as part of a national tour wasn’t how Pietrzak had envisioned spending his final semester as a college student. However, when the opportunity came his way, he knew he had to jump at it.
In April, when he was contacted by the contractor and music supervisor for "Miss Saigon" about potentially joining the national tour, he quickly sent them several videos of himself playing excerpts from the "Miss Saigon" show.
The next day, he got a call from the music supervisor saying the job was his if he wanted it.
“I was proud of myself, certainly, but the overwhelming feeling was of gratitude,” Pietrzak says of his reaction to the job offer. “My parents have sacrificed so much time and energy for me. Mr. Robert Baca, director of jazz studies, has been a teacher and mentor beyond anything I ever could have asked for.
“Alumni from UW-Eau Claire’s music program have given me so much of their time and wisdom — people like John Raymond and Jeremy Miloszewicz and Andy Neesley, and especially Dan Urness, who helped me a lot in getting this job, as he played trumpet for 'Miss Saigon' on Broadway in New York City. I’ve gained so much from my friends as well; older friends who took me under their wings when I got to school, and younger friends who inspire me and keep the fire blazing within me.”
Pietrzak currently is in Providence, Rhode Island, where the "Miss Saigon" national tour is launching.
“I will play the trumpet book for eight shows a week as we tour around the United States and Canada,” says Pietrzak. “I’m excited to see the country. In the coming years, I’ll have performed in nearly every state, and we never play in a city for less than a week, so I’ll have time to do a little exploring.
“Currently, dates are published through August of 2019, but there will be many more tour dates to come, and I’ll be on the road with this show for quite a while.”
As a member of UW-Eau Claire’s nationally celebrated music program, Pietrzak has had plenty of experience playing alongside talented musicians and in front of large audiences.
Jazz Ensemble I and the "Cabaret" orchestra were especially helpful in preparing him to succeed in the intense environment he’s now in.
“You don’t learn how to buckle down and perform in a high-intensity environment by passing an exam or writing an essay,” Pietrzak says. “Jazz I and 'Cabaret' afforded me tons of opportunities to perform on short notice, to make important artistic decisions on the fly, and to start being comfortable ‘while the bullets are flying,’ as Mr. Baca would say. I have Mr. Baca to thank for trusting me with those roles and those opportunities, which gave me these real skills.”
Those real-world performing experiences prepared him well for his current job with the long-running and always popular "Miss Saigon," he says.
“I was certainly nervous on the first morning when there were a lot of unknown factors around me,” Pietrzak says. “But after the first day or two, and definitely after the first preview performance, I’m very comfortable and nerves aren’t really a factor even though the music is really challenging and there are over 3,000 people out in the theater.”
He also credits his experiences as a Blugold with helping him believe that he could be successful in the highly competitive music industry.
“One thing that really surprised me when I got to UWEC was the discovery that people from this program were actually out there being professional musicians,” Pietrzak says. “Before college, I had this idea that anyone who had a career in music was some sort of prodigy and if I hadn’t ascended to some incredible level by the time I was 18, then that window had closed.
“But I got to school and everyone told stories about grads like Kyle Newmaster, Amy Schendel, Scott Pingel, Tom Luer and a hundred others. These people were just like me when they were 18. I realized that if I wanted it badly enough, there was a path I could take to have a life doing what I love to do.”
He also realized that those successful Blugold alumni could and would help him achieve his dreams.
“I tell younger students that they need to seek out experiences that put you in personal touch with people who are doing what you want to be doing,” Pietrzak says. “I knew for a while that I’d love to play trumpet on Broadway, but I really didn’t know what that meant until I went to New York City during spring break my junior year and sat in the pit of 'Aladdin' next to the trumpet section.
“In other words, my mental picture of the realization of my goals became crystal clear: I could vividly imagine the theater, the stage door, the chair I would sit in, and, most importantly, how I would need to sound. This experience made my practice a lot more focused and intentional.”
Pietrzak credits Baca with bringing him to UW-Eau Claire, and then helping him build the kind of talent, resume and professional network that helped him to begin his professional career with a national touring company.
“Mr. Baca was 100 percent what brought me to Eau Claire,” Pietrzak says. “In March of my senior year of high school, I came to visit the day before my audition. In one afternoon of talking with him, I knew that if I didn’t come here and study with him, I’d really be missing something.”
Five years later, he’s more certain than ever that he made the right decision.
“Over the course of five years, there have been a lot of highlights,” Pietrzak says of being a Blugold. “However, most of them probably aren’t what you’d expect. Practicing with other trumpet players till 3 or 4 a.m., and then getting up at 6:30 a.m. to fire it up again for the day. Piling into a car with friends and going to see the Minnesota Orchestra play, or see Mr. Baca play in a Broadway show at the Orpheum in Minneapolis. Driving out to Mr. Baca’s house to practice with him, and then chop and stack wood that he uses to heat his home in the winter. The conversations and lessons while out on his property are some of my most prized memories from college.”
While he treasures these and other experiences he shared with his Blugold classmates and professors, the highlight of his college experience was sharing the stage with a music icon.
“As a music student, the highlights are too many to count,” Pietrzak says. “However, the best of them all was sharing the stage for two nights with Doc Severinsen. I can’t even describe what a thrill that was. It’s like playing catch with Aaron Rodgers or playing 18 holes with Jack Nicklaus. He’s such a giant, and I got to play lead trumpet behind him for two nights, and it was such a privilege.”
Top photo caption: Senior music major Connor Pietrzak is playing trumpet in a national tour of "Miss Saigon."