Merit School of Music

Alumni Spotlight: Jacob Mezera



“My recent experience subbing with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra was a dream come true!” – Jacob Mezera


Year(s) Attended Merit: 2007 – 2013

Program(s): Alice S. Pfaelzer Tuition-free Conservatory (Class of 2013). Jacob received Merit’s 2013 Mary Herron Replogle College Scholarship.

Instrument: Trombone

Hometown: Tinley Park, Illinois

Education: Bachelors in Trombone Performance, The Juilliard School; Currently pursuing Masters in Trombone Performance at Northwestern University’s Bienen School of Music.


Q & A:

1) You recently performed as a substitute with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra trombone section for Debussy’s La mer and Berlioz’ “Royal Hunt and Storm” from Les Troyens. What an amazing opportunity! You describe it as a “dream come true.” How did you get this opportunity, and what was the experience like? How did you prepare for the performances?

When my teacher at Northwestern texted me, and asked me to play, I was ecstatic. Students from the Northwestern graduate program have subbed in the past, but I’m surprised the opportunity came to me so quickly given that it’s my first year. We played Debussy’s La mer and a piece from Berlioz’s massive opera, Les Troyens — both are great pieces, especially Berlioz. I thought it would be scary, but the rehearsals were not stressful since the CSO is such a great orchestra and has a high level of playing. It’s a relaxed atmosphere because they’re so used to playing together. For the first concert, I was really nervous playing, but it went well. I was happy and excited. There were some things that I wish I had played better, but it still went well. I needed to be smart about how I practiced — saving my chops for the actual performances. I listened to the Berlioz piece a lot to help prepare and then took it easy, making sure not to overplay.


2) For you, Merit was the “musical seed” for everything. Looking back, was there one moment, or one class, that really made you feel like a musician?

Definitely the Bone Rangers trombone quartet coached by Merit’s Director of Chamber Music, Tim Riordan. That group took us to various competitions and gigs. I started with the Bone Rangers as an 8th grader, and as a young kid playing with older kids (two seniors and a junior) who were better than me, I had to work hard to keep up with them. It was really fun to have that motivation. We rehearsed so much since we got into the Fischoff National Chamber Music Competition junior division. It was a lot of work, but very educational in terms of playing in a group and listening to others. We all got along well, and developed a bond, which helped with the process. Overall, the years of playing in that group really honed my skills as a musician and as a person.


3) When you first started at Merit, how old were you? What had been your prior musical experience?

I was 12 when I first started at Merit, although my “day one” of playing trombone was with Tim Riordan when I was ten years old. I had experience playing in a marching band, but not much chamber/ensemble experience. Through the Alice S. Pfaelzer Tuition-free Conservatory, Merit gave me opportunities to be exposed to much more small chamber/ensemble playing. For example, on a Conservatory Saturday, I’d experience a whole day of playing with ensembles plus a theory class in the morning. The rest of my day was band, orchestra, brass ensemble, trombone quartet, trombone choir. I had a great time, and really enjoyed the overall learning experience.


4) Kids are seeking an identity during adolescent years. How do you feel Merit helped you grow and develop during those years?

Merit was more of a home for me than being at my school in Tinley Park. I had so many friends here, and it was such a supportive environment. It’s been responsible for my development as a musician and whole person, especially regarding discipline. In middle school, I had to make practice schedules for myself and decide what I wanted to practice and when. I did that all the way through college. Merit really taught me to be disciplined and to follow my dreams.


5) Juilliard is a super-competitive school with a 6-7% acceptance rate. Was Juilliard always your goal? What was the college search process like for you? How did your experience at Merit prepare you for the audition process? What was your first reaction when you received your acceptance letter?

Juilliard’s been my goal since 8th grade. I remember hearing about Matt Wolford, who is a Merit alumnus who went to Juilliard for trombone. He’s a great player, and I heard great things about Juilliard. Since then, I thought “I’d love to go there.” However, there was a moment shortly before I took auditions for college when I told Tim Riordan that “I don’t know if I want to do this or what I want to do.” After talking with Tim and feeling inspired, I decided that I’m going to do it, and I don’t regret it at all. Tim is so great about always encouraging his students to keep going.

Auditioning for Juilliard was different than other auditions. Shortly before my audition, I found out that I was accepted at The Colburn School. That lifted a lot of pressure and anxiety off of my shoulders, and I think I played one of my best auditions for Juilliard. Because of Merit, I was used to performing for people and playing a lot. I had to learn the repertoire shortly before the audition which involved playing a lot of excerpts in a row which I wasn’t used to, but the way Tim teaches his students really helps them learn the fundamentals and then they can take it from there.

Tim informed me that I got accepted into Juilliard. When I got the official email, I told my parents — they were ecstatic. It was awesome to see that email “Congratulations on your acceptance.” My parents were proud of me and so was Tim. It was a HUGE relief, and I was excited!


6) At Juilliard, you were among the best of the best. Were there any moments of self-doubt?

When I first got to Juilliard, I was shell-shocked by the amount of sheer talent around me. I felt a little bit out of place and thought “I don’t know enough about music, or I don’t know if I’m ready to be here.” I remember going into this big hall to take a theory exam, and I was worried that I would do terrible on the exam and that everyone else would do better than me. But that wasn’t the case. I was just in my head and scared.

I remember calling Tim Riordan once and asking him “What am I doing here? Maybe I should take a break.” He said “You know. You eventually have to keep your head down and do what you got to do and not be distracted by what other people might think of you.” He helped me to get through the hard part of going to college. I was so grateful for that.


7) Thinking through your past four years of college, how would you compare the 18- year-old Jake Mezera after his 1st semester at The Juilliard School with the 21-year-old Jake Mezera on his graduation day? In what ways did you change and grow during your journey from being a teenager to a young adult?

When I got into Juilliard, I was very quiet; very shy. Throughout my years at Juilliard, I gradually got my bearings socially-speaking. I think musically, it’s taught me to really listen to how you want things to sound before you play them. That was a big part of what my professors taught at Juilliard. Music was a common language that we could speak as Juilliard is full of musicians mostly, as well as dancers and actors — they’re exposed to our music-making and we’re exposed to their art.

Being trained in music has taught me how to be disciplined, to work hard, and to not give up. There have been many times when I’ve failed…in lessons or in performances, and my Merit teacher, Tim, would always encourage me and say “No matter what…keep trying. Do your best.” He’s given me a lot of inspiration to do my best every time. That’s really helped shape my outlook on who I want to be for the rest of my life.


8) What’s your dream job?

Subbing with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is a dream come true. It’s like meeting celebrities. My dream job would be to play full-time with the CSO as a regular member. I’ve been listening to them since the 7th grade…on the train, going to rehearsals…I would listen to CSO recordings all the time. The other trombone guys are nice, pleasant, down-to-earth people…not intimidating. They’re my idols, so it’s been amazing to have this subbing opportunity.


9) What do you do for fun and self-care?

I like to work out, go hiking, play video games, and hang out with friends.


10) You’ve had a great mentor in Merit teacher, Tim Riordan. Have you had the opportunity to mentor young musicians?

My middle school band director would have the section leaders coach the section members on current repertoire. I would direct the rehearsals and encourage them to play with feeling and not just play the notes. I was like a mini Tim Riordan in those sectionals. Not quite as intense, but with the same amount of passion for the music. That’s something I wanted to get across in those rehearsals.


11) What advice would you give to young musicians who are about to get into college conservatory and be around some really great players?

Take it one day at a time. Figure out who your friends are and hang out with them. Find time to relax and not worry about everything that you have to do at once. Take it slowly and not think ahead so much. Think about what you have to do at that moment. Remember that you were accepted into your program and you’re there for a reason. Most of all, you have to tell yourself that reaching your dreams is possible. Just don’t give up.

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