University of Lynchburg alumni can keep an eye out for one of their own on the 20th season of ABC’s “American Idol,” which premiered at 8 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 27. While he didn’t show up in the premiere, Danny Czerkawski ’16 could appear on “American Idol” sometime this season.
Czerkawski, a former communication studies major and lacrosse player at Lynchburg, admits that last September might not have been the most opportune time to throw his hat in the ring for the popular TV singing contest.
At the time, the singer-songwriter was on the heels of a painful breakup. There also was the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Still, recalling something his college lacrosse coach used to say, he thought it was time to “jump into the pool.”
“That’s a pretty often-used phrase, especially when they’re younger, to get them to embrace what we’re doing,” said Steve Koudelka, Lynchburg’s men’s lacrosse coach since 1997. “The thinking is that the quicker they jump in, the more time they have to enjoy the swim.
“Danny was one of those who did that right away. I think that’s why he got a lot out of his experience at Lynchburg — not only lacrosse-wise, but on campus.”
Almost on a whim, Czerkawski, now the creative producer for a big Boston-based construction company, signed up online for “American Idol” and sent in his application materials. “I said, ‘I’m going to jump into the pool,’ I’m going to go for it,” he said. “Whatever happens, it’s just the start of my journey.”
It wasn’t long before he got an email: “Your audition for September is scheduled.” It was the first of two preliminary, virtual auditions he’d have with the show’s producers. “I sang my song for this first round of producers,” Czerkawski said, “and they said, ‘Huh, this is a good song. We like you. We want you to go through to the next round and meet with the executive producers.’”
Next, he sang a few songs, including an original, for the executive producers, who told him he’d made the cut. He was headed to Nashville for an in-person audition with music superstars Katy Perry, Lionel Richie, and Luke Bryan.
By the time he got the good news from “Idol,” Czerkawski had been singing for years, and to hear him tell it, he came by his musical talent honestly. His mom is a singer; his grandfather’s a musician. He grew up listening to Elton John and Billy Joel, and said his “Beatles moment” was when his mom took him to a Billy Joel concert at age 12.
His senior year at Lynchburg, Czerkawski thought, “I’m going to buy a guitar.” So, he went to a local music shop with what he described as “little to no money,” bought a guitar, and taught himself to play it.
He also took a music theory class at Lynchburg and became a fixture in the lacrosse team’s traditional singalongs. “On away trips on the bus, we’d have singalongs, and most of the time I would be asked to get up in front of the team and sing a song or sing against somebody,” he said.
“I remember Coach Koudelka really didn’t know I could do it. I remember him being really surprised.”
Koudelka isn’t surprised anymore. It also didn’t surprise him to learn that his former player had auditioned for the show. “Knowing him and his passions and what he loves to do, once that opportunity arose, I didn’t see Danny just sitting there and letting that opportunity pass him by,” he said.
After graduating from Lynchburg, Czerkawski moved back home to the Boston area and got a job. He started singing lead vocals with a band and writing songs. When COVID-19 hit and nearly everything screeched to a halt, Czerkawski took the opportunity to get more serious about songwriting and teach himself to play piano.
Then, “Idol” happened, and one day in November 2021, he found himself waiting backstage for the opportunity of a lifetime. “It was totally surreal,” he said. “It was the first singing competition that ever came out; it was the start of everything, of all the different talent shows.
“The whole emphasis is giving everybody, an everyday person, a shot at a start.”
About 90 people auditioned in Nashville, 30 or so each day for three days. Czerkawski was about 25th in line, on the third day of auditions. “It was a lot of waiting around and doing interviews and practicing,” he said. “I had some time to practice my song.
“The day of my audition was pretty cool. It was a long day. I woke up at 6 a.m., and I was at the location by 6:30. The whole day is a little bit of anticipation. I was meeting all of these really talented singers from all walks of life and different ages.”
The contestants came from across the country, he added, and while everybody was there to win, the “whole energy … wasn’t necessarily a feeling of competition. It was more of encouragement and very inspiring. It was cool.”
Finally, after hours of waiting, it was his turn. “I was in the middle of an interview. It was getting really dark at night,” he said. “They cut the interview short. ‘Danny, you’re up.’ So much adrenaline is going through me. I got to feel like what a rock star feels like before going on stage. I grabbed my guitar, put my strap on. My mother was walking with me. I was warming up on the elevator.
“I get to the floor where the audition is, they’re strapping on the mic, plugging in my guitar, tuning my guitar. I’m totally in the zone and I’m ready. … Holy smokes! This is my shot, this is my opportunity. Whatever happens, this is the beginning of something amazing.”
Czerkawski said he took a deep breath and walked to the center of the stage, where he stood under the bright lights in front of three famous judges. “I felt so small in that moment,” he said. “I kept my composure, but felt so small. I felt like the smallest person in the room in front of these celebrities.”
Before Czerkawski sang, there was the usual chit-chat: He’d been an “Idol” fan since the very beginning, the recent months had been difficult, that kind of thing. He said he didn’t intend to say “I got my heart broken on national TV,” but when Katy Perry asked him what he’d been going through lately, it just came out.
He also told Perry that the song he was going to sing, “Colors,” by Black Pumas, had helped him get through the pain. And then Czerkawski, whose most recent influences include Chris Stapleton, sang.
Two months after his audition, in early January, Czerkawski posted on Instagram, “It’s never too late to follow your dreams. Music is the fabric of my heart & soul. Being able to explore this area of myself more seriously over the last few years has really inspired me to believe. It’s what I love and [I’m] meant to do. Being 28, if not now? Then when?!
“I’m excited to finally share with you the BIG NEWS that I auditioned for American Idol season 20!!! Tune in … to see if they gave this old Boston boy a golden ticket!”
Indeed, let’s see.
For photos and to listen to some of Czerkawski’s music, visit his Instagram page.