There’s something about playing live that 12-year-old Ani Ghulyan misses: a sense of relief in getting on stage, sitting at the piano, and knowing whatever she plays will live only once.
Ghulyan, who has been playing the piano for half her life, longs for that thrill after weeks confined to her house during the Covid-19 pandemic. She misses “the stage, with the audience,” she says.
The Yellowknife resident is preparing for her level six Royal Conservatory exam in June, having skipped a couple of levels by gobbling up the materials.
This month, she would have been in Alberta as an alternate for the Provincial Music Festival after performing in an online piano festival in April. She also spent months preparing pieces for the Yellowknife Music Festival.
None of that is happening. “Oh, I was expecting it,” Ghulyan says.
But not all is lost.
While the Yellowknife Music Festival can’t take place as normal at the Northern Arts and Cultural Centre, it has instead become an online collage of talent and passion.
This week, nearly 20 pre-taped video performances from Yellowknife youth were gradually released to the festival’s YouTube page.
Musician Mary Kelly, the festival’s coordinator, said the pandemic shouldn’t take away their hard work and achievements.
“Some of them are practising two hours a day through the year,” Kelly says. “That’s really incredible.”
One girl sits at the piano in an elegant gown for her video, playing a soft tune as her fingers float above the keys. When she finishes playing, she stands and gives the camera a bow.
In another video, a boy in khakis and a brown tunic soulfully pines away with a song from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Starting the number on his knees, he ends standing with palms to the sky as he hits the final note.
Ghulyan can be seen giving an energetic performance of Dmitry Kabalevsky’s Song of the Cavalry, dipping her head with each inflection.
She admits it took a couple of tries to get right.
“My mom was filming, and it was either her or me that made the mistake,” she says.
“I know that I can do it, that I can play every song without a mistake with everything that I’m supposed to do, but sometimes it just doesn’t happen, and I can’t fix it for some reason.”
Regardless of how many takes it took, these performances are an act of self-expression, Kelly says.
“Any time we share our music with other people, whether it’s sharing something we write or just sharing a performance, that brings us to a state of vulnerability in front of other people,” she says. “And that can give us courage and give us motivation to keep trying.”
Sadee Mitchell, 10, is a performer in the online festival. In a wide-brimmed hat and flannel dress, she belts out You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile – a song from the musical Annie.
She is not short on courage.
“I feel like it’s just something that’s inside me, like in my blood,” she says, describing what draws her to sing.
Mitchell says there was never a time in her life when she wasn’t singing. Her mom remembers she would sit in the back of the car and sing Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, for hours, at two years of age.
Ever since, Mitchell has had the musical bug. She takes vocal lessons in Yellowknife and has performed in the festival for the past four years.
“It just feels normal,” she says.
The pandemic has not left Mitchell without fears. She says she’s a naturally anxious person and, when the virus came to the NWT, she felt scared to leave her house.
To conquer that, she likes to pretend she is in a movie. “Sometimes I think my life is a musical, or my life is a song,” Mitchell says.
She’ll sing songs about how she’s feeling. They help her get emotions off her chest, make tough times a little easier to deal with, and turn life into something a little more fun.
The YouTube playlist has inspired Ghulyan to keep practising and doing her best. Mitchell enjoyed watching other people’s personalities shine through their music.
Kelly just hopes it’s some kind of virtual camaraderie when young musicians can’t experience that for real. (Band classes and some other musical activities remain prohibited in phase one of the NWT’s recovery plan, which the territory entered on Friday.)
“You don’t have to be the top performer, or the most entertaining. There’s value in just engaging in music in whatever ways are meaningful to the individual,” Kelly says.
“That connects people. And that’s valuable.”