There are only about 40 students at the Nuniwarmuit School in Mekoryuk, a community of 200 people on an island in the middle of the Bering Sea. But sometimes it seems like the school can hardly contain the energy inside-- almost a controlled chaos.

On the morning of Feb. 7, older students were in the gym during a free period, bouncing basketballs, while another group was whacking away at ukuleles in the bleachers.

Down the hallway, children were learning lessons in their native Cup’iq language.

In another room, the teacher had turned off the lights and played classical music for her students, so they could prepare for the arrival of two renowned musicians, Zuill Bailey and Piers Lane, on a tour of Western Alaska organized by the Sitka Summer Music Festival.

Walt Betz, the school principal, wrote on the whiteboard outside the gym, “Windy Wednesday. Welcome musicians.”

He also scrawled an announcement about a community potluck and concert at 6 p.m.

Betz called it an important day for the school because most of the people in Mekoryuk have never experienced a classical music performance before.

“Life is hard here,” Betz said, “And so, to carve out a niche for something of beauty, this is the first time that’s been able to happen.”

It’s not every day that the morning flight brings in a Grammy-winning cellist, but after Zuill Bailey put his cello in the back of the school pickup truck and squeezed inside, he let out a laugh and said that he’s learned to “expect the unexpected”. 

Bailey is artistic director of the Sitka Summer Music Festival and invites some of the performers back to Alaska to travel with him during the winter.

Piers Lane, who had just flown to Alaska from London, said he had never traveled in a small bush plane before-- or played on a portable keyboard-- which came to Mekoryuk with him, packed in with the mail and airfreight. Lane had also never spent the night on a classroom floor or eaten corn dogs, which were served up for lunch.

As it turned out, it was a musical adventure for both the musicians and the students, who couldn’t resist moving to the sounds of the cello.

Bailey was not surprised.

“It’s difficult to hear great music and not move,” Bailey said, “And not be a part of it.”

Piers Lane said bringing classical music to remote parts of Alaska is Bailey’s vision, but he is happy to tag along because it feels like “slightly pioneering work, which is lovely for me to be a part of”. 

For more of Zuill Bailey’s Western Alaska tour, watch Frontiers.

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