How does a young girl come to use her voice in the world of classical music? Well, it may have started with lullabies for Gainesville resident Ariela Griggs. “Ariela loved singing from a very young age,” said Amalia Griggs about her daughter. “She was the typical young girl singing Disney songs and other popular music.” But it was her father John who would sing her to sleep at night with songs from musicals like Camelot, Man of La Mancha, Sound of Music, and Fiddler on the Roof. “That was her introduction to classical music, and she loved it,” Amalia added.
Fortunately for Ariela, a student at Saint Veronica Catholic School in Chantilly, she and her sisters Camila and Amanda take dance classes at Virginia National Ballet (VNB), where founder and managing director Elysabeth Muscat, a former professional opera singer, teaches vocal lessons. “Ariela has been studying with me since October 2017,” Elysabeth said. “She started when she was nine and she is now 13. Normally, I wouldn’t take a student that young, but she was very interested, so I offered her a trial lesson. She was very attentive and took corrections well, so we started weekly lessons.” Elysabeth and Ariela worked on short, easy Disney songs like “Once Upon a Dream” from Sleeping Beauty, “Candle on the Water” from Pete’s Dragon, and “In My Own Little Corner” from Cinderella. Progress was slow and steady. “I could see she was very talented but very young,” Elyzabeth said. “She couldn’t really control her breath and her voice was underdeveloped but she was very mature, did well with my instruction, and worked hard.”
“My interest in singing started with seeing musical movies like Phantom of the Opera, Sound of Music, and Fiddler on the Roof,” Ariela said, “so I would practice singing songs from those musicals. After I began taking singing lessons, I really wanted to learn to sing opera and classical music like my teacher at Virginia National Ballet — she really inspired me.” Like many kids her age, Ariela has an ear for popular music, enjoying artists like Ariana Grande along with classical performers like Emmy Rossum of Phantom of the Opera. As her tastes grow and expand, so does her choice of material. “It’s fun now that I can give her a more interesting and challenging repertoire,” Elysabeth said.
Ariela continued weekly lessons to develop her blossoming talent. “After each lesson, Ariela is given different areas to practice until the next one,” Amalia said. “I have noticed that the singing lessons have also improved her discipline, breathing, speech clarity, posture, and work toward achieving goals.”
“She sang ‘The Sound of Music’ so beautifully at the VNB spring recital two years ago that we started working on George Gershwin’s ‘Summertime’ from Porgy and Bess for her to perform at the 2020 recital,” Elysabeth said. “Sadly, that got canceled. But, because she continued to improve and sound great during the 2020-21 school year, I wanted her to enter the Music International Grand Prix competition.”
Elysabeth and her husband Rafik, VNB’s artistic director, launched the Music International Grand Prix competition last year. “Rafi and I were brainstorming in February of 2020 and came up with the idea of doing a competition,” Elysabeth said. The event was originally scheduled to take place at New York City’s Zankel Hall within Carnegie Hall, but when the pandemic hit they had to regroup. “We put the semi-finals on Zoom and it worked out really well – and by the time we could do the finals we were able to come together live, so we held them at the Hylton Performing Arts Center as Carnegie had not yet reopened.” Ultimately, the new competition attracted a group of distinguished judges and 350 applicants. Three hundred were selected for the semifinals and 100 for the finals. There were 20 first place winners from each of the categories, which include voice (classical and popular), piano, strings, winds/brass, percussion, original composition, and ensembles, in four separate age groups: youth, teen, young adult, and adult. One overall winner was selected for the final Grand Prix Award.
Ariela performed “Summertime” as her semifinal selection, singing virtually, and made it to the finals. From there, she and Elysabeth had to quickly prepare an additional piece, choosing the Bach/Gounod version of “Ave Maria.” At the finals in May, Ariela took first place in the youth classical voice category.
“I was so proud of her bravery to sing before an audience,” Amalia said. “I was backstage with her as she prepared to make her entry, and she was nervous until she got on stage. Then, she just lit up with a big smile and really enjoyed herself. Singing in front of the judges was more of a challenge, but Ariela really feeds off being in front of an audience.”
“This is the first competition I encouraged Ariela to enter because I didn’t want to send her before she was ready. Of all my students, she is the only one who advanced to the finals, and she ended up taking first place. I am so proud of her achievement.” Elysabeth makes the point that she is the organizer of the competition but not a judge; the judges came from universities all over the country and had no idea that Ariela studies with her.
“I enjoyed getting ready for the competition and getting on stage to perform after practicing so much,” Ariela said. “The feeling of accomplishment after performing well is something I’ll never forget.”
Calling all musicians!
Registration for the 2022 Music International Grand Prix competition is now open. For details, visit MusicInternationalGrandPrix.com.