Finding that creative spark: One generation of artists nurtures the next at the Youth Performance Festival

  • All together now: students and mentor artists in the Youth Peformance Festival program met in Zoom workshops last month to develop student performance pieces.  Image courtesy Kelly Silliman

  • The Youth Performance Festival, staged in person in February 2020 at the Northampton Arts Trust building, is designed to “support young artists’ agency,” organizers say. Image courtesy Kelly Silliman

  • The Youth Performance Festival, staged in person in February 2020 at the Northampton Arts Trust building, is designed to “support young artists’ agency,” organizers say. Image courtesy Kelly Silliman

Staff Writer
Published: 2/12/2021 10:16:10 AM

Last year the Northampton Center for the Arts, in partnership with another arts organization, premiered a new free program: the Youth Performance Festival, in which children and teens interested in the arts are paired with adult mentor artists to help the young people develop performance pieces.

Over several weekends in January 2020, young artists ages 8 to 18 met in small groups with mentors to develop work in music, dance, theater and animation, which was presented during two days in February to “sold-out shows,” according to Kelly Silliman, program director at the Center for the Arts.

Even after the pandemic arrived, plans were put in place to restage the Youth Performance Festival this year, with the hope that COVID-19 would have run its course by now. That didn’t happen, of course, but the festival has forged ahead, with young artists and mentors meeting online via Zoom.

They’ll now present their performances online this Saturday, Feb. 13, at 2 p.m. To register for the event, email with name, address, and phone number. Tickets are available on a sliding scale from $5-$20/person, and no one will be turned away for lack of funds.

Payment may be made through Paypal; be sure to note Youth Performance Festival or YPF in the memo line. The Zoom link will be emailed on Friday, Feb. 12. The show has been recorded and videotaped by Northampton Open Media, Silliman said.

Silliman oversees the Youth Performance Festival with Sarah Marcus, executive director of Valley Performance Playground, a Northampton group that offers art and performance workshops for children. For her part, Silliman says she was encouraged that young artists and mentors were still willing to take part in the program despite not being able to meet in person.

“It’s been a challenge, but I think we really saw everyone working through this as best they could, still finding ways to be creative,” she said. “We made the workshop sessions a little shorter this year, just because so many of us are already spending so much time on Zoom.”

With 20 student artists, from 16 Valley schools, and 10 mentor artists participating this year, each mentor was able to work with about two students at a time, Silliman said, though mentors also rotated among different students. As she noted in a follow-up email, the goal of the festival is to create “an intergenerational community of artists that represents the breadth of the Valley, crossing artistic genres and town lines.”

At the program’s heart is “a belief in supporting young artists’ agency,” Silliman noted. “Mentor artists are there to support and guide youth artists, not tell them what to do or change.”

One of those mentors, Melinda Packer, worked with young musicians Ja’siah Bufford and Arden Lloyd, giving Lloyd, 17, feedback on her original song and in turn working with Bufford, 13, on the timing and cadence of the lyrics from her song.

Packer, a violist and orchestra and band teacher who studied at the University of Masschusetts Amherst and now lives in California, used to teach Beatboxing workshops in the area, which led Youth Performance Festival organizers to enlist her in teaching. She said in an email that working with the two students was a great experience, especially watching them collaborate on Bufford’s song.

“Arden would mess around with her keyboard as Ja’siah sang trying to find the right chords,” Packer said. “She really took Ja’siah’s ideas and ran with them.”

This kind of mentoring work, Packer added, “really keeps me on my toes since I’m not much of a singer or songwriter, but a general jack-of-all-trades type of musician. These two young artists, and really all of them, were so creative — they just needed a little push and some polishing help from me.”

Bufford, who’s in seventh grade at Greenfield Middle School, plays alto saxophone and has also studied cello and violin. But she joined the Youth Performance Festival to try her hand at something new: songwriting. Even if she had to do it online, she said in a phone call, working with Packer and Lloyd on her song “was a really good experience.”

And Lloyd, a senior at Amherst Regional High School who was named a finalist last month in the singer-songwriter category in a national competition for young artists, said she enjoyed collaborating with another songwriter, something she hadn’t done before.

And, she noted in an email, she liked seeing her fellow student artists “push their projects to the next level … It was slightly more challenging with the virtual format, but everyone was really good about problem-solving and it ran fairly smoothly!”

For more information on the Youth Performance Festival, visit

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