Yolanda Bruno has never known a life without music – literally. Her mother was performing in a recital when she went into labour, and music has been part of her world ever since.
Michael Bridge also began performing from his earliest childhood years, and his parents recall him singing while assembling lego sets.
By age 4, he had already taken up piano lessons even before his feet could reach the pedals.
The next year he found an instrument much less common among children his age – the accordion.
“My mother found one at a garage sale for $5, and a family friend was able to teach me how to play,” laughs Michael.
While both continued to play throughout their respective childhoods, it was only as teenagers that they realized their talents were truly something special.
At 11 Michael began playing in retirement homes throughout his native Calgary, and saw firsthand the impact that music could have on those who were struggling with various health issues.
He recalls patients with dementia who could no longer speak but could still sing, or a lady who was no longer mobile getting up out of her seat to dance, whereupon she could suddenly lift her feet again.
Playing over 70 shows a year as a teenager, he recognized the power of music to go beyond words, adding “that’s something that both of us try to bring in all of the performances that we do.”
Or, as Yolanda quotes the Irish poet John O’Donohue, “music does what language only dreams it could do.”
By the time they each respectively completed high school, both could see a path to performing music full time.
Today, Michael has built a career off of playing the accordion full time, both traditional and electric, and has been described by CBC Music as “a wizard of the accordion.”
While he has a passion for baroque music, Michael equally loves to champion jazz, folk and classical, and frequently plays new compositions alongside those written centuries ago.
Yolanda is an accomplished violinist, and plays from September to June with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.
Both teach as well – Michael privately and virtually through the University of Victoria, and Yolanda takes on occasional students and hosts master classes.
For Michael, it’s all about engaging the audience, and ensuring that they’re having fun while they’re enjoying the music.
Yolanda learned that firsthand while offering online performances during the pandemic.
She started an initiative called Music for your Blues, allowing small groups or even individuals to enjoy her music and help stave off some of the loneliness and depression that stemmed from lengthy lockdowns.
In the first 6 months of lockdown, Yolanda estimates that she gave 50 of these performances where she played music, read poetry, told stories, and communicated with her audience.
“It created a safe space,” remembers Yolanda. Some concerts were an entire classroom, others were small groups or couples, or sometimes even a single person.
The concerts created a therapeutic environment of sorts, where attendees felt comfortable sharing what they were going through, and how they were feeling.
Even now that lockdowns are over and live performances have resumed, it’s a memory that Yolanda still carries fondly.
While Michael and Yolanda are a duo offstage, the upcoming High Notes Avante gala will be one of the rare occasions where they will perform together.
Michael has seen the challenges that COVID brought in his own family, with relatives still dealing with lasting symptoms long after their infection.
Moreover, he knows the isolation and loneliness that the pandemic created, and the mental strain it placed on those even who had not been touched by mental health before.
Yolanda’s grandmother lived with depression, and she recognizes that her grandmother lived through a time where therapy or treatment were not to be discussed, and anyone struggling was simply expected to ‘suffer in silence.’
Both are thrilled to be assisting High Notes Avante with their mission of improving awareness and broadening the conversations around mental health.
“If our meeting and the music can serve as a way to bring up this conversation about mental health, I think that’s wonderful,” says Yolanda.
Adds Michael, “we’ll always try to prioritize causes and events that do that.”