When Alliszon Zaichkowski arrived to Canada’s Got Talent this season, she blew viewers’ minds with a skill one might say came from Atlantis itself.
A classical musician and James Bay resident hailing from White Rock, B.C., she appeared on stage Nov. 11 at the Grand Hall in Niagara Falls, Ont., to play pop music with nothing but a conch shell. She didn’t make it far in the competition but would learn that her performance, which aired April 19, nearly received a golden buzzer from contest judge and Canadian comedian Howard Mandel.
Zaichkowski, 42, first learned of the conch from William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, in which Piggy totes the shell as a symbol of civilized society. But her unique skill with the improvised instrument comes from 21 years of playing French horn and serving in the Royal Canadian Navy’s Naden Band.
She also holds a bachelor of music in French horn from the University of British Columbia, a master of music from the University of Calgary and has additionally studied at Kwantlen Polytechnic University and the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity.
Zaichkowski began tooting an acoustically low-quality conch 11 years ago for a solo horn program she performed at retirement homes, which featured a historical demonstration of the French horn’s ancestry. But when she jokingly ordered her own shell off eBay and gave it a honk, she “couldn’t believe how good it sounded.”
“Everyone was saying, ‘My grandpa has this shell, you can have it.’”
Discovering that each conch comes with its own special sound, Zaichkowski went on to amass 20 shells.
When she caught wind of an annual “conch honk” festival happening in Key West, Fla., she decided to make her first big move with the instrument. It appeared most of the conch-blowing competition she’d be facing down south comprised kids honking shells aimlessly and drunken adults doing the YMCA, although learning jazz trombonist Steve Turre would also be playing the conch there kept Zaichkowski on her toes.
“‘You need to go down there and blow people’s minds,’” she recalled friends and family telling her.
Having previously won four national competitions playing the French horn, Zaichkowski was no stranger to competition.
“I have that training in my blood.”
At the conch-blowing event in March 2020, she emerged the women’s division winner after a successful performance of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody and songs of Neil Young and Igor Stravinsky. She remembered the local media swarming her before she could leave.
“It was literally the last thing I did before COVID shut the whole world down.”
She returned home and spent the first year of the pandemic expanding her repertoire. Later hearing announcements for a relaunch of Canada’s Got Talent, she figured it was time to step things up.
Despite often being categorized as a musician on the show, Zaichkowski found herself ticking many “other” boxes on sign-up sheets.
“That’s me: ‘something you’ve never heard of before.’”
A major challenge was explaining her act to the judges beforehand without giving too much away.
But Zaichkowski – who has neither had cable TV in 10 years nor watched a single Got Talent Global performance herself –said knowing less can help. The enthusiastic backstage crew worked hard to keep her act a complete surprise.
She enjoyed getting to know all the other uniquely talented performers, including Sooke hula hoop artist Christina Munchinsky, but worried she would disrupt and distract fellow competitors with her own practising.
Recycling her set from Florida, Zaichkowski would toot an arrangement similar to the one that brought her fame prior to the pandemic. Then, she was cast out into the spotlight before a thousand-person crowd to perform Bohemian Rhapsody once again.
“I didn’t realize that Howie Mandel was so into it,” she recalled from the audition as she was unable to see past her conch while playing.
“He loved it.”
Judges Lilly Singh, Trish Stratus and Kardinal Offishall resorted to their red buzzers before Zaichkowski finished playing, but Mandel enjoyed the act so much that he defended his own red buzzer from his colleagues and even attempted to press the golden buzzer. He was ultimately restrained by the other judges, at which point Offishall brought the performance to an end herself with a hit to Mandel’s red buzzer.
From behind her conch, Zaichkowski could hear the blare of the judges’ buzzers, which she assumed was feedback coming through the sound system. According to a friend in the crowd, other people there watching reacted well to her unique performance.
Critiques from the judges mainly constituted playing pop instead of classical music. For Zaichkowski, who spent 10 years perfecting Queen’s song, this would be easier said than done.
“I felt kind of like the judges weren’t the right audience for my act.”
The Vancouver Island performer learned a lot from the experience but would likely try a different competition in the future, given the nature of her classical training. Whereas adapting Beethoven’s 7th Symphony to the conch would be relatively easy, playing more contemporary music on the shell proves challenging due to any given pop song having a narrow chord progression.
“You have to get really creative to make it sound recognizable,” she said, adding a lot of it comes down to improvisation.
For now, Zaichkowski is tuning her conch to a Gustav Holst orchestral suite titled The Planets, which she likes to play on beaches in hopes of one day summoning whales.
“I’m always open to new ideas.”
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