Has anyone heard of archerfish?” Joe Cooke describes how this fish can see both above and below water, and he encourages the musicians ringed around him to split their vision too – by looking at him and at their sheet music.

Laughter ripples around the group as the image sinks in.

Cooke, a guitarist, banker and, in this context, the most focused conductor Dawson has ever seen, coaxes better and better performances out of each musician in the fledgling KIAC Orchestra with a combination of strictness and humour.

The orchestra debuted at a community coffeehouse on November 5.

Now Cooke is working the eight members at tonight’s rehearsal through a 20-minute set of Christmas carols and medleys, to be played at the Dawson Community Chapel on December 11 and at McDonald Lodge soon after that.

The orchestra’s numbers vary, depending on people’s availability. Tonight there’s a piano player (Tiss Clark), a flautist (Kim Sharp), a cellist (Maria Nyland), an alto sax player (Gabriela Sgaga) and four violinists (Lolita, Simon Corelli, Karen duBois and Peter Menzies).

Other cello players in town, including David Curtis and Kerry Barber, have played with the orchestra before. At the November coffeehouse, Curtis was on the far side of the Yukon River while it froze, so Cooke stepped in with his double bass to play cello alongside Barber.

Maria Nyland, a local nurse, has been playing cello for about four years and taking lessons with Whitehorse musician Dean Tower when he comes up every few months. Tower’s gift of teaching stringed instruments to Dawson musicians has been appreciated by many.

Nyland says she grew up singing, and playing in an orchestra is fantastic because she loves harmonizing with groups.

“I grew up Mennonite, so we always sang a capella and did four-part harmony,” she recalls.

The violinists take the spotlight in one particular passage of the carol medley, plucking lightly and brightly with Clark’s brisk staccato in support.

Simon Corelli is a familiar face in the Dawson music scene. His violin playing is so graceful that the others tease, “It’s probably hard for him to play with us!”

But he laughs off the compliment, saying, “I’ve been playing violin since I was seven. Now I’m 23, and what I like most of all is playing in groups.”

Cooke moved to Dawson in April, bringing the musical skills he honed as a classical guitar major at the University of Windsor, along with his love of performance.

After sitting in on some of the summertime group lessons with Tower, Cooke pitched the idea of an orchestra to the Klondike Institute of Arts and Culture (KIAC), which donates the rehearsal space.

“I thought people needed to meet and practise more than just once in awhile – to get good at music you have to be a lot more regular,” he says. “And then there was no public performance aspect to it, and I wanted to push that. Performances are part of what will drive people to do their best.”

As the musicians pack up, Lolita Hughes, another long-time musician, describes how she’s played piano and fiddle for years as well, but is attracted to the challenge of learning to play classical violin in an orchestra setting.

“Classical music is more precise,” she says. “With piano you’re by yourself on the stage, and here you really have to watch the timing. But I want to say most of all that I really like Joe’s sense of humour.”

I walked home humming “Bring a torch, Jeanette, Isabella,” the old melody that the orchestra played with a beautiful lyricism.

Any orchestra that leaves a song lingering in someone’s mind is onto the right thing.