‘I could not stop the flow of tears,’ Valerie Long says
Amanda Tobin’s performance brought an adjudicator to tears at the recent Kiwanis Music Festival, a feat even more stunning considering the miracle of the voice doctors once suggested might never be.
Adjudicator and renowned St. John’s choral director and music educator Valerie Long remembers exactly to the minute when the 15-year-old launched into her song at Kiwanis — in a non-competitive category newly added this year for performers with special needs.
Amanda was the sole class competitor, and the usually festival-competitors-and-parents-packed St. James Church was empty at 11:45 a.m. that Wednesday in February, except for Long, a couple of volunteers, Amanda and her mom, Wynne-Anne Tobin, and music teacher Hayley Hynes, who accompanied on piano as Amanda sang “Memory” by Andrew Lloyd Webber from the famous musical theatre show “Cats.”
It’s a song no performer takes on without some big abilities — the range of highs and lows difficult to manage and easy to flub.
“In comes this tall force to be reckoned with,” said Long, who has been adjudicating for more than 20 years. “When she opened her mouth to sing, I just sat there. I couldn’t write.”
And Amanda, as they say, nailed it.
“I was totally floored — her poise, her stage presence, her understanding of how to deliver a musical theatre piece. Her voice filled the church,” said Long, who normally begins writing as soon as a performer begins.
“This was something. In all of my years, I’ve never been so moved. The smile, she was just beaming. … The tears came, and I was wiping them away. I could not stop the flow of tears and that’s the truth.”
Long was so impressed by the performance, she immediately emailed the Kiwanis organizers — she would usually wait until she had adjudicated all her performances, and still had a week to go — and recommended Amanda perform in the end of Kiwanis Festival’s musical theatre showcase, which was held last Sunday night. Out of the 20 or so outstanding performers she recommended, Amanda was one of the chosen few for the big show.
“I wanted to get her on that stage. … I wanted more people in this community to see this young woman’s performance. It was so stellar and so well prepared,” Long said.
But Long didn’t know until The Telegram told her that Amanda’s voice was once declared unlikely to develop.
When Amanda was a toddler, she was diagnosed with microcephaly, and her parents were told there was a slim chance she would be able to walk or communicate verbally. Before that diagnosis, it was thought that she had cerebral palsy, her mother said in an interview.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, microcephaly is a birth condition where a baby’s head is much smaller than expected.
Tobin explained that one side of Amanda’s brain is smaller than the other.
Tobin said there had been a steady regime of treatment at the Janeway, including rehabilitation therapy, but what ultimately got her moving was the beginning of what makes Amanda shine.
“She was almost three before she started to walk and the only thing that got her going was her love for music. … She’d get up and go dance to anything, pretty much,” Tobin explained at their St. John’s home.
A typical teenager with braces, Amanda’s knowledge of music is beyond her age and certainly what most her age might list when asked for favoured genres. Classical music is among her picks, as is religious music, Elvis Presley, as well as Alan Jackson — who she wouldn’t mind singing with sometime. She also likes listening to Christmas music beyond the season.
Though she takes voice and some piano lessons at Dynamic Sounds Music Studio Inc., she can pick up songs by ear and play them on piano.
“Music helps me to relax and study and stuff,” the Grade 10 student explained.
With a large family, brothers and parents to support her, the biggest fan might still be her mom.
“I started to cry. You hear it yourself, but when it came from Valerie Long, ‘Oh my God,’” Tobin said of the Kiwanis performance.
“(Amanda) still blows my mind after all my years with her. … She can just pick stuff up and she amazes me.’”
Hynes, who has taught Amanda voice and piano for the past three years of the seven she’s been taking lessons, said her student can dig into anything, but particularly likes Broadway classics.
“What comes out of her, oh she’s amazing,” said Hynes, who provided piano accompaniment to Amanda’s Kiwanis performance, among 29 others. “It’s hard to find something she doesn’t know already.”
The choice of song was dicey, as it’s one that could go horribly wrong for anyone, Hynes said.
Amanda chose it and they had been practising it since last fall.
“It was very rewarding to see her get up there and perform it with confidence,” Hynes said. “When she finished singing, she gave me a look like, “Yeah, I nailed it. That was awesome.’
“And to have someone else validate what we see here every day … she’s just like nobody else in the room. She loves to sing, you can just tell.”
Tobin noted some teachers at Amanda’s school have devoted extra time over the years to working with her.
Hynes said she appreciates the festival for adding the category, as concerns about the experience beforehand can be daunting for some. She said she hopes Amanda’s experience at the festival will inspire others to enter the category.
Amanda, though, wasn’t nervous going into it. While Hynes said Amanda told her that her teeth were chattering, it was anticipation, not nerves.
And that’s exactly how Amanda described the experience of performing in the musical theatre showcase.
“I was excited when I heard the news,” she said.
Amanda is also in the choir Shallaway Youth Choir, and said she will perform with them at the St. John’s Arts and Culture Centre in April.