Nuturing a Natural Talent

Launda’s first part in a musical: the powerful and sassy “Sour Kangeroo” in Seussical the Musical at Boca Raton Community Middle School. Directed by Joshua Tay, Wardrobe by Lisa Severin.

Ever since Luanda could talk, she has danced, sang, and performed. And because she was born into the middle of my documentary “Einstein Wrong – The Miracle Year” which spanned 8 years of her life, Luanda always felt at home in front of my camera.

But what I saw through the viewfinder throughout those first few years of my daughter’s childhood was something beyond normal. When it came to natural talent in dance, singing, and performing it was quite apparent to me that she had talent well beyond her years. I more often found myself filming her performances not as a father recording cute and precious memories of their child, but as a witness to an “unnatural” talent in a vivacious little package.

This all appeared when she was 3 years old. Luanda would make up songs on the fly, make up choreography on the fly and was so spot on in her interpretations, my friends, family and I would often just sit and watch Luanda dancing and singing to music and marvel at what we saw. Rock, classical, and samba – all styles were correctly interpreted. Music, dance, and song flowed through her soul.

It wasn’t like Luanda wasn’t exposed to music at an early age. She grew up in a samba school. Ten days before she was born, she was inside her mom’s belly with a 40-piece samba percussion unit bashing out samba. A samba school is a Brazilian samba club who works each year to parade, drum, sing, and dance in a spectacle called “carnaval” and it just so happened that my wife and I were heads of such a group. Luanda grew up with the heavy drum rhythms and incredible costumes of my wife’s design full of colorful feathers.

It was during a birthday party in our back yard when Luanda quietly told her mom out of the blue that she wanted to dance with the samba dancers. It was cold out and we were skeptical she would follow through with it. She “ordered” her mom to get her costume and Doris quickly dressed her and picked her up and take her out to watch the other dancers. At first, Luanda was shy and didn’t want to go in. We both thought she would give up and not dance. But then, at a moment of her choosing, Luanda said it was time. Not only did she dance, she danced for a long long time for a little girl. She seemed to enjoy the spotlight. Here is Luanda doing her first samba show

What I witnessed lead me to enroll her in voice lessons at the tender age of 4. I sent videos of Luanda to her voice teacher and she was shocked by her natural talent and was very eager to take her under her wing. The first one here is the most telling. Her sense of space, acting, emotion, dance and voice are well beyond her 5 years of age:

Luanda learned a lot about singing including support, matching tones, and singing songs. She took well to it and had her first concert at age 5. Although she was nervous, she got up in front of almost 100 people to sing and she didn’t flinch.

She continued a year into the lesson and her voice teacher who saw some of the above videos said to me: “when she ‘makes it’, don’t forget to look me up!”. Here is her second concert. Listen for a very short appearance of a vibrato near the end.

But as she grew, she started to become shy. In reality, Luanda is quite shy and what she did while alone could turn out to be something she wasn’t ever intending to share with the world. To her, it was “natural”. It just came out like walking and talking to her.

But just as it started, it suddenly stopped. She didn’t want to continue her singing lessons and after a failed attempt for her to take drama lessons, she too dropped out of that.

A Long Silence

From age 6 to age 10, Luanda kept her talent pretty much to herself. I never wanted to push her. That does not make for a happy childhood, but I was worried I didn’t push her more. We would sometimes make music videos and she really loved that. She would ham it up and would take direction really well. Here is one of them we made during this period.

When we moved to Florida, Luanda was in the 4th grade. In 5th grade she took guitar and was in the chorus in the 5th grade. She excelled at guitar and simply was bored with it even though she picked it up a lightning pace and even did a solo at her concert.

But nothing of the amazing talented little girl. She wanted to make another music video for her 11th birthday party, the first here in Florida so we did. She and her friends had a great time and the video turned out nice, but again, nothing spectacular. What is most ironic however about this video, she was already in a new group which was to awaken her natural talent.

The Awakening

In 2016, Luanda and her mother and I attended the open house at Boca Raton Community Middle School for the 5th graders and I was really hoping to see some group that might spark that talent Luanda had in her. At first, I didn’t see anything and was a bit deflated. But then, way in the corner of a very large gymnasium, was an unassuming table with an unassuming man with what looked to be a “drama” group. I was very excited but didn’t show it.

I got Luanda and said, “hey, let’s go check out that table over there. It says it has something to do with drama”. She seemed interested. That is when we met Mr. Tay, the director of Drama Club and we talked to him about what was involved. It was open to all and was after school so there was no signing up, just showing up. And best of all: Luanda said she was interested. Inside I was screaming “yes, Yes, YES!” But I let no one know about my secret hope that what I saw when she was young, could somehow come to the surface and shock the world.

A Slow Start

Luanda and I worked on the audition piece for Seussical the Musical. Luanda would sing “Gertrude” and I would sing the part of “Horton”. Luanda as they say in the business was “killing it” at home, but I was worried about her “freezing up” during the audition. She was at that “shy” stage and she didn’t want to be pushed too much. So I said to her: if you freeze up, promise me one thing: use your “strong voice”. In theater, strong voice will get you everywhere.

And that is exactly what happened at her audition. She froze. No acting. Two out of four (perfect is 4 points). Her voice expression was a bit better getting her a 3 out of 4. But on voice strength: 4 out of 4.

She was really anxious as the days passed waiting for the final cast list. She was hoping she would do well and maybe even get a principle part (principles are the main characters). I expected she would not get a principle part given her audition. Even though she didn’t get a principle part, she did get “understudy” to the “Sour Kangeroo” which as the audition judges and Mr. Tay said she got due to her strong voice. She was disappointed but I tried to keep her upbeat. Then she came home one day saying the director added a third performance for the understudies so they could be the principles. She was a bit happier but you could tell she was not happy.

But as with all success stories, you need luck.

Luanda didn’t miss one practice but the girl who was the principle “Sour Kangeroo” was having scheduling conflicts. Later I found out from her mother that the 8th grade girl was singing at the Hard Rock Cafe. Ok, she is forgiven! Wow! Luanda sent me a text saying she was no longer the “understudy”. I was so so so sad! I thought: what did Luanda do to loose the understudy part? Now she wasn’t even going to play principle on the understudy day. Was it she wasn’t liking drama? Was it something she had given up?

Little did I know Luanda was playing me like a violin. She then sent me a text after an eternity had passed saying: “I am the principle”. And everything changed for Luanda.

A Star is Born

The first inkling that Luanda’s talent from 5 and 6 years old was back is when I showed up at the end of one of the drama club’s weekday practices on stage. I saw acting and singing that just blew me away. I thought to myself: “where did that come from???” I knew Luanda had it in her, but this went way beyond what I expected she could be. I truly thought it would take a couple of years, not a couple of weeks for her natural born talent to surface. But how would she perform on stage in front of an audience?

At age eleven on Friday, April 28, 2017 during the second performance of the musical, all doubts were erased. In her second solo on the second night of the production, Luanda found herself with her first young actor dilemma on stage: she forgot to turn on her mic. I was video recording the performance for the group and when I heard her voice with no microphone, and I thought “oh boy, what now?” A moment of anxiousness came over me thinking all the thoughts parents of kids have when their kids are performing and something goes wrong. “Oh no! No one will hear her!” “Please turn on the mic Luanda!” “The performance will be ruined!” “The audience will never know about her natural talent!!!”

But just as I was agonizing and seeing and hearing everything through my camera, Luanda calmly turned to the audience, and with the power of a little Bette Midler or Janice Jopline: BAM! She turns on an operatic voice that was even louder than when she had the mic on and proceeded to blow away all 270 people present in the large room.

Tears ran down my face in the dark as I filmed my daughter acting and singing like a Broadway pro. I was an emotional mess until the end of the play and when I saw her, I made sure I didn’t freak out too much. Kids that age can get embarrassed if their parents freak out over their performance. I wanted to say something but a stranger from the audience came up to Luanda in front of us and said it for me. She talked directly to Luanda and I paraphrase:

“You are a star. You are a young Bette Midler. You have a strong strong voice. You are a star. Keep going. Don’t stop”.

This was Luanda’s first ever performance in a stage production.

Here is a video compilation of the performance that launched Luanda Lia de Hilster. See minute 4:43 to see where in my opinion and the opinion of many, she became a star.

The accolades didn’t stop there. Some of the first words that came from Principal Peter Slack who was in attendance that night was “who was that girl who played the Kangeroo? The Monday after the performance, Launda was eating with her friends in the cafeteria when Principal Slack called Luanda over. Luanda later told me that she thought she was in trouble. But in fact, the principal wanted to introduce her to the vice-principal an other staff there. He proceeded to call her up on Tuesday and Wednesday talking with Luanda about singing and songs and such.

That Thursday, exactly one year after having spotted the modest Mr. Tay and the drama club in the corner of the gymnasium during 5th grade open house, Luanda was back to perform as the Sour Kangeroo one more time but this time for the upcoming 5th graders. As I was passing through the front door,  Principal Slack stopped me and said, “you are Luanda’s dad aren’t you?” I said yes. He then said “I called her up yesterday to play her a song by Janice Joplin. She didn’t know Janice Joplin. I told her her voice reminded me of Janice. She has that power and passion and ability to go ‘gravelly’ like Janice.” I said “that she does”. Wow! Janice Joplin? Wow. I guess I was no longer David. Now I was “Luanda’s dad”.

Luanda the natural talent was back and with a vengeance.

Two superstars: Mr. Joshua Tay and Luanda Lia de Hilster. And that is not just a parent’s bias opinion. Ask anyone who saw Seussical the Musical on April 29, 2017.

Thanks Mr. Tay and Everyone

I can’t tell you how grateful I am to have found that unassuming table in the corner of the gymnasium at Boca Raton Community Middle School in 2016. And if the unassuming man who stood behind that table had decided not to start the Boca Middle Drama Club, Luanda’s star may never have shined.

I sent video recordings of Luanda when she was a kid to Mr. Tay in the beginning of Luanda’s participation in the drama club. I basically said to him: “look, Luanda has a special gift for acting, singing, and dancing. Maybe you can help bring it out”. I was thinking he would have to go one on one with her and really work at it for anything to happen.

But what did happen was that once Luanda was given the stage as a principle part where she could showcase her natural talent, Mr. Tay didn’t have to do anything special for Luanda.

But Mr. Tay, you did something more special than that: you created a place where all students can learn to come out of the shells and be the best they can be. Not just for Luanda.

For without your Boca Middle Drama Club, Luanda’s natural talents would still be all bottled up inside a somewhat shy girl instead of booming out for all the world to see.

For me, this was the culmination of a 6-year journey of nurturing, hoping, and finally getting the big break Luanda needed: Mr. Tay and his Drama Club!

Thanks Mr. Tay and everyone in the production and the school. You were the luck we needed at the right place, at the right time, and with an incredible Drama Club that hopefully has started Luanda onto a path to even more amazing things in the future!