|Video: Kealoha Kahele performs by the ocean|
By Derek Paiva
Advertiser Entertainment Writer
By Derek Paiva
Eleven-year-old Lee Emoto is many things. A sixth-grader at Kahala Elementary School. A model host of sleepovers with friends. A hula dancer, swimmer and tetherball player. And a girl of few words who — though shy with strangers — speaks volumes through her proficient piano skills.
Lee Emoto is also very brave.
Since age 7, she has had seven spinal surgeries for the congenital scoliosis and fused ribs that, left to their own devices, would curve her spine as she grows. Diagnosed with both at birth, Lee has endured, every three to four months since age 9, operations that lengthen rods in her back, straightening her spine and allowing her to grow evenly.
"Every time she starts growing, she gets crooked. Then we have the surgery and she straightens up again," said her mom, Lori. "The surgeon is saying that the spine stops growing at age 12, so she might just have one more (surgery). We won't be sure until we go back."
Lee has handled each surgery fearlessly, returning to the activities she loves after only a couple of days of recovery.
"She's a trouper. She never complains," said Lori, proudly. "Actually, we've been really lucky. She doesn't feel any pain. She's not restricted at all. ... She may not be the fastest runner or things like that. But she can pretty much do everything."
And what Lee will do on Wednesday night is defy butterflies flying fitfully in her stomach to show off six years of piano skills for a live audience at the annual Weinberg Foundation Concert of Extraordinary Abilities.
The 10th annual benefit concert for Variety School of Hawaii, which assists children with learning disabilities, is a competition for amateur musicians who face physical or mental challenges in their day-to-day lives.
Lee will be one of five performers at the free concert at the Hawai'i Theatre which pairs the performers with well-known musicians. Also performing live that evening will be Kerupi "Cherub" Aumavae, a singer who taught himself to walk and talk again after suffering severe brain trauma in an auto accident; Gabriel Miyashiro, a 12-year-old drummer with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism; Kealoha Kahele, a singer and 'ukulele player who is blind; and Renee Manfredi, a gifted 16-year-old vocalist with autism.
Taped for broadcast and annually seen by more than 200,000 television viewers statewide, the concert is more than just a confidence-booster for its talented performers. It has also raised more than a million dollars in its decade of existence for Variety School and a handful of other local charities.
At heart, however, it is less a musical competition than a showcase for the extraordinary healing power of learning and performing music.
"I'm nervous," said Lee, quietly, when asked if she was excited about playing for the largest audience she's ever been in front of. But the shyest of smiles escaping just after told a whole other story, as well. Lee Emoto is also ready to play.
FROM THE BEGINNING
The Concert of Extraordinary Abilities was the result of two noted local entities coming together with the aim of doing some good.
In 1998, Alvin Awaya, a Honolulu-based trustee of the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, called the folks behind the amateur talent television competition "Hawaii Stars" with an idea. The concept was a music competition for amateur performers with physical, mental and health challenges that would give them a one-night opportunity to show off their skills in an elegant concert staged in a real performance venue for a live audience.
Carole Kai, the "Hawaii Stars" co-host/executive producer and a longtime supporter and spearhead of local charitable organizations, was drawn to the idea immediately, as were then-co-partners Dirk Fukushima, Mike McCartney and co-host Kimo Kahoano.
"We wanted to show that these people who are challenged in some way have a lot to give back to society ... (especially) in the form of music," said Kai. "And they should be valued, not pushed aside."
The Weinberg Foundation asked for a few other caveats. They wanted the competition to benefit a single charity every year and a handful of other charities chosen by performers. And they wanted admission to the concert to be free.
And so since the first Concert of Extraordinary Abilities in 1998, Variety School has received up to $155,000 annually from the Weinberg Foundation for the express purpose of staging the event. After paying for the Hawai'i Theatre rental, sound, lighting, filming and trophies, $2,000 is awarded to the winner of the competition and $1,000 to each contestant. In addition, each contestant is given $10,000 for donation to the charity of their choice.
When all is sung, played and done, Variety School is left with upward of $60,000 to keep for its own programs.
"The direct benefit, first of all, is money," said Variety School executive director Duane Yee. "The fact is, that it is a really expensive proposition to teach students with learning disabilities well. To give them the really special attention that they need. ... You can't do that without financial help. What we (also) need is incredible awareness of (what we do).
"If we didn't have the help of community organizations like this, the school would not exist. Period."
The concert has featured more than 60 performers since its 1998 debut. Many have taken the confidence gained from the experience to pursue performing arts careers and college studies in music, among other interests.
At least 20 aspiring musicians apply or are asked to audition for the concert each year. That number is winnowed down to five or six for the show.
Kai and Kahoano have been the concert's co-hosts and head cheerleaders from year one.
"It empowers them. It gives them a sense that they could never have just on their own, even if they were performing or entertaining," said Kahoano, asked what participating on the Hawai'i Theatre stage and for a live and television audience accomplishes most for participants. "And it educates people ... about how fragile this life is. That life isn't just guaranteed. That anything could happen to any one of us.
"Talk about aloha. We come to tears on this show. It's special. It really is special."
Formal attire is de rigueur. The evening's winner is chosen by a trio of guest judges. And each musician's performance is preceded by a short film chronicling his or her day-to-day life, challenges and musical skills.
"The reason I love to do this show is because I always know that I'm going to be reminded that I cannot take life for granted and I should be appreciative of what I have," said Kai. "These people have so many more challenges than I do, and will always have them. It's a constant reminder of what I need to focus on to be grateful."
A QUIET CONFIDENCE
Lee's piano teacher selected a sonatina by Muzio Clementi for her performance at the Concert of Extraordinary Abilities. And on a recent Friday afternoon, Lee tackled it on her family piano as if she'd wanted to play it all her life.
Sitting poised and confident on her piano bench with parents Doug, Lori, sister Dale and a writer watching, she took on the piece's jaunty, complicated structure without sheet music.
Lee's playing was gentle but fierce, polished and inspiring. After finishing, she was quiet again.
Lee has rehearsed the piece for a half-hour every day between homework and dinner since being selected for the concert in late September. Learning piano has had no direct effect on Lee's scoliosis, save for improving her posture somewhat by requiring her to sit up straight to play. But she has confessed to her mom that knowing how to read and play music notes — something that not all kids her age can do — is something she draws pleasure from.
With relatives called to cheer Lee on at the concert, a choice of formal attire yet to be made, and the excitement of listening to her slowly master her piece, it was tough to decipher who had more butterflies working overtime: the piano girl or her parents.
"We're very nervous. But we know that the experience and just the opportunity to go out there is going to be great for her in the years to come," said Lori. "She's going to cherish this memory.
"We're excited about seeing her on stage, seeing her end the piece and just seeing her happy with the performance."
Lee was a bit more quietly focused when asked what she enjoyed most about playing music.
"I like creating notes and playing songs I like," she said.
Cue shy smile.
Reach Derek Paiva at email@example.com.