Special Needs Talent Showcase 2021

By Kelly Ko, FCSN East Bay Outreach and Enrichment Programs Director

Lights, Camera, Action! The final competition of the 7th Annual Special Needs Talent Showcase was held virtually for the 2nd year on June 26th, 2021 at 5:00 PM. Although the competition remained virtual this year due to the ongoing  pandemic, the outcome was positive and rewarding. For the first time in our competition’s history, we brought this event to the global platform. We were able to attract special needs contestants from outside of the Bay Area, allowing us to enjoy the many talents from around the world. Our contestants ranged from Southern California to the East Coast to other parts of the world; this diversity was not believed to be possible in past years when the event was held in-person.

This year’s competition started with preliminary auditions held virtually on April 17 and 18. This was the first time we held our preliminary auditions via Zoom, and because of that, we had a total of 25 first-timers who auditioned (more than half the auditions!). 12 of the new contestants originated outside of our local commutable area. We had a total of 46 auditions across 2 days with performances that included singing, dancing, comedy, and playing a variety of instruments. Most competed as soloists, but we also had an ensemble, a band, an orchestra, and various duets. It was incredibly inspiring and touching to see the neurodiverse performers work so hard to reach for the stars and achieve their dreams. Each and every audition was full of passion and energy; they were all fantastic. 

Because of the contestants from other parts of the US and the world, this year’s audition was highly anticipated and exciting, especially for the judges. The preliminary judges were the same as last year’s: world class pianist and composer, Stephen Prutsman, Executive Director of San Andreas Regional Center (SARC), Javier Zaldivar, Executive Director of the Regional Center of the East Bay (RCEB), Lisa Kleinbub, and music therapist, Jody Wilfong. Compared to last year, judging the contestants was extremely difficult due to the incredible talents that exceeded all expectations. But after much deliberation, the judges finally announced 10 finalists who would go on to compete for the top 3 winner awards in the final competition held in June. The 10 finalists were:

The 12 Honorable Mentions were:

Finally, the big day arrived… the final competition was held virtually on Saturday, June 6. After the show started at 5:01pm with an introduction video, our event’s MC, Matt Keller, took the stage and welcomed Anna Wang, the chair of the Special Needs Talent Showcase and introduced our 6 judges, 2 of whom are international judges: 

  • Christopher Showerman – Hollywood Actor and Producer
  • Nancy Bargman – Executive Director of Department of Developmental Services (DDS)
  • Angela Sohn – Violinist & Founder/Conductor of the Onmuri Sarang Special Needs Orchestra
  • Raincat (Jinye Wang) – Pianist & Founder of Raincat Studio and Artch, Inc.
  • Mimi Kwan – Vice-President of Community Affairs at ABC7
  • Sarah Nematallah – Violinist & Co-Founder of Xenia Concerts, Inc. and Cecilia String Quartet
Matt Keller and Raincat Wang

After the judges’ introduction, we started off with the first final performance of the evening: Julian Bradford singing a beautiful rendition of “Granted” by Josh Groban. His voice was so calming and his pitch was impeccably in-tune. Next up was Gentle Breeze, a piano duo composed of Kanae Iwasaki and Satoshi Yamashita from Japan, who performed “A Whole New World.” Watching this duo was so inspiring because despite having cerebral palsy, Kanae was able to perform the song’s melody perfectly on the piano with just one finger. The third performance was SZL (aka Spencer White) who performed an original piece that he wrote called “I Just Wanna.” This song truly showcased his creativity as a composer. The next performance is from David Gonzalez from Mexico who played a piano piece he composed himself called “Unbreakable”. It was amazing to see that even though David has only 4 fingers on each of his hands and with one of his arms noticeably shorter than the other, he can play the piano so fluidly. After that, we had Angel Ramos, who sang Frank Sinatra’s “My Way.” His powerful voice shone throughout the song. Next, Ryan Miyahara played “Helter Skelter” on his electric guitar. His guitar skills were phenomenal. The 7th performance of the night was Christian Magoon’s vocal on “Proud of Your Boy” from Aladdin on Broadway, and we loved his voice and really thought we were watching Aladdin on Broadway. Then we had Ethan Wang, a 13 year old and the youngest finalist, playing “Sonatina, Op.20 No. 1” on the piano. Following Ethan’s performance was Greg Hebert accompanied by Lawrence Wang; the duo excellently sang “A Whale of Tale” with sailor suits on. It was the most exhilarating performance of the evening. And the last performance of the evening goes to Takuto Koyanagi who performed “Lupin 3rd Advanced Jazz” by Yuji Ono and Jacob Koller. It was amazing to see his fingers dance across the piano. All the 10 finalist performances were so impressive that I wouldn’t know what to do if I were a judge. 

When all the final performances were completed, it was time for the 6 judges to deliberate on the winners. They sure had a tough job that evening as they determined the 3 Top Winners and the Best Showmanship Award. While the judges left to decide, Matt announced that the audience now also had a chance to pick their favorite performance of the night through a poll. The finalists with the most votes would win the People’s Choice Award, which was announced during the award ceremony at the end of the show. After the voting, the audience watched the performances from the 12 Honorable Mentions. These are contestants who did not make it as finalists, but the judges felt that their performances were worthy of performing during the show. 

After the Honorable Mentions performances, the judges returned and were ready to announce the winners. However, before that, the special Pianist Award was presented to all the pianists from the Honorable Mentions and the Finalists. This award was specially presented by Stephen Prutsman, one of our audition judges. Each pianist received a $100 award prize. There were a total of 7 pianists: Kanae Iwasaki and Satoshi from Gentle Breeze, Ethan Wang, Takuto Koyanagi, David Gonzalez, Alice Jen and Neel Dhingra from the Galactic Orchestra.

After the Pianist Awards, the judges arrived to present the Best Showmanship Award, People’s Choice Award, and the Top 3 Winners. Christopher Showerman took the lead and announced, one by one, the judges and the award they would be presenting. First, Raincat (Jinye Wang) announced the Best Showmanship Award, which went to Greg Hebert and Lawrence for their “A Whale of a Tale” performance. Then, Nancy Bargman announced the People’s Choice Award, which also went to Greg Hebert and Lawrence for their “A Whale of a Tale” performance.

Then, it was time to announce the Top 3 Winners. To start off, Mimi Kwan announced the 1st of 3 winners as Takuto Koyanagi, who performed “Lupin 3rd Advanced Jazz” on the piano. The 2nd of the 3 winners, announced by Sarah Netallah, went to David Gonzalez who performed “Unbreakable” on the piano. Afterwards, Angela Sohn announced the 3rd of the 3 winners as Gentle Breeze who performed “A Whole New World.”

The show ended on a high note as we received a flood of positive comments from the Zoom chat, praising the finalists and the show. It was a wonderful evening for all the finalists, and we would like to congratulate all the winners. Thank you so much to the unsung heroes of the Special Needs Talent Showcase Team that included Dora Chou, Penny Sapkunmongkon, Rachel Jiang, Selina Song, and Adarsh Napalla. They have really put in numerous hours of effort, meetings, rehearsals, recordings, design, special effects, etc. to make this event possible. Next year, we hope to resume this competition in-person and continue to bring this event internationally by providing a hybrid event. We’re excited to see everyone again next year!

To view this year’s videos, please visit our website and click here for the winners’ video and here for the full event, highlights, and finalists videos.  

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