A Young Singer's Olympic-Sized Adventure: Part One

The Olympic Games always bring forth moving stories of athletes overcoming great odds to participate in this grand quadrennial event. This year there's another "Olympic" story, just as inspiring, not about an athlete, but about a 14-year-old singer named Gianna Horak.

The Olympic Games always bring forth moving stories of athletes overcoming great odds to participate in this grand quadrennial event. This year there's another "Olympic" story, just as inspiring, not about an athlete, but about a 14-year-old singer named Gianna Horak.

Gianna began her life in an orphanage in China, and later this June she will return to country of her birth for the first time since she was an infant. The opportunity arose when the Los Angeles Children's Chorus, with which Gianna has sung since she was nine, was invited to accompany the Stanford Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Beijing native, Jindong Cai, on "A Musical Journey to the Olympics."

The Chorus will join the orchestra for several performances during the two-week tour that begins June 23. They will perform Orff's Carmina Burana and the final movement from Beethoven's Symphony No. 9, "Ode to Joy," as well as present their own programs of American and Chinese folk classics.

That experience alone would be a memory to cherish for a lifetime, but for Gianna the most stirring moment may come far from the concert stage. While in China, she hopes to visit the orphanage where she spent the first eight months of her life.

It will be an emotional journey for the whole family, especially her parents, Chris Horak and Mindy Schirn, who vividly remember the day in 1994 when they traveled down the Yangtze River into Anhui Province in south-central China to meet the baby who was to become their daughter.

"Gianna was the second youngest in a group of children and, at the time, the smallest," Mindy recalls. "She was very, very quiet and quite pretty. And she had light brown hair tinged with red. She didn't cry; she didn't roll over; she didn't do any of the things you would expect an eight-and-a-half-month-old to do. But you fall in love in a second, and for us, there was no going back."

Is There Something Wrong

Back in the States, Chris and Mindy took Gianna to their pediatrician, whose face could not hide her concern. She ordered a battery of tests and the results were not encouraging. As far as weight and height, Gianna was below the zero percentile in comparison to other nine-month-olds. Developmentally, she looked and acted like a three-month old. Her red-tinged hair indicated she was suffering from malnutrition. And when an audiologist administered a hearing test, Gianna flunked.

As Mindy recalls it, she was not panicked by the news that Gianna might be deaf. "There are far scarier things. Deafness is something people know a great deal about and there are many work-arounds for it."

But their pediatrician was not as accepting of the diagnosis. "I know she flunked the test," she said, "but I think Gianna is a hearing child." She ordered a brain scan, which showed that Gianna's hearing was within normal enough limits for speech and language development. In other words, she would be able to learn how to talk.

And she did, speaking her first word ("cat") just before her first birthday. Gianna's parents were glad enough that she could speak, but there was never any thought that Gianna could sing, even though music was often playing in their household and Gianna loved to dance and sway to it.

Ode to Joy

But one day in a grocery story in Italy, where the family was visiting, something amazing happened.

"Gianna was sitting on my husband's shoulders and she began singing the tune to 'Ode to Joy,'" Mindy says. "She was two and half. I thought, 'well, all children can sing until they are about six and then they get self-conscious.' I just assumed that she was singing back what I had sung to her. I did not see it as remarkable. But it was clear to me that she was very interested in music."

Then, when Gianna was almost four, the family traveled to Los Angeles where Chris was investigating a job offer as head of the Universal Studios film archive. The three had come down to the hotel lobby to go to dinner when, suddenly, Gianna was gone. A few frantic moments later her parents found her in the piano bar intently watching a young woman playing the piano.

"[The woman] caught my attention because she was wearing a bright blue suit and she had very long dark hair," Gianna recalls. "I ran up to her and said, 'Hi, my name is Gianna and I am three and ten-twelfths.'"

As it happened, the woman at the piano, Joanna Ezrin, specialized in teaching music to very young children. She announced to Gianna's startled parents, "I want to teach Gianna." At age four-and-a-half, Gianna started formal piano lessons with Joanna, a relationship that continues to this day. "She is the most wonderful piano teacher for young children on the planet," Mindy says.

No Deficits in Musicmaking

By the time Gianna started school, she was excelling at piano, but an auditory processing problem was inhibiting her in the classroom.

"She would be hearing the little piece of paper rustling behind her or the child whispering to the side with the same kind of attention she would give to the teacher," her mother says.

Gianna explains it this way: "My brain does not hear what my ears hear. If there are words that can easily be mistaken for others, it can change the meaning completely. So I just have to work on it and make sense of what I hear. If someone says over the phone, kind of mumbling, 'Nice to meet you,' I might hear, 'Bit of rice and meat.' That's totally different."

In Gianna's world, all sounds were basically equal, which made interpreting their meanings difficult. Her mother wonders if the problem stems from her early months in the orphanage when there were no meaningful sounds. "The babies were not held. They were fed with propped bottles," Mindy says. "There were a lot of babies crying, but no meaningful speech. If you cried at night, nobody came, because nobody was there. So no one sound was more meaningful than another."

Whatever Gianna's deficits and however they developed, they have had little impact on her musicmaking. Mindy thinks the nature of music instruction makes it easier for Gianna to process.

"In a dance class or a piano lesson or a chorus, the teacher usually speaks one- or two-sentence directions and then there is some demonstration," Mindy says. "And then there is a one- or two-sentence correction and more practice. That situation is extremely favorable for a child with any kind of auditory processing difficulty. There's almost no language processing."

Discovering Choral Singing

When she was seven, Gianna's parents enrolled her in the Colburn School of the Performing Arts, across from the Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles. In her audition for the Colburn Children's Chorus, Gianna impressed Mark Williams, the school's vocal musicianship teacher at the time, with her unusually keen ear for tonal relationships. "Gianna can sing a whole tone scale," Williams told Mindy. "Only about 10 percent of children her age can do that."

Williams accepted Gianna, along with two other students, into his vocal musicianship class, and later she joined the school's choir. One of her classmates also sang in Los Angeles Children's Chorus—one of the top children's choruses in the country. A poster hanging up in the school was announcing auditions, and Gianna wanted to give it a try.

"I knew it was difficult to get into," Mindy recalls, "and I certainly didn't think Gianna would qualify. But she got a 50 out of 50 on her theory test, because she had been studying piano." She also did well on the other audition exercises—matching pitch and rhythm and sightreading new music. It was enough to win Gianna, then nine years-old, a spot in the Apprentice Choir, the second level of the Chorus's four ensembles.

Interpreting Grendel

Gianna thrived under the grueling training and rehearsal schedule, impressing the Children's Chorus artistic staff at every step. She sang her way up from the Apprentice Choir to the Intermediate Choir and was accepted into the top Concert Choir in 2006.

Anne Tomlinson, the Chorus's artistic director, remembers Gianna as one of the most eager students she has worked with. It did not surprise her at all when Gianna began composing some of her own songs and entering composition contests. "She is an amazing musician," Tomlinson says. "Her musical ear is very acute. She holds her part beautifully even when the pitch of her part in the work is somewhat dissonant with other parts."

In 2006, Gianna was one of ten children from the Children's Chorus selected to sing Grendel with the Los Angeles Opera. The opera is based on the 1971 novel by John Gardner about a monster full of self-awareness and even poetic insight. The scene the children performed is a brief glimpse into Grendel's childhood—a time when he felt like an outcast because he was different.

Tomlinson believes that it is important for children to perform music with a message—"pieces that will guide them into the future"—not just the usual popular works of children's repertoire. Performing Grendel, she said, provided an opportunity for the children to explore together what it means to be different.

"While we were talking about the scene, at one point Gianna said, 'I am adopted,'" Tomlinson recalls, "and that she understood what that felt like to be different. That opened up an opportunity to hear her story and all the amazing things she had faced."

Soon, Gianna will have the opportunity to see for herself where she came from and how far she has come. "It's good for kids to go back and integrate and process the story of their lives," says her mother. For her part, Gianna has a little trepidation. "I am a little afraid that I will cry," Gianna says, "but I really want to play with and take care of some of the babies."

As always, singing will be her friend and guide. "Singing allows me to express emotion," she says. "When I sing I feel soothed. It brings a calm feeling and I am amazed at the sounds I can make with my voice."

And Gianna's chorus will be standing by. "If she needs us, we will be there for her," says Tomlinson. "We are her community."