The National Federation of the Blind
of Connecticut
My Trip to Poland

A Journey to Sounds from the Heart
By Gigi Yanez-Hamberger

(Editors' note: Gigi is a long-time member of NFB and a member of the Southern Connecticut Chapter. We were thrilled to hear Gigi perform her beautiful song at the 2013 state convention.)

Ever since I can remember, music has been a very important part of my life. My mother often said that as soon as I learned to speak, I started singing; because of this, I had a chance to perform in events like: singing the national anthem at a local baseball game; being in the high school choir; auditioning to be at America's Got Talent in 2009; and, currently participating in the music ministry at my church. So, when the opportunity arose for me to participate in a singing contest, naturally I accepted the challenge.

In January of 2013, I received a phone call from the vice president of my local chapter of NFB asking me if I was interested in entering a singing contest. I of course said, "Yes." She forwarded me the email about the contest and asked me to contact our state president for additional information. The email read, "First world song festival for the blind, Sounds from the Heart, organized by the Lions club, to be held in Krakow, Poland, November 18 to the 20." All Lions Clubs around the world were encouraged to send participants to compete in this contest.

The rules were: that the participants were blind or visually impaired; the vocalists had to sing an original song composed especially for the festival; and that they were amateur singers. The clubs considering sending vocalists were strongly urged to seek talented blind performers from their communities, assist in finding professional lyricists and musicians to compose the songs, and have them recorded in a professional studio.
When I read this, I felt very nervous; but in spite of that, I was determined to go on. After reading the email, I contacted the state president to find out more about it. She put me in contact with someone from the Lions Club, who then put me in contact with the Bridgeport Lions Club's president. When I spoke to him, he didn't know anything about this festival but said that he'd get back to me in a few days with more information.

Almost a week went by when I got a call from Jack, the Lions Club president. He informed me that we had until May 31 to submit a song, and that he didn't know any professional lyricists or musicians to help in this project. Despite this, we decided to continue. Meanwhile, I was desperately trying to find someone who could help me write a song, but I didn't have much luck. A couple of months went by before any progress was made. During that time, I was having issues with my vision due to a failed cornea. I saw my eye doctor in April, and he recommended another corneal transplant.

At this period of my life, I had to make a difficult decision; and as a result of this experience, my song, "Leap of Faith" came to be. The music was in my head long before the words poured out of my soul. I called Jack to tell him that I wrote a song. He was happy to hear that there was a song to submit to Poland. We made arrangements to record the song; and on Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, we went to the studio and recorded "Leap of Faith." I was lucky to have my daughter's friend, who is an excellent guitarist, accompanying me. I couldn't believe this was real; it was the first time I had ever written a song, or had even been in a recording studio. I had to pinch myself to make sure it wasn't a dream.

Although I was very excited to get to that point, the days leading up to that moment were very stressful, putting the finishing touches on the music and practicing the song. At last, on the Tuesday after Memorial Day, Jack informed me that he sent the song to Poland. I breathed a sigh of relief. All I could do was wait to hear whether or not I would be selected to participate in the festival. Jack mentioned that I was the only one from the United States to submit a song, and that there was a good chance for me to be chosen. A couple of months passed, and on July 24 at 6 a.m. I got a call from Jack telling me that I was selected to participate in the Sounds from the Heart Festival in Poland. I shouted at the top of my lungs and practically jumped out of bed. This was very significant because the day before I had a corneal transplant and was recovering from surgery. I truly believe that it was God's way of encouraging me to go on.

Even though I wasn't physically able to do much at that time, I started contacting every performer I knew for a possible fundraising event. Needless to say, I told everyone I knew about my going to Poland to compete in a song festival. I couldn't contain my excitement; everybody was happy for me and wished me luck. On Sunday October 13, a fundraising event was held to benefit my trip to Poland. Then, on Saturday November 16, I left for Poland, accompanied by my daughter and a friend from my church.

On Sunday November 17, we stopped in Frankfurt, Germany, to change planes and continued our journey to Krakow, Poland. When we arrived at our hotel, we were exhausted due to the time change. We rested and then explored our surroundings. The next day we took a tour of the historic section of Krakow. They took us to a university that was founded in the 1300s, a cathedral, a castle, and ruins of the city wall. Everywhere we went there was a tactile scale model of a particular site. On Tuesday November 19, I had rehearsal while my daughter and my friend went to the infamous Nazi-era death camp, Auschwitz.

The rehearsal was a very special moment for me; it was the first time I heard my song arranged for a symphonic orchestra. It was like hearing my children say their first words, or watching them take their first steps. Later that evening, I sang in front of an audience and the preliminary judges; I felt quite nervous. After midnight, the judges selected the 12 finalists who would perform the next day at Krakow's famous opera house. When they said my name, I couldn't contain my joy. Being the only non-European contestant singing at such a prestigious venue, I felt like a winner.

The next day, we had a dress rehearsal at the opera house. Later that evening, I performed "Leap of Faith" for the final judges and a much bigger audience. I didn't win the major prizes, but I received a special award given by the organizing committee for a great performance. Only I and another contestant received this. I was happy to get to the finals, but getting that special award was beyond my wildest dreams.

On Thursday November 21, we left Krakow to go back home to the United States. It seemed like we just got there when it was time to go home. There will be another Sounds from the Heart song festival in Krakow, Poland, in November 2015. I encourage any blind vocalists to contact their local Lions Club to sponsor your submission to the contest.

As a result of my success in Poland, I was invited to perform the national anthem and "Leap of Faith" at the Connecticut Mid-Winter Conference of the Lions Club. I received a standing ovation, and many district Governors gave me their friendship banners and pins. I was honored to receive these gifts from them.

I am blessed to have had the opportunity to represent the United States in such a special contest. I truly hope that, in the future, the United States will host Sounds from the Heart.

 

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Updated May 5, 2014