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August 21, 2014

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Henderson girl, 8, plays piano to win Suncoast talent contest

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Heather Cory

John Vanderburg Elementary School student Rachel Zhang, 8, plays a piece during the sixth annual talent competition at Suncoast Hotel and Casino. Zhang won first place at the competition last Thursday.

Suncoast talent competition

Malia Civetz, a student from Las Vegas Academy, sings her hardest during the sixth annual talent compitition at Suncoast Hotel and Casino. Launch slideshow »

As 8-year-old Rachel Zhang's fingers touched the piano, she began with a rather simple rendition of "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" that amused the audience.

But the song quickly transformed into a fast-paced tour de force that left the crowd in awe. Without using any musical notation, Rachel's fingers whizzed across the keys for more than 10 minutes.

Although she was the first performer of the afternoon, the third grader from Vanderburg Elementary School in Henderson won the Suncoast's sixth annual Talent Competition on Aug. 28.

Rachel's piano instructor, Damaris Alvarez, said she began playing at age 4 and that her progress was incredible. She practices for two hours each day.

"I noticed Rachel's talent right off the bat," Alvarez said. "She doesn't get nervous at all. She's a natural performer."

"I'm not sure what I want to be when I grow up," Rachel said. "I just hope I have a successful career."

The youngster is off to a fast start, although she had to edge out six other talented contestants to finish first — Carly Renner, 11, Kasey Phillips, 14, Malia Civetz, 14, Lynda DeFuria, 18 and Paige and Stephanie Melanson, 16 and 17, respectively.

It was the final round of a monthlong program that featured local youth ages 8 to 18, with the top two finishers from each age group winning $100 in the preliminary competitions and advancing to the finals.

Rachel won an additional $100 for finishing first overall in the finals Aug. 28. The Melansons, an acrobatic dancing duo from Las Vegas High School who finished second overall Aug. 28, also won an additional $100.

DeFuria, an 18-year-old from Green Valley who recently graduated from Las Vegas Academy, wowed the audience with a rendition of Mariah Carey's hit song "Hero," as well as an original piece that she wrote entitled "Alive."

She's been singing since age 8 and picked up songwriting about two years ago.

"I always start with the music first, like a chord progression," DeFuria said. "Then I start humming the melody and I'll think of a couple lines. It's almost like a story that develops. Sometimes I pull things from my own life or my friends' lives."

DeFuria has already taken the next step in what she hopes will be a career in music — the day after the show, she headed to Boston's Berklee College of Music, where she will major in vocal performance.

"I'm trying to finish my own 10-song CD by the end of the year," DeFuria said. "Hopefully I can sell those on iTunes or ship them to record companies."

Not all of the afternoon's talent revolved around piano keys or vocal chords. Kasey, who lives in Henderson, took over the stage with a powerful dance routine complete with spins, flips and kicks.

Kasey, a 14-year-old freshman at Las Vegas Academy, said she hopes to join the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater when she gets older.

"I started dancing at age 4 and I think people really started noticing when I was 10 or 11," she said. "I just continued to progress."

Although Kasey said she gets a little nervous before each performance, she said the energy of her routines always takes over.

"I really like the crowd's reaction the best," Kasey said. "When the crowd yells louder that pumps me up even more. I just like being on stage in the spotlight."

Jeff O’Brien is a reporter for the Home News. He can be reached at 990-8957 or [email protected].

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