Holly Connor sang her solo with gusto in her middle school’s production of “Newsies” this month. She played a big-voiced saloon singer, Medda Larkin, and when she bellowed the chorus to “That’s Rich,” the audience at Wydown Middle School in Clayton noticed.
Her 14-year-old voice sounds like that of someone much older. She’s got range. There’s a polished timbre and control to it.
“Everyone was blown away by my voice,” Holly said to me, matter-of-factly. She isn’t being cocky. “I can hear everything because I can’t see everything,” she explains. Holly was born blind because her optic nerve never fully developed. Although she can make out some movement and contrast several feet ahead of her, she relies on Braille to read and write.
She’s also autistic, which can make performing on stage a lot trickier. It has taken time for her to adjust to the chaos and sensory overload that can be part of a stage production. But these challenges haven’t stopped her from participating in 12 shows last year. She’s performed in 21 different productions with various theater companies around St. Louis over the past three years. That’s on top of a full school day, playing piano in the school’s jazz band, and taking private acting, dancing and singing lessons. Her days start early and are jam-packed with rehearsals, auditions and lessons until evening.
It’s quite a departure from a baby who cried constantly and a toddler who couldn’t leave her house until she was 3 years old. Her parents didn’t take her to public places until she was 7 because she would get overwhelmed.
Holly has a rare triad of blindness, autism and musical genius. The phenomenon has been written about in medical and anecdotal accounts. Her parents and voice coach describe her as a savant, who can play and sing songs by ear that she’s heard once and has an instant memory for music. She picks up new instruments and languages easily. She has also started composing her own music.
Her mother, Katie Sears, gave up her career running clinical trials for cancer research two years ago to manage her daughter’s activities and needs. She has spent hours converting scripts into Braille for her daughter, which sit in fat, bound copies on her bedroom bookshelf. She keeps an airtight schedule and packed calendar.
“Her goal is to be on Broadway,” Katie Sears said. Just as important, music and performance has opened up a world of friendships to Holly that she had never experienced before. Her mother started an Instagram account a year ago and posted daily videos in which she documented Holly’s days. It gave students at school a way to get to know her and feel comfortable talking to her.
Her stepfather, Titus Sears, relocated their family from Seattle for a job with Enterprise. The St. Louis region has embraced Holly with her special needs and gifts in a way the family never experienced before, her parents said.
“We are making as many open doors as possible for her,” he said.
When Holly was 4 years old her parents took her to China for a seven-week experimental stem cell treatment that cost $75,000. Since then, Holly has gone to Panama for a similar stem cell therapy and will be returning again next year for a week. Her mother says she has seen a significant reduction in her daughter’s autism symptoms and improvement in her sight, although the treatment has not been scientifically proven to work.
Her mother stays backstage with her for every production. There have been times when she has had to calm Holly down 30 seconds before she has to go on stage. Once Holly even fell off the stage because she didn’t have a buddy to guide her. To watch from the audience, though, it’s hard to tell that this young performer is any different from her peers.
That is, until you hear that exceptional voice.