When she was six and singing Annie songs in her backyard, Devin Cecchetto got a surprise.
“She was singing out here, and all of a sudden she’d stop,” said her dad Roger, standing on the leafy patio.
“Everybody was applauding around the neighbourhood.”
The Cecchettos live in a musical corner of the Beach Triangle. A flute player lives in the house behind, and there are trumpet players on either side.
In summer, their music filters through open windows.
Those musical neighbours were among the first people to hear Devin sing, and they liked what they heard.
Now 17, Devin hopes to win over another well-tuned crowd – judges for the Rising Star talent contest hosted by the Canadian National Exhibition.
After 29 years, the CNE is proud to point out that Rising Star predates such upstarts as Canadian Idol.
Judged by recording musicians and other industry types, the contest draws singers, dancers and other performers age six to 25 from all over Ontario, and the winner goes on to a national final.
Jazz singer Matt Dusk got his start as a top Rising Star, as did dancer Blake McGrath.
Devin was 13 the first year she got on the CNE stage, and she remembers it well.
A fan of musical theatre ever since her Grade 1 Annie debut at Kew Beach Public School, Devin chose ‘On My Own’ from Les Misérables.
Then came her Kayne West moment.
“The music stopped, and I kept singing,” Devin said. “It was crazy!”
Glitches aside, a live contest like Rising Star is full of challenges.
Until this year, when Rising Star will be held on the indoor International Stage at the Enercare Centre, the contest always ran beside the CNE midway, where passing crowds might gather round, or melt away.
Devin said it’s a thrill to engage a crowd like that, and a good testing ground for what makes a song a crowd-pleaser.
“I feel like each time you do it, it’s not really about winning,” she said. “It’s more about what you learn.”
Like many aspiring singers and actors in the Beach, Devin can trace her first performance lessons to Andrea Van Slyke, the Kew Beach teacher behind Annie and many other stage productions at the school.
“We were just little kids, but it really brought us out of our shells,” Devin said.
Van Slyke ran rehearsals three times a week, and students were expected to practice. When they did Guys and Dolls, a choreographer came in to set up the big fight scene.
Van Slyke set a high bar for elementary students, but they got there, Devin said, and for her it was a lasting lesson on the discipline you need to be on top of your game.
It also knocked parents’ socks off.
“There were little kids, belting out Oklahoma! at eight or ten years old,” said her mother Kim, laughing.
“It was hilarious.”
By Grade 7, Devin started doing shows with Scarborough Music Theatre, including a reprise of Annie, this time in the title role.
There and at the Oshawa Little Theatre, Devin got to meet people with real industry experience. She heard stories from performers who tried to make it in New York, and the two ways that story can go.
“She’s got no illusions about how tough it will be,” said Kim. “Even if you’re talented, that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen.”
Devin is now going into her senior year at the Etobicoke School of the Arts, where she studies the “triple threat” of musical theatre: singing, dancing, and acting.
Last year, she learned to dance the Lindy Hop in a 1920’s jazz musical called Swing. Among her favourite moves was the ‘candle stick,’ where the girls took a running jump at their partners, grabbed them by the shoulders and then swung their legs up high so they were pin-straight, upside-down and being spun in circles.
But singing is still what Devin enjoys best.
Even when it’s not for a show, she listens to the likes of Streisand and Ella Fitzgerald.
“Pop’s not really my thing,” she said. Radio hits make for good dancing, maybe, but she prefers the classics – songs with a story to tell.
Devin has welcomed the reality check she got from listening to older performers, but it hasn’t shaken her ambition.
She is already weighing schools such as Sheridan College and the Randolph School of the Arts after she graduates, looking to focus on musical theatre.
“Everyone says you’ve got to have a plan B.” she said, smiling.
“But I feel like plan A, plan B – not a good idea!”
If you are going to try and make it as a performer, she said, she thinks it’s best to have that as your one plan, until it doesn’t work out.
Otherwise, she said, people are liable to get scared, and settle for plan B.
“Just have one plan A, a go all-in,” she said with a grin.
“You only have one life!”