Marin County singer overcomes challenges of autism

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ABC7 Stars recognizes local people doing extraordinary things, like Michael Valcour, who overcame the odds to become a professional singer. (KGO-TV)

ABC7 Stars recognizes local people doing extraordinary things, like Michael Valcour, who overcame the odds to become a professional singer.

As a child growing up in Marin County, Michael Valcour couldn't speak. Now, his voice soars as a professional baritone and he inspires others with his gift for music.

We caught up with Michael backstage at the Special Needs Talent Showcase in Santa Clara. Standing in the wings with the microphone at his side, he's focused as he prepares for the finale. He's the last performer of the night.

If another singer were minutes away from taking the stage, perhaps they'd be feeling the pressure right about now - maybe feeling those sweaty palms or a few butterflies. Not Michael. He's a stranger to stage fright and says he lives to perform. "Mmhmm, I love it," said Michael. "I feel like a new me."

Michael is often a man of few words, but just ask him to sing and it's hard to get him to stop. With his deep baritone and ability to hold a rich vibrato, the question is, why would you want him to?

When asked to sing the first song he remembers from childhood, he'll trace out each note of "Sing" from Sesame Street with a quiet gentleness. But he can just as easily belt out Italian opera, enunciating and trilling every syllable from memory effortlessly. He also loves contemporary songs, and classics- one of his favorites is "Let it Be" by The Beatles.

Michael walked away a winner from the Special Needs Talent Showcase last year with his powerful rendition of "Climb Every Mountain" from the Sound of Music. He's since gone on to film a music video. It's a triumph after what can be described as a hard beginning.

Michael's parents, Arnold and Kathy Valcour, say they've always wanted a family.

"I wanted one of each," said Arnold, laughing. "Yes, we got what we wanted," said Kathy.

A daughter came first, then Michael answered their prayers when he was born in Daly City.

"He was a big baby," Kathy recalled. "The people who saw him, they were kind of awestruck because he looked so perfect." Arnold agreed. "He was a good-looking baby. You think about all the sports you'll play."

But then came the moment that many parents of children with Autism experience. As time passed, Arnold and Kathy knew something wasn't right.

"It was his sister's birthday party. They were opening gifts and he just clamored in there and leapt on top of the presents. And everyone thought it was cute, but I just knew," said Kathy. "Why isn't he developing like other children? We went to the doctor and I said, 'He isn't talking.'"

For years they were not to worry, that he would grow out of it. Finally, they received a diagnosis. "His pediatrician did an analysis, he was holding pictures up of things like a house or a tree, and Michael couldn't name them, and these cards would just fall on the floor. He would hold up a picture of a dog, and Michael couldn't say it. A picture of a ball and he couldn't say it. And my heart just dropped as these cards dropped on the floor," said Kathy.

Decades ago, Autism was not a word that necessarily elicited instant recognition. Kathy and Arnold describe the diagnosis as heartbreaking to hear, but say they never for a moment gave up on Michael.

"I cried for about 15 minutes, and we started thinking about what we needed to do. It was time to go to work," said Kathy. "I had great hope for him. In your heart you know there's a person in there who can be a part of society and a contributor."

Even when he seemed lost in his own world as a child, music was a way they could reach Michael.

"I used to carry him around and sing to him," said Arnold. "When I'd sing the words to him, he'd understand me a lot better than if I talked."

Michael soon picked up the guitar and developed a love of singing. His voice and musicality emerged, and his parents found that, remarkably, Michael transformed on stage.

To see him in the middle of a performance is to see a man with a commanding voice, conveying depths of emotion. He's able to express nuances that, his parents say, he still struggles with in daily conversation.

"I want him to be as normal as he can be, and I want him to be accepted everywhere he goes," said Arnold. "And he is accepted, when you look at him, because he's a good-looking guy. But when he starts to talk, you can see people's acceptance goes away. That hurts, that really hurts."

Michael is painfully aware of this, and says once he's offstage, he finds the social world can be an isolating place.

"All of a sudden, I'll get something wrong for them," said Michael.

At 80 and 75, Michael's parents worry about what will happen to him once they're gone. But today, they are wiping away happy tears, celebrating the fact that Michael has been chosen as an ABC7 Star.

"I can't believe it," said Arnold. "This is one of the things I've always wanted for him. He wants to be recognized for his talent and ability... My life, after awhile, didn't matter at all. It's all about him."

Finally, it's time for Michael's performance. He steps out from the wings, the light creating a halo around him, as the opening strains of piano float out of the sound system. Suddenly, he stands up straighter, his gaze steady, as he lifts his microphone and begins to sing.

His performance pick for the night is "You Raise Me Up," and this song about love and support is dedicated to his parents.

His notes are sure and unwavering. As he finishes, the audience is quiet before erupting into applause. Michael's mother is right there in the crowd, recording every performance. And backstage, Arnold is also applauding, tears shining in his eyes. He and Kathy have been raising Michael up for decades now.

Click here to find out more about Michael.

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