When Nolan De Leon sat down at his piano at the end of January, he did so purposefully, cautiously, tracing his fingers over the ivory white keys to find the right notes for the words he couldn’t speak.
His grandfather was in the hospital with pneumonia and, unable to breathe and needing a pacemaker, his prognosis only seemed to be getting worse.
"I had never seen him so bad. All the words I couldn’t say I wrote in the song," said De Leon.
"I felt helpless. The song gave me hope. I told myself that when he gets out, I’m going to show him this song."
Two months later, the Garden City Collegiate student found himself performing that song for his grandpa and hundreds of others at the 2013 Festival Jeune artiste du Manitoba, held April 6 and 7 at St. Boniface University, where he was crowned the winner of the French singing competition.
"He was crying. He didn’t even know it was about him," said De Leon, 16.
"He was there to listen to it. That was prize enough for me."
De Leon may come from a Filipino background, but he’s been speaking French since kindergarten and has been playing piano and writing songs since he was two.
Though his vice-principal encouraged him to enter the competition because of his skills, writing the song in French was instinctual, De Leon said. "I wanted to see if I could pull the strings not through the words but through the actual song itself," he said.
The song netted De Leon a $1,000 award and he won an extra $200 for being voted as best performance by audience members.
He plans to use those winnings to hone his surgical chops instead of his musical chops.
"My need is in the medical field," he said.
"There are people in the future that will need a second chance in life. I’ll work to that goal as hard as I can to be that hope for patients."
"It’s all going to the books," he said.
Garden City vice-principal Michelle Jean-Paul said De Leon "epitomizes" the school’s French immersion program in helping students coming to view themselves as francophone regardless of their background.
"He’s the outcome we want," she said.
"We don’t want students just to see it as a language we use in the classroom."
About 300 of the school’s 1,400 students are enrolled in French immersion, she said.
Student diversity in the program is growing and many newcomers are taking up French because they recognize it is a part of Canada’s bilingual identity. They want to be a part of celebrating that, Jean-Paul said.
"It’s a living current language," she said.
"All the things we have in English exist in French. It’s a vibrant culture."
To hear the song and watch Nolan’s performance at the competition, visit www.youtube.com/watch?v=J5P3lZKG5Kc.
Canadian Parents for French organizes the Festival Jeune artiste du Manitoba, which was first held in March 2010. It's open to students learning French as a second language. Students in this year's event also sang songs by French artists Coeur de Pirate and Marie Pierre Arthur, organizers said.