The Day Room is a column by Philip Cosores that features stories from the music industry that shine a light and brighten the corners.
I met Spencer Hardy at TBD Fest in Sacramento last fall. One of the event’s publicists, Lily Golightly, had invited him as her guest, and I was instantly intrigued when Hardy spoke about his career as a music therapist, working often with autistic children. If you’ve read previous Day Room columns, you might remember an article I did with Joshua Kirk, whose autism manages to be an asset at times, particularly with how he approaches being a music critic.
Hardy struck me as kind during our first encounter, probably because he gave me a lift back to my hotel when the festival’s shuttle service lagged on pickup. So it’s especially unjust when we speak on the phone a couple months later, Hardy in San Jose, and he recounts having his car broken into recently, his laptop stolen. He puts this aside to discuss what he does for a living.
“I am a music therapist that works primarily with special needs kids,” Hardy says. “I have my own business that I started with another music therapist, and we primarily offer both group and individual sessions, working with kids on the autism spectrum to working with kids with Down syndrome, to kids with cerebral palsy, to kids who are visually impaired. I have a few I’ve even worked with who have hearing impairments, as well.”
But what exactly is music therapy? One might assume it is simply playing calming music or using music to instruct, but the truth is that it’s far more nuanced.
“Music therapy is trying to address a clinical goal that is non-musical, while using music as sort of a therapeutic tool or modality through which you’re working to address that goal,” Hardy says.
“It’s kind of complex,” Hardy continues, “but I can give you an example. If I am working with a kid who has a speech delay, I can use singing a preferred song, or a new song, with different sounds or change the words of the song, or whatever … I can use singing in all these different ways to target a specific word that we might be working on or a specific sound that we might be working on in their speech goal and address it with music.
“Another example then is if I’m working with a kid with a physical handicap, which is like their moving of their arms and their limbs might be limited, so I can use drumming to work on coordination and things like that. I can also work on isolating fingers on the piano, or I can work on grasping a small stick to play a triangle.”
As Hardy lays out, music is a great motivator for young people. Think about the ABCs or how music is used for young people in church, and you get the idea of how songs can be used to instruct and to excite people about something that generally wouldn’t be exciting.
“There’s all these ways you can use music as the motivator,” Hardy says. “Everyone’s motivated by music, but kids especially can be so motivated by it. It can be a confidence builder, too, like, ‘Look what I accomplished.’ Not to say speech therapy or occupational therapy isn’t super important because all these kids I work with are in those things, too, but I can take some of the same goals they’re working on there and use music as a way to really make them feel like they accomplished something, they created something, in addition to working on their goals.
“That’s kind of the gist of what we do with my population,” Hardy says, “and music therapy is so vast you can use it in nursing homes, you can use it with premature infants, working with babies who are needing to develop after being born prematurely, and then they use it all the way to the other end of life in hospice care. My wife is actually a music therapist in hospice care, so she does a totally different style of music therapy than what I’m doing on a day-to-day basis, which is kind of cool.”
Indeed it is cool, and I reach out to his wife, Beth Hardy, to see how her work differs from her husband’s. Beth and I only communicate by email, but to my surprise, her work isn’t an emotional drain and is just as empowering and uplifting as Spencer’s.
“I work on a 20-bed inpatient hospice unit providing music therapy services to veterans and their families,” Beth says over email. “The veterans that I work with range in age from late 50s to over 90, and most of my patients are men. In my music therapy services, I provide a range of interventions including songwriting, lyric analysis and discussion, music listening for relaxation, playing live at the bedside using guitar, harp, flute, piano and/or voice, and creating music ‘legacy projects’ using music that the veteran has loved throughout their lifetime.”
Beth and Spencer met at the Berklee College of Music, and their careers stem from a lifelong musical passion.
“Sure, I was one of those kids growing up that was always really, really into music,” Spencer says, “so I did band and every music class I could sign up for. I really enjoyed playing, and for a while I thought I would be a music teacher. That was just kind of my go-to career path so that even in middle school I was talking about going to Berklee College of Music and thinking I would go there for music education. And then in high school, I did a variety of volunteer work, and one of the things I did was volunteer with special needs kids, which I liked. I didn’t really know how to put the two together: my passion for working with people and then my passion for music. My mom gave me an article about music therapy, and once I read about it, it clicked.
“The thing that’s been really cool is that a lot of people have a career path in high school, and then it totally changes by the time they get out of college. But for me, ever since I found out what music therapy was, I knew that was what I wanted to do. I put my head down and totally started doing it. I started learning guitar because I was a saxophone player, and I don’t use saxophone that much in music therapy, so I started learning guitar and trying to work on my singing skills, just all the stuff to be ready to get into the music therapy program at Berklee. I applied to a few other places, but I really knew that was where I wanted to go, especially since I grew up in the Boston area, so I was familiar with the school.”
Beth Hardy’s path to music therapy wasn’t quite as direct.
“I found out about music therapy when I was in college at Berklee College of Music in Boston,” she says. “I had started out as a music business major but switched to music therapy after taking an introduction to music therapy class. I found it to be awesome that I could use my music skills to help people in all sorts of situations.
“I didn’t set out to work with veterans specifically,” Beth says. “It just worked out that way. I started at the VA Palo Alto in the inpatient psychiatry unit and worked there for about a year and a half before transferring to long-term care/nursing home. I then transferred to hospice, where I am now. I’ve worked at the VA for six and a half years and have provided music therapy services to veterans in all different treatment programs here.”
Beth explains that music therapy in her field is much different than that of Spencer’s, specifically in the goals that it sets out for.
“Music therapy in the hospice setting can help patients and families cope with end-of-life feelings and issues including grief, sadness, anger, loss, and a range of other feelings that arise,” she says. “It can help distract patients from pain/discomfort, help to regulate breathing, reduce anxiety, increase socialization, reduce isolation, reduce depressive symptoms, and provide an outlet for veterans to experience emotions.”
The multitude of situations and uses for musical therapy can seem so intimidating when laid out as a list like that, but Spencer marks a key distinction that draws his patients into two categories.
“In our training when I was at Berklee College of Music,” Spencer says, “one of the things that really stuck with me was that some of the people you work with, it’s really going to be about your relationship with them as the therapist. Other people, it’s going to be about their relationship with music. That was really interesting to think about — the idea that it’s not necessarily about me and my relationship with this child but about me being there as the person to help build their relationship with music therapeutically. So I feel like I do both. I feel like I build a rapport with kids, but I also help them build their relationship with music.”
Of course, Spencer’s patients may be overcoming certain conditions, but Beth’s work may not be about overcoming.
“Although I do face death and dying on a daily basis at my job,” she says, “there is not a great feeling of sadness in my day-to-day work. In fact, the hospice unit is quite an uplifting place because we are really focusing on helping the veterans live while they are here. We focus on their comfort and really focus on helping the veteran and family process their experience and have lots of quality time together if they want it.
I do feel sad sometimes when a patient that I’ve worked with for several months passes away, but mostly I just feel grateful and honored that I was able to provide music for them in their last days/weeks/months of life.”
Speaking with Spencer, I can’t help but think of my past subject (and now friend) Joshua Kirk. I’m curious as to whether Spencer has seen many autistic students show a similar ability to retain musical information and aptitude for appreciation of music, as Joshua has.
“I definitely noticed,” Spencer says. “Autism is definitely a spectrum. There’s a whole range of ability levels, and it’s so different when you’re working with a low-level-functioning autistic child than a higher-functioning one, so it really ranges. One thing that I definitely have noticed is that I think the rate of perfect pitch in autism is way higher. If you go into a classroom of 25 kids, typically developing kids, there might be one kid in the classroom who has perfect pitch. I work with about 25 kids on the autism spectrum, and way more than one of them has perfect pitch, let’s put it that way.
“It’s really interesting,” he continues, telling of a class he recently took over for a teacher who left. “I stepped in and took over some of her work, and I went into a classroom and was singing a song on the guitar. One of the students in the class recognized the song, but she didn’t really like the way it sounded. She said, ‘You’re playing it in D; Chelsea used to play it in E,’ and she just like flat-out said it, and I was like, ‘You have perfect pitch.’”
Spencer gets excited when talking about this. You can hear it in his voice, like it is something that he doesn’t get asked about often and is just jumping at the chance to share. It strikes as real passion for his career and is contagious. It is easy to see why this passion would make him a good teacher.
“Then in other ways,” Spencer continues, “there are kids that can just flat-out say it like they know a language someone’s taught them, and they’ve picked it up really easily. I have kids I’ve worked with who will be like the heater in my house is in a sharp, and the heater at your house is a flat and stuff like that, so you know they’re hearing these sounds everywhere. There’s also kids that don’t have the language for it — maybe the kids that are nonverbal or maybe they haven’t been trained musically enough to put the letters or the words to the sounds — so they just have perfect pitch, and they’re walking around with it, and they don’t really know how to communicate it or verbalize it. So [at a level] music can be a strength, but it can be a challenge because if a kid hears me play a song in D but usually knows it in E, and they can’t just tell me you’re playing it in the wrong key, then, for you or I, it just might be like, ‘Oh, that’s in a different key.’ But for this kid it can be really jarring and upsetting to hear it in the wrong key.
“Beyond the perfect pitch thing, there’s the memorization stuff,” Spencer says. “It kind of goes hand in hand with perfect pitch. I have kids who will memorize a song right after they learn it and have this total talent, this innate talent, but then I also have kids who have perfect pitch and might not have the memorization component. They can hear a song in their head perfectly, but they can’t execute it. If they play a wrong note on the piano or something like that when they’re trying to play it, then they can get really upset because they can hear it perfectly but can’t make it sound like that yet, because they haven’t developed the skills yet. Those are other ways where it can be a blessing and a challenge at the same time.”
Both Spencer and Beth can see the results in their work, both in the short and the long terms. For Beth, it might even be in the family of her patients, and for Spencer, it can be both in accomplishing goals and seeing a child’s confidence and love of music grow. For the rest of us, their stories can inspire us to greater appreciate the practical applications of music, of both playing and listening, and how a love of music can manifest itself into more than simply being in a band or writing for a blog. If you love music, you can actually help people with their life, and with their death. And that’s pretty incredible.