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Concerts give young patients at Children’s something to smile about

Musician Hayley Thompson-King shares a moment with 4-year-old patient Eliana Montas.
Musician Hayley Thompson-King shares a moment with 4-year-old patient Eliana Montas.(Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff)

In 2011, Boston Children's Hospital began giving its young patients something remarkable, an opportunity they'd possibly never experience beyond the facility's walls. Miranda Day, who manages the creative arts program, had an idea for the Prouty Garden, a bucolic green space at the hospital that was used mostly for lunch breaks and as a respite from the clinical surroundings.

Day hung up a handmade banner that some of the patients made out of construction paper, with each letter scrawled in crayon, and invited a local band to perform. Just like that, Boston Children's Hospital launched its first-ever summer concert series that originally focused on homegrown talent but attracted national artists, too, such as indie singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten.

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"My whole goal was to use our outdoor space to brighten the spirits of our patients, families, and staff with music and a calming atmosphere," said Day. "The idea that you can be a patient not feeling your best but have an opportunity to stop into a concert in your PJs, IV, and a wheelchair just seemed like a nice thing to do."

As the summer begins to fade, so too does the concert series' future. Next year, the hospital will dig up the Prouty Garden to make way for a new building. A publicist for Boston Children's Hospital said there are plans to create more green space on the hospital's grounds, and Day is hopeful she'll find a new home for her beloved concerts.

With input from Asim Ahmed, a pediatrician at the hospital who happens to be a big music fan, Day has programmed everything from reggae and dance to swing music and indie rock. She asks the artists to be mindful of the young audience — no swear words, please — and Day has noticed how the musicians soften when they interact with the kids. That was part of her original vision.

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"Four years ago, I said, 'Hey, can we put music out here?' No one told me no, so I just did it," said Day. "I wanted the kids to be part of the music and for the musicians to meet these amazing kids. I knew right away that it was going to engage them in interesting ways, but we didn't know it was going to be this important. I guess that's the power of the arts."

While Day figures out what will happen to the series, the hospital is exploring music's therapeutic qualities with another new endeavor. In November, it opened the Seacrest Studio, a state-of-the-art facility equipped with microphones, cameras — and a stuffed teddy bear. Musicians such as R&B star Usher and indie-rock band the Decemberists have dropped by for interviews and live performances that are beamed into every patient's room through closed-circuit television.

"The mission is really to be there for the kids and take their minds off of being in the hospital," said Matt Hogan, the studio's manager. "It's great for the kids who can come down and meet these people in person, but it's just as valuable for the kids upstairs who are really sick or hooked up on machines or who can't be around other people. They can watch on TV or call in to the studio with a question and still have that feeling of participation."

Depending on how well they're feeling, patients will sometimes pack the studio to create a live audience for the day's guest. If they're bed-bound, they can call in to the studio to ask a question. Or sometimes they just stand outside and press their noses to the glass to see who's in there. Usually it's an artist the kids would know: Last month, the teen singing sensation Shawn Mendes dropped by for a session before his two-night gig opening for Taylor Swift at Gillette Stadium.

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Funded by the Ryan Seacrest Foundation, a charitable organization launched by the radio and media personality, the studio is the eighth such facility in the country. Two more are planned to open this year, and the focus is not entirely on music. The Boston studio, for instance, has also hosted star athletes from the Red Sox and the Patriots. The studio sessions are exclusively for the hospital community — they're filmed, but they are not available to stream online.

In the summer, the Seacrest Studio often works in conjunction with the hospital's concert series. On a recent Wednesday morning, as the sun bore down, local singer-songwriter Hayley Thompson-King and her two bandmates fielded Hogan's kid-friendly questions ("How do you write a song?") in the studio. Then they packed up and moved outdoors for a concert.

As the band set up, Thompson-King remarked how lovely the courtyard was. The leafy ambience of the Prouty Garden is indeed pretty and serene, but there are constant reminders of where you are. In the middle of a soft ballad, Thompson-King got some extra percussion: the swirling commotion from a helicopter that was landing next door at Brigham and Women's Hospital, presumably with a patient onboard.

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The chairs in front of Thompson-King were mostly empty, save for a smattering of staff on their lunch hour. That's not unusual; sometimes the patients don't come down at all, depending on their condition that day.

But then, just as Thompson-King had announced her last song, a pint-size admirer took a seat in the front with her mother. Eliana Montas, 4, was hard to miss, wearing ribbons in her hair and a colorful legging that concealed a prosthetic limb. Thompson-King lit up: "Hey, little one!"

With a teddy bear tucked under her arm, Eliana clapped and danced in synch to the music. Afterward, Thompson-King knelt down as Eliana approached and leaned in for a hug. Eliana's mother, Gloria Robles, said her daughter, a cancer patient, routinely visits the hospital for treatment. Today's concert, she said, was a welcome respite.

"She loves music, so when we heard this concert, we had to come over," Robles said. "It's a nice way to lift her spirits when she comes here, and she needs that."

Packing up her guitar, Thompson-King, who gigs around Boston with the bands Banditas and Major Stars, seemed moved by what had just happened.

"I came here because I thought it would be a nice thing to do for the kids," Thompson-King said. "I didn't realize it was going to be such a touching experience for me too."

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James Reed can be reached at james
.reed@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeJamesReed.