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Thomas Farragher

Autistic musicians shine at Boston Conservatory

There was so little magic at Fenway Park this year that it’s surprising that, even after the Red Sox staggered out of town, there is still so much of it to be found near the old ballpark.

But, believe me, the magic is there. You have to look for it right around the corner from the Green Monster on Ipswich Street.

Actually, you have to listen for it. But there it was, last Saturday morning when a first-of-its kind program resumed in gleaming new soundproof performance quarters hard by the Mass. Pike. Trumpets blared. Guitars were strummed. Angelic voices sweetly sang.


“I watch these kids walk in, and they’re chaotic; they’re anxious,’’ said Rhoda Bernard, who chairs the music education department at the Boston Conservatory. “Then the music starts. And everything changes. They’re focused. They’re happy.’’

Bernard is talking about the 30 or so young people at the Boston Conservatory’s program for students on the autism spectrum. Bernard helped launch the program six years ago. To describe what has happened since then as magic is hardly hyperbole.

There is an acceptance here, a trust that these students rarely find. Music has patterns. It has pacing. It has rhythm. And all of that provides a portal to learning for students on the autism spectrum. The results are quite simply life-changing.

“One of my students is huge, over 6 feet,’’ said Valerie Snow, one of the program’s instructors. “He’ll come in, having a fit, banging his head and screaming. And then he’ll sit at the piano and the energy shifts like a tornado. It finds a place in the music.’’

There are many music therapy programs aiming to improve social, emotional, or cognitive skills. That is not the main point here. This is a music program about music.

Its students are good, and many find their way into conservatory or college music programs.


“We have a population here that has always heard about their deficits,’’ Bernard said. “We want to show them what they can do.’’

It is important to remember that programs like this just don’t happen by accident. When the Boston Conservatory celebrated the opening of its new 20,000-square-foot building last month, I asked president Richard Ortner why his school does it.

“It’s part of the beating heart of the institution,’’ he replied.

For evidence of the dividends, look no further than Gianna Hitsos.

Just as she began forming words as a young child, she abruptly stopped talking. At 18 months old, she began rocking and pacing and was diagnosed with autism at age 2.

“My childhood was not a very happy one,’’ she said the other day as she sat next to her mother, Lisa. “Even kids from my own neighborhood treated me bad.’’

Gianna found her way to the doorstep of Boston Conservatory in 2008. Her parents knew their daughter, who was especially fond of Disney films and their music, could sing. They were about to find out how well.

“Everyone was so nice,’’ Gianna said. “That was a total change. They didn’t see me as an autistic kid. Once they heard me sing, they were like: Whoa!’’

You’d have that reaction, too, if you were at Fenway Park last year when Gianna sang “God Bless America’’ down by Pesky’s Pole.

She’s in college now. She’s aiming for Broadway. And she’s smiling.


It’s the kind of victory that was otherwise hard to find in Kenmore Square this year.

Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at thomas.farragher@