Words can fail us. It can sometimes feel impossible to articulate the depths of the emotions we are feeling. Children facing life-threatening illnesses, trying to process what is happening to them, can face an even greater challenge.
And that’s where Kory Antonacci comes in.
A member of the American Music Therapy Association, Antonacci is a board-certified music therapist at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC, and part of the Creative and Expressive Arts Therapy program at the facility. As part of the Child Life Department, which provides developmental, educational, social and emotional support to children of all ages in order to help them understand and cope with their hospitalization, Antonacci believes strongly in the power of music to express the inexpressible.
“It’s indescribable what the kids here go through. Music takes away having to use words,” she explains. “Music is so nonthreatening because everyone can connect to it in some shape or form. There’s just nothing like it.”
Antonacci first became involved with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in 2013, through her good friend, violist Penny Brill, a 2016 Ford Musician Award for Excellence in Community Service awardee who is passionate about music and wellness and accessibility in the arts. (“Penny just gets it,” Antonacci laughs. “She is such an advocate for the field of music therapy.”) That year, Antonacci was asked to be part of the symphony’s community-wide Accessibility Advisory Committee, the committee that planned and developed the Sensory Friendly Concert series as one of its first major initiatives.
Antonacci feels that the arts should be accessible to everyone in the community and was very excited about being a part of a group with the same goal and that included such a diverse array of experiences and skills among its membership.
“I knew right away that I wanted to be involved,” said Antonacci. “We are truly developing a model that is now being taken into account throughout the country and beyond.”
As part of her work with that committee, Antonacci also holds training sessions for the Heinz Hall ushers on how to adjust their customer service to meet the needs of patrons of all abilities in an adaptable, welcoming and inclusive way.
“Every person is an individual,” says Antonacci. “The way I want to be approached may not be the way you want to be approached. Being able to train the ushers in that way was really eye-opening for me and I really enjoyed it!”
In 2015, Antonacci was honored with the Paul Ross Award from the Pittsburgh Symphony, an award named for former symphony violinist Paul Ross who was passionate about music education and sharing the joy of music with children.
An energetic, open and friendly person who wears a Mickey Mouse stopwatch, it’s easy to understand how children and their families and caregivers would open up to Antonacci during sessions. One of her patients, a young girl named Chelsea Wheeler, who received multi organ transplants, documents her journey on her blog and devoted an entire post to Antonacci who taught her how to play the ukulele.
“I have been doing music therapy since shortly after my transplant,” she writes. “Let me start off by saying my music therapist Kory is the best. She is smart, funny and a blast to have around!”
Antonacci and her colleague, Nicole Steele, provide children like Chelsea the opportunity to develop their creativity, self-expression and self-esteem, as well as experiencing some well-deserved fun, during their stay — and they often do that with the help of musicians from the Pittsburgh Symphony.
In 2009, the Pittsburgh Symphony began collaboration with Children’s Hospital under the guidance of Antonacci’s mentor and the former hospital music therapist Debbie Benkovitz. Today, musicians visit the hospital to perform small concerts in the hospital’s atrium for the enjoyment of patients and their families; they also make individual bedside visits; and perform during the twice-a-year memorial services honoring children who passed away during the year — a powerful healing tool and moving experience for everyone involved.
“These are families dealing with loss and grief in a way that we can never ever truly imagine,” said Antonacci. “To know that the members of our orchestra are there to walk that journey with the families – to me those are the moments that make our symphony what it is!”
Antonacci and Steele, with the help of Gloria Mou, the Pittsburgh Symphony director of community engagement programs, developed a Bedside Initiative program, which is a training for symphony members who want to engage in one-on-one outreach. It teaches the musician the basics of what to expect when interacting with medically fragile children and how to meet those children “where they are.”
From Eva Burmeister, violin, performing a solo concert in the hospital clinic to Penny Brill making a special trip to perform with a patient who also plays the viola, from children getting up-close-and-personal with Gretchen Van Hoesen’s harp to Lorna McGhee playing animal noises on her flute for a child singing “Old MacDonald,” Antonacci says the program has been “amazingly successful.”
“To have someone from the symphony playing at their bedside while they’re going through a healing process, there’s nothing like it!” she says.
A Greensburg native, Antonacci not only enjoys the symphony professionally, she can be found at a variety of concerts, from specials to classics (“I’m the one screaming my head off at Nelly,” she laughs), praising the increased variety of programming offered by the Symphony.
“I’m a patron for life,” she says.