Music Sweet Music Program Aids Speech Therapy At All Children's Hospital

A proud graduating class with music therapist Jennifer Miller

Pomp and Circumstance plays on a boom box as a handful of smiling youngsters make their way, one by one, to the front of the room in the Speech Language and Feeding Department at All Children’s Hospital.

The kids certainly have no idea that they are moving to the regal refrain of the traditional graduation song. But they know it’s a special moment filled with more of the music they have been immersed in over the previous four weeks.

They are receiving diplomas for completing their work in Music Sweet Music, an outpatient program started 12 years ago by a former hospital volunteer, Ted Wagner. He and his wife Nuala have been fixtures on the local performance scene for the past two decades, appearing regularly in the lounge at the St. Petersburg Yacht Club. But by day, Wagner has poured himself passionately into his musical outreach to children who suffer from speech and communicative impairments.

Unlike the music therapy program for hospitalized patients being treated at All Children’s, his endeavor is designed to help little ones who come to Child Development and Rehabilitation Center several mornings a week to work on language skills – with music serving as a bridge.

 "Through volunteering, I kind of saw a need for therapy beyond people’s hospital stays,” Wagner says. “A lot of the kids really responded well to music therapy but wouldn’t receive therapy after the hospital stay. I found out that there was really no organization in St. Petersburg that provided ongoing music therapy or instruments – and that’s really why I started it.”

A talented sax player by trade, Wagner knew he didn’t possess the therapeutic training or knowledge required to teach the children. So after founding the organization, he hired board certified music therapists to run the classes – donating his time and energy to supervise the program as a labor of love. He and Nuala handle the fundraising initiatives and have obtained grants to keep Music Sweet Music going. “The only people paid in this organization are the therapists and my administrative assistant,” he adds. “This is all volunteer work for me.”

 One therapist, Jennifer Miller, has been working with the children at a recent session at ACH.  The kids, ranging in age from 2 to 5, bang on drums, keep time with shakers, and jump and sing to songs they have learned in class. Soon she asks a little girl named Baela to pick a song for the group. “Can we do Wheels on the Bus?” she asks. Miller obliges, strumming the chords on a special electronic instrument that simulates the sound of a guitar, and the kids all sing along enthusiastically.

The scene brings a smile to the face of Therese Montanari, All Children’s Speech and Hearing Director in the Speech-Language Pathology Department. She brought Wagner’s group on board several years ago with the move to a new, bigger development and rehabilitation building, augmenting the hospital’s excellent inpatient music therapy program.
“You hope that when they try to sing along, it’s a vocalization,” Montanari says. “If they’re having trouble talking with two-word phrases or single words, they may string some vocalizations together to try to sing. We have seen a nice correlation between getting their intonation and rhythm – that’s important when you’re having a conversation. And with a certified music therapist, she has the background to help the children.”

With more than 400 children in the speech-language program, there isn’t room for all of them in the music class. But it’s an appealing option for parents who really want it for their child (or, in some cases, children).

 “A lot of times, it’s based on when they’re coming to speech and language therapy,” Montanari says. “If they’re coming on the days we have music class, it works out great. And it’s nice for us because we may be working with a child’s mouth to make a W – or wuh wuh sound – and then they come right into music class and sing Old McDonald. They go through all the different farm animals and use those muscles for something functional like singing.”

Baela certainly has benefitted, says her father, Matthew Comfort.

“It’s been excellent,” he says. “She loves to sing songs now, whereas before she would kind of clap her hands but not really sing – trying to say the words. The songs definitely reinforce what she’s learning. Wheels on the Bus, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star – it’s all enunciating.”

                 Applause for a new Music Sweet Music grad
When the big moment arrives, Wagner tells the children they are a “Music Sweet Music Shining Star” and they line up to receive their diplomas. As the familiar graduation theme plays, each name is called to the sound of cheers and applause. “I can’t tell you enough how proud I am of all of you, and what a great job you did with the music,” Wagner says. 

With that, snacks are served and sound of sweet music fills the air.

"Faces and Places" is a regular column written by Strategic Communications Editor Dave Scheiber highlighting those people, places and things that make All Children's Hospital special. If you have an idea for a story, please contact Dave at 727-767-2490 or

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