The student glides into her music lesson on her “Heelys,” shoes with rollers in their heels. Her teacher greets her at a keyboard.
Soon the student, 11-year-old Samantha, is playing the instantly recognizable notes of Beethoven’s “Für Elise.”
“Good,” her instructor Amy says. Samantha plays the passage a little more quickly and confidently. Amy doubles down on her encouragement. “That’s so good.”
The lesson takes place in a community room filled with board games and books and big easy chairs. In countless ways it is an entirely ordinary music lesson. In countless other ways it is not.
Samantha is a guest staying at Brent’s Place, and Amy is not only a music teacher, but a board certified music therapist.
The lesson is part of Swallow Hill Music’s partnership with Brent’s Place.
Located in Aurora, Brent’s Place is a nonprofit organization that describes itself as one that “Helps those living with cancer by providing housing, programs, and partnerships in the community.” This includes providing an environment that allows “our immunosuppressed patients to be isolated from inadvertent contact with people who may be infectious.”
Amy, whose last name is Sweetin, visits Brent’s Place several times a week to work with guests, both patients and their family members. She helps nurture their love of music, and also reminds them of a world outside of hospitals and disease.
Samantha and her family are guests at Brent’s Place because her brother is in treatment at a nearby hospital.
As a sibling, Samantha is known as a “shadow survivor.” Shadow survivors can feel lost in the shuffle as their family’s attention is focused on the more immediate health needs of their child in treatment.
The philosophy behind Brent’s Place is to take care of the entire family – the patient, parents and siblings. And that is where the music lessons come in.
“This is Beethoven, our favorite guy. Remember?” Amy asks and Samantha nods, eager to get back to the song.
As Samantha and Amy delve deeper into their piece, student and teacher are absorbed. Their words blend with the music and they even complete each other’s sentences.
“Oh!” Samantha says brightly as she completes a particularly tricky phrase.
“Beethoven loves his repeats,” Amy says while Samantha giggles.
Brent’s Place is named after Brent Eley.
A Denver native, Brent was diagnosed as a 13-year-old with a “rare and aggressive type of cancer” in 1987. At the time, treatment for his disease was not available in Denver, forcing his family to relocate to Iowa City for treatment.
Far from home, Brent’s parents struggled to find and maintain a medically safe environment for their son while he received treatment.
As a result, Brent spent most of his nearly six months-long treatment in the hospital, while his parents rented an apartment.
Brent died a year after his diagnosis, a tragedy compounded by the displacement he and his family felt while away from Colorado.
When the Eley family returned to Denver they worked to provide families in similar situations with the security and social bonds they lacked while Brent was in the hospital.
“After ten years of raising funds in support of pediatric cancer programs,” the Brent’s Place website recounts, “the Eleys established the Brent Eley Foundation in 1997.”
The first Brent’s Place facility opened its doors in 1998.
Since then, Brent’s Place has grown to try to meet the demands for its services. The current building at 11980 E 16th Ave. in Aurora opened in 2009, not far from Children’s Hospital Colorado and Anschutz Medical Campus where many of the guests at Brent’s Place undergo treatment.
The need for the services Brent’s Place provides is so great a second building – Brent’s Place Too – is slated to open this spring. When that facility opens it doors, Brent’s Place will be able to “double the number of patients and families served to more than 200 annually.”
Dalayna is 12 years old. She wears a surgical mask and walks into the lesson with her mother. Her steps are tentative but her eyes brighten when she sees Amy. The two haven’t seen one another for a while.
Amy introduces “Canon in D ” by Johann Pachelbel while sitting at the keyboard. The song is new to Dalayna, so Amy talks her through it, including what hands to use, where the song speeds up, and what notes to pay particular attention to.
Dalayna slowly works through the song’s main melody. She and Amy move closer together as the music unfolds. As Dalayna finds her groove the song reveals itself in full. It’s a magical little moment where a tune that has filled countless concert halls and radio jingles reveals itself anew through the fingers of a 12-year-old.
“When you start with something new it can be a little intimidating,” Amy says knowingly as she encourages Dalayna to try the song once more before shifting to “Für Elise.”
Dalayna seems to have warmed up. “How does it feel to play piano again? Does it feel good?” Amy asks. Dalayna nods her head affirmatively and then proceeds to show off shows off a few melodies she has memorized.
Brent’s Place and Amy’s career path seemed destined to cross.
Amy grew up in Highlands Ranch in what she describes as a “musical environment.” She sang in choirs, participated in musical theater and wrote songs. She channeled her skills into becoming a vocalist. She realized, though, that she wanted a life in music but not necessarily one in performance.
By high school she knew she wanted to help people in a service role. That’s when an advisor recommended she explore counseling as a career path.
Amy says she was in the right place at the right time when she enrolled in Seattle Pacific University. At the time she was trying to create her own path, perhaps blending psychology and music. Then she learned the university was in the early stages of launching its Music Therapy Major.
The more she learned about the major, the more she realized “This is totally made for me, this is what I want to do.”
She recalls a wide variety of opportunities awaited her in her coursework and practicum experiences. As one of the first students in the major she admits she was a bit of a guinea pig, but that created openings she might not have encountered in a more established program.
From her education, she discovered “I really enjoy working in multiple populations and seeing how music is effective in many different ways, and can address a variety of needs.”
After graduating in 2012, Amy completed a six-month internship and then obtained her board certification in music therapy in early 2013. She moved back to the Denver area and found a job at the front desk at Swallow Hill Music in June, 2013.
“I was amazed, what is this place?” she says of her first encounters with Swallow Hill. She took the job in large part because it was her foot in the door toward establishing programming for people with special needs.
“I came in hoping it was something that could grow at Swallow Hill.”
Working with Director of School Operations Cheri Gonzales, Swallow Hill had its first special needs class within six months.
Cheri spearheaded the partnership with Brent’s Place, which had incorporated music programming into its services before, but wanted something more formal. In late 2014 Amy started her sessions at Brent’s Place.
The classes at Brent’s Place initially resembled Swallow Hill’s “Little Swallows” programs, but more targeted. They have since evolved to meet the individual needs of the children Amy works with.
“Music helps people reduce their heart rate, their anxiety,” Amy says. This is how her sessions fit into the goals of Brent’s Place to create a welcoming and nurturing environment that goes beyond immediate healthcare needs.
She adds that playing an instrument can help with the recovery process and develop cognitive skills. Music can help create the space that can help ease family tensions.
“Having a home base is a very simple, primal need for people going through a medical crisis,” Amy says. Music is part of creating that “home” for the guests at Brent’s Place.
Alex enthusiastically walks into his lesson. Guitar in hand and father in tow, he sports a blue T-shirt that reads “Can’t Be Beat.” He’s positively gig-ready. But first he has to tune.
He immediately starts talking about his lost guitar picks, and experimenting with distortion as Amy plugs his guitar into a small practice amp. Their banter is not unlike what you might hear from the garage band up the street.
Tuned up, Alex lets loose a few strums. The little amp packs a punch and sounds a little distorted.
“Let’s make some noise,” Amy says.
They start working on the riff to “Smoke on the Water.” Alex clearly knows the song but carefully breaks down the tricky parts.
“Even if it doesn’t feel like it, music is all about patterns,” Amy reminds him as he repeats the riff.
They sit closely together, facing one another, joined together in song.
“Want to learn a new one?” Amy asks.
“Yeah!” Alex cheers as she introduces the main riff to “Iron Man,” a perfect tune for someone who cannot “Be Beat.”
Beethoven, Pachelbel, Deep Purple and now Black Sabbath. Amy knows all the classic composers.
She plays the riff on her acoustic guitar but it really comes to life on Alex’s electric with its fuzzed-out distortion.
“Not too hard, right?” Amy asks.
“Not really,” Alex replies.
As Amy writes down the notes, Alex works on the riff, gaining fluidity each time he runs through it.
“Yeah, that’s it! Alex that’s awesome!” Amy says.
Alex stops playing and asks Amy about her next student, Naomi. He says they are friends and also mentions Samantha. The kids at Brent’s Place are connected in many ways – music and similar life experiences – but also through friendship.
As Amy steps out of the room for a moment Alex looks around. Then, as if no one was watching, he turns up amp and declares “Distortion!” He strums through a chord and basks in the crunch of his joyful noise.
They banter like sisters. Or maybe like a niece who is particularly close to her aunt.
15-year-old Naomi in bright green sneakers and dyed reddish hair admits she just woke up and forgot her glasses. Then she lets on that her brother, who is going through treatment, teases her about her glasses. But that’s OK, Naomi says, because he just got glasses himself.
“Geeky is the new cool,” Naomi says.
Naomi and Amy spend more time talking about glasses and geeks being the new cool than they do music. It’s a reminder that for all these kids are going through, they are also just kids focused on the issues of their age – fitting in, finding themselves, facing the future.
They move onto the music, “Bella’s Lullaby” from the Twilight movies.
“Everything about music is patterns,” Amy tells Naomi after they’ve played through the piece.
“It’s a good thing, patterns are the one thing I mastered in math,” Naomi replies with a bit of frustration in her voice. Amy picks up on this and quickly points out she is probably better at math than she gives herself credit for.
But, she adds, “the more you play music, the easier math will become.”
Their conversation moves seamlessly from music to life in general to school and back. Amy follows Naomi’s lead. Naomi wants to talk about Robert Pattinson, one of the stars of the Twilight movies.
“He makes a good vampire,” she giggles. “He’s a dark and mysterious person.” They both giggle as they turn their focus back to the song.
While Naomi is at Brent’s Place as a sibling, she also has the same blood disease her brother is being treated for. It just has not progressed as far for her, yet. She is dealing with the disease on multiple fronts, not only as a “shadow survivor” but also as a potential patient.
Afterward, Amy reflects about her lesson with Naomi. Music was a secondary concern during the session. She explains that Naomi’s world is one of hospitals and uncertainty. Naomi and her family are tight-knit. On another level, though, at times she can see her mom, the doctors and nurses, and even Brent’s Place staffers primarily as authority figures.
At 27, Amy is well into an established professional career. Despite this, she can still to talk about fashion and grades, or giggle over Robert Pattinson in a way Naomi might not be able to with other adults. She can be a friend every bit as much as she can be a therapist.
And that is an even greater thing than the music, which serves to make an initial connection for a greater relationship.
“That’s the point.” Amy says.
All quotes about Brent’s Place that are not immediately attributed come from the Brent’s Place website.
This story was written by Swallow Hill Music’s Marketing Manager Barry Osborne. Barry would like to dedicate this story to his former Denver Post colleague Colleen O’Connor. Colleen spent her life telling stories about extraordinary people who made the world a better place despite facing adversity.