Garrett Willner was almost 4 years old when he sang his first words.
His mother, Joy Willner, was worried he might never talk. Then, one day during an afternoon bath, Garrett opened his mouth and began to sing "C is for Cookie" from the popular children's TV show, "Sesame Street."
That's when she knew music would be an integral part of his life. But it was his music therapist, Kathleen Harrill, she said, who unlocked his potential and helped to change their lives.
"She's wonderful with the kids ... so patient," Ms. Willner said. "It's amazing what she does."
Ms. Harrill is among more than 100 Pennsylvania music teachers and thousands of teachers nationwide nominated for the Music Educator Award sponsored by the Recording Academy and Grammy Foundation. Although she wasn't chosen as a quarterfinalist in this year's competition, she has been nominated for three straight years.
Ms. Harrill supervises the creative arts program at Wesley Spectrum, a nonprofit that provides mental health and social services for children and families. She started the program 14 years ago with Saturday classes squeezed into an office with a piano. Since then, it has transformed into a full-time music therapy program with a variety of vocal and instrumental lessons and almost 70 students, many of whom have been diagnosed with autism, enrolled at locations in Bridgeville, Penn Hills and Richland.
"I see a child, and I just want to help him or her in any way possible," Ms. Harrill said. "There was such a huge need for these kids to have an outlet, a safe space to express themselves."
One of Ms. Harrill's first students was 3 years old when she began music therapy. She had limited verbal skills, and most of the early sessions consisted of the two sitting on the floor underneath a table. Her various phobias, including one of Barney, the purple dinosaur character on the children's television show in the early '90s, rendered her almost helpless.
Now, 13 years later, the girl still takes lessons with Ms. Harrill and will perform her own original song, "Golden Road," at a recital. She still has the stuffed Barney Ms. Harrill gave her to "baby-sit" over a decade ago.
Many of her students, Ms. Harrill said, aren't permitted to attend their district public schools because of social and behavioral issues.
"These are the kids that usually would not be the ones to get onstage at a talent show," Ms. Harrill said.
"Our goal is for them to stay onstage and hit the drum. Every single performance is based on giving them their own spotlight."
Kory Antonacci, 26, another music therapist at Wesley Spectrum, said she learned from her colleague the importance of "showing the kids who you are."
"She taught me you don't have to be afraid to be yourself as a clinician," Ms. Antonacci said. "The more authentic you are, the more it benefits you and the people you work with."
Philip, 13, one of Ms. Harrill's piano students at the Bridgeville school, described his music therapist as "fun" and "not too serious."
To celebrate his birthday, the two ran around the music room with tambourines singing birthday songs. He even wrote a song for her, a remake of the song, "What Does the Fox Say?" He called it "What Does Ms. Katie Say?"
Olivia, 6, who burst into a fit of giggles as Ms. Harrill had her alternately singing a "serious" and "silly" rendition of "Let It Go" from the Disney movie "Frozen," said her teacher "lets her have crazy time."
The parents of Philip and Olivia asked that their last names not be used.
When Garrett, now 15, first began taking lessons at Wesley Spectrum almost a decade ago, he "couldn't sit still," his mother said. Now, Ms. Harrill praises his perfect pitch and note recognition. He has come a long way since the days when he would demand McDonald's french fries as a reward before agreeing to participate in lessons.
"With the music came discipline for him," Garrett's mother said. "I'm so glad she came into our lives. I don't think he, or I, would be the same."
Clarece Polke: email@example.com. First Published May 30, 2014 4:31 PM