Written By: Greta Feeney | Photography By: Kit Noble

The Sanfords remember their beloved daughter Ashley through the sound of music.

For many of us, a trip to the hospital invokes visions of a sterile, clinical environment, complete with the hum of fluorescent lights and the intermittent beeping of monitors. But at the newly opened Nantucket Cottage Hospital, patients, caregivers and loved ones are greeted by the sound of a Chopin ballad played by world-renowned classical pianist Lang Lang, or popular hits performed by Billy Joel. The music comes by way of digitalized live performances rendered by the world’s most technologically advanced high-resolution self-playing piano, the Steinway Spirio, which performs each song with the exact same key strikes as the masters who wrote them.

Ashley would have loved the Spirio,” says Marilou Sanford, who, along with her husband, Bruce, has recently endowed the hospital with a baby grand model as part of its Ashley Sanford Musical Therapy Program. Unlike the tinny-sounding wind-up player pianos in spaghetti western saloons, the Spirio uses state-of-the-art digital technology and advanced sensory receptors to reproduce studio performances that Steinway claims are indistinguishable from those captured live in “Spirio Sessions” all over the world, bringing masterful performances into the living rooms of those fortunate enough to own one of these technological marvels, which can run upward of $200,000.

The Spirio is the foundation of a partnership with the Nantucket Music Center and is a tribute to Ashley’s love of music that will positively impact the lives of Nantucket Cottage Hospital’s patients. “Of all the extraordinary features of this hospital, few will do more for the quality of the environment of this building than what the Sanfords have done,” says Bruce Percelay, the chairman of the hospital’s capital campaign.

In addition to the Sanford family’s legacy gift in honor of their late daughter, M. Steinert and Sons, the Boston-based Steinway piano merchants, have donated an upright mobile Roland digital player piano for use on the second floor. The Roland is also top-of-the-line and can be wheeled into the rooms of individual patients to be played digitally from an iPad, or by an actual pianist. According to cellist Mollie Glazer, who is spearheading the program as artistic director emerita of the Nantucket Music Center, both instruments have the touch and feel of high-quality acoustic pianos.

For Ashley Sanford, who suffered from juvenile diabetes until her untimely death at thirty-three, spending a great deal of time in hospitals was a reality she had to face on a regular basis. “She was blessed with superb medical care all over the country—in Boston, Baltimore, the Mayo and Cleveland Clinics—but she felt no one understood her any better than the people on Nantucket,” explained her father Bruce. “She loved Dr. Tim Lepore. On several occasions, he even had her airlifted to Brigham and Women’s for treatment.”

The Sanfords are avid proponents of music therapy because it was one of the most effective ways to alleviate many of the symptoms of their daughter’s chronic illness. “We tried everything. I gave her one of my kidneys, but she had so many rare symptoms that many people who have juvenile diabetes never exhibit. Through it all, music therapy remained an important aspect of her treatment,” says Marilou, who, after considering having a fountain built in memory of Ashley, finally decided on a music therapy program. “It is a living program. It just seemed to me that it was the most authentic way we could honor our daughter.”

Despite her poor health, Ashley was a brilliant and prolific musician and writer who studied with the renowned Hungarian pianist Gerda Klay and sang in the highly competitive chorale at the National Cathedral School for girls in Washington, D.C. As a child, she participated in summer music and theater productions on Nantucket with local legends, including Gary Trainor, father of the phenomenal pop sensation Meghan Trainor.

Throughout her young life, there were many times when Ashley’s own musical talents helped her to experience healing, despite her difficult circumstances. Marilou recalls a time when Ashley employed her musical talents to provide other patients with the inspiration they needed. “Once we were in a hospital and Ashley saw an old upright piano sitting in a corner. She said, ‘There’s nothing worse than a piano that isn’t being played,’ and she just sat down and started to play it so beautifully that everyone stopped in their tracks. It changed the atmosphere instantly. I know that Ashley’s spirit is alive at Nantucket Cottage Hospital.”

Written By
More from Greta Feeney


How Château d’Esclans revolutionized the pink drink. Nearly a decade ago, a...
Read More