Cheap Trick’s Petersson using music therapy to help autistic children

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SALT LAKE CITY — It’s been a great year for iconic rockers Cheap Trick.

After more than 40 years of writing and recording music, including some of rock’s biggest anthems in “I Want You to Want Me,” “Surrender” and “Dream Police,” the pride of Rockford, Ill. was inducted into the Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame in April. They also released a new album (their 17th studio album!) and have been on tour all summer with fellow HOF members Joan Jett, and Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart.

On Monday, Robin Zander, Rick Nielsen, Tom Petersson and the rest of Cheap Trick will join Heart and Jett for a concert at the USANA Amphitheatre.

But on top of all these accomplishments, it’s the work and the music Tom Petersson is doing outside of the Cheap Trick camp that the bass player is just as proud of. It’s also garnering national attention.

For many concert-goers on Monday, they’ll get to hear the songs they grew up with. The power of music may help make a bad day better, or it may make them remember a happy time or event in their life from decades ago.

Petersson has learned first hand that music is not only good therapy for the soul, but it can also be used to help children with major impediments.

Petersson and his wife, Alison, are tapping into the power of music to help children with autism. Through musical therapy, the Peterssons are helping autistic children find their voices. The program, which started as just an idea a couple of years ago, has already received major backing from the likes of Meaghan Morrow, the woman who used music therapy to help former Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, critically injured in a mass shooting in 2011, speak again.

Petersson talked to the Deseret News last week about Cheap Trick’s year and his organization, Rock Your Speech, during a soundcheck in San Jose the day after the band performed at The Forum in Los Angeles.

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DN: Is there an extra pressure playing a big show in L.A., or is it just another show?

Tom: No extra pressure. We don’t look at it that way no matter where we are.

DN: It’s been a big year for you guys, being inducted into the Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame. It seems like every time you turned on the TV or opened a magazine that the band was doing an interview. Now that the dust has settled, have you had the chance to take a moment and say, “I’m in the Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame!”?

Tom: We’ve never had anything that people come up to us so often (and congratulate us for), and people that you wouldn’t expect – people at the grocery store, people in your kids’ school and your dentist, every person like that, that doesn’t kind of follow along, which is most people aren’t following bands around – I think it means a lot to other people that kind of see it from the outside. I’m not saying it doesn’t mean anything to us, I don’t mean that. But it’s not something we strove for, because, first off, there was no such thing when we started. And even if there was, I don’t if it’s something we’d try (for). But it’s funny, people just bring it up all the time. People are like, “Oh, congratulations, congratulations. I mean, constantly. It’s wild. It’s nice.

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DN: Once again, you guys are touring heavily this summer. Do you ever take a break? It seems like you’re on the road all the time.

Tom: It’s not like the ’70s. I remember in ’77 we were doing about 290 shows a year and we were recording two albums a year. So we’re nowhere near that level. We just work all the time. We have a certain level of success that we can work, so we’re lucky that way. So we’re able to continue. But we’re not so huge that we’re able just to stop either. It’s like running a small business in a  way, and you can’t just stop. You have crew members and you have a whole organization going and insurance, storage and on and on. So we just work pretty consistently. We’re not just gone all the time. In the summer, yeah, we’re gone more than other times of the year. But the most we’re gone away from home is two, maybe three weeks. But it’s not all the time.

DN: Speaking of touring, almost every time you’re introduced on stage, you’re introduced as the inventor of the 12-string bass guitar. How did  you come up with that? And explain what playing a 12-string bass gives you that a normal 4-string bass doesn’t.

Tom: It’s triple the strings – three E’s three A’s, three B’s, three G’s – which are an octave higher than the bass strings. It’s sort of like two other people playing along with what a bass is doing. So it just really thickens it up. It’s almost like playing a big, giant rhythm guitar or something. I don’t know how really to describe it. But I’ve got it cranked through a bass rig and a guitar rig, so its got an element of grand piano to it, and a cello and a bass. It’s the sort of thing where you get a lot of different sounds out of it. There’s a lot of overtones that come with it.

We’ve got a small group. Our singer plays guitar on about half the songs, but the other times it’s really a three piece with a lead singer. We just want it to sound big. So it’s just something I had the idea for it, and these guys were starting a guitar company back in the early ’70s and I convinced them to make me one. And it worked.

DN: Was it difficult to learn?

Tom: No. We were on tour with KISS when they delivered my first one during the tour. And I just plugged it in and started playing it, and it’s really all I’ve played live since 1977.

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Petersson also launched this summer a signature line of bass guitars with Gretsch. There are there prototypes, including a 12-string which can be ordered online (http://www.gretschguitars.com/) as well as 4-string bass guitars.

Tom: I love it. It’s so great working with Gretsch, and I couldn’t think of a better company either. I love the look of them and they sound great. It’s really been fantastic. I really up to this point mainly or only used smaller manufacturers, like little boutique things and smaller companies that were starting out. But then Gretsch approached me two or three years ago and I’ve been working on it and using them at least two years now.

DN: Cheap Trick released a new album this year, Bang, Zoom, Crazy…Hello. At this point in your career, you could probably get away with not releasing any more music. But not only did you release a new album, it’s a really great album. You didn’t just phone it in. Is making music as easy for you guys as you make it sound?

Tom: We love recording. We love making music. That’s really why we’re doing it. It’s not to go around and play the same songs over and over all the time. That’s part of the deal. But that’s not fulfilling creatively to keep doing the same things over and over. So we love recording. It’s always like chasing the perfect record. You’re always just chasing it and looking to get the perfect song. There’s a lot of luck involved with it too. You put something together and it sounds really good. You get these great chord changes, but maybe it’s not so strong lyrically, or there’s just something about it, timing, there’s just all these different elements to it. But once in awhile you just hit on something and, boom. And it’s inspiring to be in the studio because you’re just coming up with stuff from scratch, from nothing. And I think it’s the best part of what we do, recording, making new music.

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DN: But do you ever get the chance to play some of the new material live? Or even deeper cuts over your career? (editor’s note: think the highly underrated “Say Goodbye” from the band’s 1997 self-titled album).

Tom:  No, you don’t really. People don’t want to hear a whole bunch of new stuff. It depends what situation you’re in. If you’re in a fan-fest thing, and it’s a special occasion or an album release party or something, then yeah, you can do that.

It’s hard to choose what you do. We have 17 studio albums out. That’s a lot of material. Its funny, people who are big fans who follow you really closely know more about us than we do. The last thing they would choose, if they could, is to hear the hits. They want to hear the obscure stuff. “Oh do that one song you did on a soundtrack,” and this kind of thing. And then the opposite is true for the more casual fans, for people who haven’t seen you, or whatever. Like, “Oh, I love ‘The Flame,'” and if we didn’t do that, they would be pissed. So in a way you can’t really win. So you’re back to just kind of doing stuff, sort of, for your own enjoyment.

It’s the opposite when you start out. You have one or two albums. Especially when you have one record out. It’s not really a show. You don’t have an intro, you don’t have an end. You’re like, what do we do? We have to play an hour but there’s only 40 minutes on the album. What do we do? So you have to build it up a little bit. But now we’re at the point we have so much material, it’s all over the place.

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DN: Talk about Rock Your Speech. What is it? What inspired you to do it?

Tom: It was inspired by our son, Liam, who is now 9-years old, and he’s autistic. And he has communication problems, a communication disorder. He didn’t speak at all until he was 5. A few words here and there. We realized that he gravitated right to music, which most people do kind of generally. And it was the kind of thing he would sing along kind of with songs he liked, but he would only come in on the first word of a line or the last word. But he would always come in at the right place. It was like, “Wow.” He can’t process all this information. It goes by too quick. He can’t understand what’s going on. So my wife and I started working on material that had simple themes, but it was real rock music. It was simple themes and phrases he might use, and it wasn’t little kiddy kind of things either. It was things any age could relate to, but it sounded good. Our kids don’t sit around listening to The Wiggles or Barney. Maybe if you’re really little, yes. After that, they’re listening to stuff we’re listening to. The Stones, The Beatles, their own stuff on the radio. It’s not kiddy stuff.

And he just picked right up on it. We just started doing song after song. It’s really a way to give speech therapy to kids for parents who are home, and to do songs that they can easily sing along with. But they sound like adult rock songs.

The first song we did is a song called, “What’s Your Name?”  And the whole lyric content is, “What’s Your Name? What’s Your Name? Hello. Hello.” That’s the entire thing. So he heard that. He loved it. He was just 5, and like I said he just spoke one or two words at a time. He didn’t speak sentences or anything. And he’d go, “What’s your name? Liam! What’s your name?” He loved it. He wanted to hear it over and over. And the next day, we went to the grocery store and he started asking the cashier and everybody he saw what their name was.

Whoa. We looked at each and we were like, wait a minute. He’d never done anything like this before.  So we kept going and doing different songs, about colors, about different things, traveling, or whatever. Just kind of common themes that you would use normally, in normal conversation.

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Petersson also knew that in speech therapy it helped when a therapist got right up in the patient’s face and said a word with exaggerated slowness. In order to do this, he and his wife came up with the idea of making lyric videos, like karaoke, to go along with the songs. Petersson’s goal is to make more lyric videos, keep them as simple as possible while making them “sound as cool as possible.”

Liam was really social at a young age, Petersson said, which is why at first he didn’t believe he was autistic. But as he grew, he noticed Liam wasn’t hitting certain milestones that most children do, and he wasn’t talking.

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Tom: He was just way, way behind and he kept falling further behind. And if you can’t communicate, nobody knows what you want. You don’t know if he’s sick or tired. It’s like a constant game of charades trying to figure out what they want. The only way to communicate is to point at things or crying.

The progress Liam has made since Petersson began making the music has been dramatic.

Tom: People gravitate to music in general. They just like it. And really, you can use it for all sorts of different therapies – for people learning how to walk, or they have injuries or they have dementia. You see like a nursing home where the people are sitting there and they haven’t communicated for years, and they put a set of headphones on them and play some Benny Goodman songs and boom. Their memory brings it back and they start talking about when they got married and it brings all these memories back. (Experts) thought before that music just uses one side of your brain. But now they figured out that the whole brain, if you have some sort of a brain injury, that music just opens up other channels.

Rock Your Speech got a big boost when Ben Folds introduced Petersson to Morrow. She loved the project, Petersson said. It was then introduced during a conference in Nashville to “friends and colleagues from the Nashville music industry, medical professionals who are studying the neuroscience of music and the brain, music therapists who are using music to heal, music educators and autism service providers from the Nashville community.”

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Tom: We were shocked at the response. People were loving it. They were like, “There’s nothing like this.” We just did it as parents. You know, we’re not therapists. We saw what therapists did. They tell you when you’re diagnosed with autism that you need early intervention and 25 to 40 hours a week of speech therapy. At $125 an hour, hmmm, OK, and maybe the state will step in and they’ll cover four hour a week and that kind of thing. And as a parent you feel like you’re a failure. It’s this whole world of parents who are basically in the same boat and nobody quite knows what to do. And you’ve talked to doctors, you go online and there’s all this medical stuff and all this. But it’s so confusing. Let’s hear the real parent stories.

More information about the program, along with stories from parents, and Alison’s personal blog, can be found at RockYourSpeech.com.

Tickets to Monday night’s show can be purchased on SmithsTix.com or at the venue.

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