EWU Music Student To Join Top Grad Program

March 7, 2024

From a rejection on her first application to Eastern, to acceptance as a graduate student at one of the nation’s top music programs, EWU’s Hilary Baird has lived a true Cinderella story.

In January, Baird was shocked and delighted to receive an acceptance, and a partial scholarship, from the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston. She was admitted to the college’s music education program, where she will pursue a master’s degree with a concentration on music education for those on the autism spectrum. The program, administered by Berklee’s Institute for Accessible Arts Education, is the only one of its kind in the country, and admission is extremely competitive. 

“The program is highly competitive due to the school’s national reputation and how exclusive the area of study is,” says Jonathan Middleton, a professor of theory and composition in EWU’s Department of Fine and Performing Arts, who has worked closely with Baird. “Admission to the program is a life changing experience for her and the future students she will serve.”

Baird, a talented pianist who long struggled with reading and mathematics, was herself diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder at age 24. Today she is passionate about teaching music to others whose musical ambitions are challenged by physical or cognitive obstacles — something she has been doing for the past eight years. “There aren’t a lot of piano teachers that specialize in that field,” she says. 

Baird uses methods of teaching that aren’t typically utilized in music education. Baird “sight sings” to students with disabilities, helping them to relate notes to numbers and colors. She also emphasizes the need for an individualized approach to teaching music to such students, because, Baird says, her experience has shown talents that might otherwise be unrecognized thrive with one-on-one instruction.

“There are so many with disabilities, and marginalized groups of people, not getting their talents shared or having their needs met,” Baird says. “They are very intelligent, but they need to learn their way, not the [traditional] system’s way.”

Baird herself has had to jump many hurdles to reach success. As a young person on the spectrum, progressing through school was an uphill climb. She graduated, but Baird’s application for admission to Eastern was rejected due to a low GPA. By the time she reached young adulthood, after struggling to keep up her grades at Spokane Falls Community College, she was on the brink of giving up on her dream of higher education. “The idea of college was not in the cards for me,” says Baird. 

But after four years of service in the U.S. Navy — and accruing the educational benefits that service provided — Baird chose to give college another try.  In the fall of 2019, she re-enrolled at Spokane Falls Community College and retook her classes. She worked with tutors and, through perseverance and hard work, earned admission to Eastern. 

Not only was Baird accepted, but she has flourished during her time at EWU. “Hilary is one of those students with tremendous motivation and drive to succeed.  She works twice as hard for everything she seeks to achieve, and she’s okay with that,” says Middleton. Baird is currently on the university’s Dean’s List with a 3.7 GPA, and is set to graduate in June with a bachelor’s degree in music composition.

Baird has not only thrived as a student. She has also continued to grow as a pianist and composer. Baird says she began taking piano lessons at the age of 10, but had to abandon them after just a year due to financial concerns. She never stopped playing when she could, however, and at age 20 she was finally able to resume professional instruction. Now, at 37, Baird has established a reputation as a singular talent. Her many achievements include international performances in Iceland and Poland, along with a recital at New York’s venerable Carnegie Hall. 

To help fund her education at Berklee College, Baird is currently fundraising. 

“I know there are people at Berklee who will put me in the position to get me where I want to go and what I want to do,” says Baird.  “For me, it’s really monumental. I’m doing this for my own students as an educator. I’m fighting for the right of my students to be heard.”