Pittsburgh Symphony violinist offers music as healing therapy

| Monday, Jan. 21, 2013, 8:53 p.m.

Penny Brill knows one person really can make a difference — even amid fatigue or frustration.

The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra violist has been an active proponent of musical therapy and wellness since recovering from breast cancer.

Brill was transformed by her bout with the disease in ways she hadn't anticipated. She found music helped her cope with the stress of the diagnosis in 1999 and its treatments, including surgery. Sharing her hard-won insight with others became a mission — locally and on an international level.

“Part of healing is putting your hand out to the next person,” Brill says. “After my own treatment, I discovered that all I want to do is share with other people the value of keeping music in their lives. It gave me a direction. It's made my life very rich, but also, I'm not afraid of dying at this point. It gives meaning to my life, so I know I've done something valuable no matter what happens. I'll keep doing this until my last breath.”

In late October, she stopped by Children's Hospital to play for patients. That day she met Brandy Reichard, whose third birthday party had been interrupted by a serious complication of her premature birth.

“When Penny came over to Brandy and played ‘Happy Birthday,' it not only melted Brandy's heart, it melted her family's hearts, as well. We're very grateful to her,” Jim Reichard, Brandy's dad, says.

Brill seizes every opportunity she can. She plays at hospitals and other health care facilities in Western Pennsylvania. She plays for immigrants becoming oriented to life in the United States.

“Penny has been a pioneer in not only advocating the use of music in Pittsburgh hospitals, but also helping to procure funding and implementing music-therapy programs,” says Bruce S. Rabin, medical director of UPMC's healthy lifestyle program. “I don't know anyone as tirelessly devoted to making a difference.”

When the Pittsburgh Symphony goes on tour, Brill looks for opportunities to continue her work overseas.

In early November, she played at St. Anna Children's Hospital in Vienna with symphony cellist Adam Li. She prepared music especially for the children in Vienna, as she had done on previous trips to Dublin and London.

Brill's sense of mission extends beyond herself. She's found many welcome partners among her colleagues in the Pittsburgh Symphony. Brill has been very active working with musicians at other orchestras to bring music to patients, too.

In late November, she was invited to join the board of Creative Arts as a Global Resource, a United Nations initiative.

“Penny brings an enormous amount of background, energy and creativity to the board. After her first board meeting on Jan. 11, the other six members agreed she was a great choice,” says Harry Heinemann, the group's president.

Recognition of the value of wellness programs and music therapy has been increasing, Rabin says. The importance of stress on health has been documented. Music therapy can help with recovery from illness and surgery.

“Music that you enjoy is able to reduce the activity of areas of the brain that produce hormones, which affect the healing process,” says Rabin. “These hormones increase our perception of pain and delay the healing of wounds. By lowering the concentration of these hormones — which music that one enjoys effectively does — patients who are in the hospital will be able to use less analgesic medication and are more calm.”

That's what Brill discovered on her own as she dealt with her illness.

“I had five surgeries and then, a year-and-a-half later, reconstruction surgery,” she says. “So, I thought I would experiment to see if music would help me through all that.”

Brill had been preparing for a European tour by learning Irish reels, as she planned on getting together with musicians in Dublin and learning more about Irish fiddle music. After she had an annual mammogram, she had to cancel the tour.

“I didn't know if I had a big tumor, and it was very upsetting. I didn't know where I was in the spectrum of life,” she says. “But I continued playing reels, and it helped me stay more calm and focused while I was waiting.”

Brill explored different kinds of calming music and sounds and discovered chants and irregular musical patterns helped the brain drift off. She found a grounding presence in Indian music, the induction part of the raga, and says it was very helpful getting ready for surgery.

When one of Brill's colleagues was diagnosed with the same condition, she suggested using music to help her recovery period, which ended up being shorter than Brill's had been.

Brill knew Duquesne University had a long-standing music-therapy program, but she didn't see its graduates in hospitals.

Rabin helped her bring music therapists into the hospital. They persuaded two foundations to fund two full-time music therapists at UPMC hospitals.

Debbie Benkovitz was one of the first music therapists at UPMC. She had been thinking of a career in music education when she was a voice major at the University of Cincinnati's College Conservatory of Music, then continued with guitar and music therapy at Duquesne. She later added a master of social work degree from the University of Pittsburgh.

“We now have two music therapists and a pretty strong intern program here. We do a lot of training,” Benkovitz says. “We also have more referrals than we can handle.”

Brill's mission is rewarding in different ways, from the direct gratification of helping patients, to knowing advocacy and meeting after meeting will ultimately help real people.

“Every time I finish meeting with Penny, I tell her jokingly that she just needs to get some more energy,” says Rabin. ”Penny cares about everybody and wants to help everybody. Many people who try to do this are going to be too diffuse, but this doesn't apply to Penny. Her energy and perseverance are outstanding, exemplary. I am happy she is my friend.”

Mark Kanny is classical music critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or mkanny@tribweb.com.

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