Playing for Patients

Penny Anderson Brill ’71 promotes healing through music

by Christina Barber-Just

Pittsburgh Symphony OrchestraPenny Brill violist Penny Anderson Brill ’71 always knew music helps heal—she just didn’t know how much until she herself got sick. Diagnosed with breast cancer in 1999, Brill experimented with using music throughout her cancer experience—from diagnosis to treatment to recovery—and found it helped enormously. For example, she had music playing before, during, and after her six-hour reconstruction surgery, and “everybody noticed the effects,” she says. Her surgeons told her she required less anesthesia; her nurses told her she recovered more quickly.

Just three months after her last chemotherapy treatment Brill started giving presentations on the connection between music and wellness. When her oncologist showed up at one of her talks and started taking notes, Brill knew she was onto something. “It made me realize, ‘This is my path. I know what I’m going to be doing.’” For the next ten years she single-handedly took her message—and her viola—to children’s hospitals, women’s hospitals, cancer centers, and radiation-oncology waiting rooms, sharing her knowledge, music, or both with a whole new audience.

Brill’s dogged community-outreach efforts, which included securing funding for two music-therapy positions at Pittsburgh hospitals, attracted the attention of local and national media, and in 2010 the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra officially endorsed her program. More than twenty PSO musicians have already gotten involved, and Brill is now working with the orchestra’s education and community engagement department to create a handbook for other professional musicians who want to play outside of orchestral environments and think about music in a different way. “I love the feeling of using what I’ve learned to help empower people,” she says.