It was during her treatment for breast cancer in 1999 that Penny Brill first fully realized the healing power of music. The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra musician felt that music had aided her recovery so much that, after she was well again, she made it her mission to help other people through music.
“I developed a program and music for hospitals with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra,” says Brill, who plays viola in the orchestra. “There are all kinds of ethnicities in the hospitals, so I started finding music that was appropriate for different groups and it kind of evolved. I started playing for schools, working with special needs kids, and exercise programs for older adults.” Along the way, she’s also created books for the various groups.
Brill’s latest challenge was to find a way to use music to help Pittsburgh’s large Nepalese refugee population from Bhutan. She contacted the Whitehall Public Library, which was doing a lot of work with the refugees. “The library was providing books and information and helping them develop a skill set so they could get citizenship and competency in English,” she explains. She saw a need and launched a plan.
She says the primary goal of the music program she developed is to “address the emotional and psychological issues that go along with being a refugee and adapting to a completely different culture.” However, the benefits for the refugees, as well as the practitioners of the program, are many.
With so many things that are different, Brill tried to make a connection through music to the Nepalese violin, called the sarangi. “There’s a lot of resemblance to Irish fiddle music and some familiarity. Music is an international language; it’s a way to connect to something similar to what they know,” she says. “It opens up paths for people who may be frustrated and discouraged about learning the language.” She devised musical “games” to help teach English. “Because they are used to learning things orally, this way of learning is more familiar.”
Brill says she’s benefited from her work with the refugees. “They are teaching me how to play madal, the Nepalese drum, and sarangi. I am showing them the viola and how it is similar and we play together. I learn about their history and traditions. They laugh, enjoy themselves, and something positive comes out of a really stressful experience. I love doing this; I’m going to do it no matter what,” says Brill, who is currently beginning to help develop a second program for new refugees from Congo. “I feel honored to be part of this whole refugee effort.”