by Karissa Shivone
Penny Brill, violist with the Pittsburgh Symphony for 40 wonderful years, is energized and ready to immerse herself into her latest musical calling as she retires next year (March 2021). She has discovered first-hand the power our music has towards healing people in the community. While she has devoted herself for the past two decades to performing for people all around Pittsburgh (and beyond) with a wide spectrum of needs, retirement will allow her time to pass on her knowledge to the next generation, including an invitation to the Global Leadership Program 2021. Penny has a great passion to share her discoveries on repertoire, programs, educational material, and so much more.
My husband and I had the opportunity earlier this season to see Penny in action at the BRiTE (Brain Training and Exercise) Wellness Center where the three of us performed various holiday music for adults and seniors with memory issues. Upon arriving, we peeked inside the classroom and saw Penny joyfully taking part in a marimba class with the members of the program. She interacted with everyone and got to know the people we would be performing for in the next hour. As the marimba class ended and we started setting up, Penny opened up a large black suitcase filled with percussion shakers in the shapes of all sorts of different foods!
Throughout our performance, she would pass out the shakers and allow the audience to take part in what we were playing. They loved it! They went from a shy group to a lively, laughing bunch. She had us write certain words on the whiteboard behind us, helping the audience to sing with us, tap their feet, and take part in as many ways as possible. It was a delight to see Penny connect with the room full of people and bring so many smiles to their faces. She is a miracle worker.
In the life of any professional classical musician, we are most often given our repertoire well in advance. For us orchestral players, we know our repertoire up to a year ahead of time and we prepare that music accordingly. Penny is heading into retirement with a radical challenge for all of us. What happens when we go out into the community and tailor our repertoire specifically for the people in our audience? Can we be flexible enough to pick our music on the spot, based on the expressions, body language, and focus of our listeners? This is a hefty task, as one must be well acquainted with different cultures, behavioral issues, or trauma that might be causing our listeners to experience a wide range of reactions to the music.
Penny is fine-tuned to adapt to the needs of the moment when performing for special needs children, hospital patients, refugees, war veterans, and the most vulnerable members of society. She might quickly change to a piece in a major key with a familiar tune if something about the previous piece triggered a negative emotional response. She is especially interested in speaking with caretakers before performing so that she gets a better idea of what helps her listeners the most. Penny encourages a high level of understanding of all members of our community before we think about what music to perform for them.
“We didn’t go into this to become entertainers”, she remarks about our classical music careers. She’s right. We spend our lives perfecting our craft so that we can bring beauty to others and change peoples’ lives for the better with a message of hope and meaning. By expanding music and wellness programs, she knows she is helping other people in a palpable way. Penny experienced this first-hand while recovering from extensive surgeries after she was diagnosed with cancer in 1999. She would listen to music before, during, and after medical procedures. Within a week of her most extensive surgery she was walking several miles, much to the surprise of her caregivers. She experienced how much music can help with anxiety, recovery, and rehab, and wants to spread the word about this enormously therapeutic resource.
Penny was one of the first recipients of the Ford Musician Award for Excellence in Community Service in 2016 and has since used the monetary grant to develop a website: “Musicians as a Community Resource”, or musacor.com. It is designed to give other musicians the tools they need to create their own healing or therapeutic programs in their respective community, often in collaboration with music therapists. (Give it a good read! Her articles are marvelous and you will be awed by her extensive research and experience.) Retiring from the PSO schedule will allow her to spend more time promoting these programs not only in Pittsburgh but also nationally and internationally through social media and workshop presentations. Additionally, she hopes to digitize her prodigious music library through the program forScore so that musicians everywhere have access to her varied repertoire collection. In other words, she will be as busy as ever upon retirement!
Penny Brill challenges you to take your unique assets as a live performer and help the most fragile members of society. You too can make a profound difference. Educate yourself about different community groups and their histories. Get to know other genres of music and explore music of various cultures, ethnicities, and religions. Put together a program from musacor.com and let the magic happen! As Penny says, “Create a personal, human connection with your audience.” Penny has spent the past few decades exploring these concepts and she encourages everyone to share in her pursuit of healing others through the gift of music.