Music Therapy alumnus Brian Schreck takes recordings of his terminally ill patients' heartbeats and transforms them into incredibly moving songs for their bereaved family members. The process of recording and producing the songs is done collaboratively with the hospitalized patient and the song becomes a unique memento.
In his current position as a music therapist at a cancer hospital in Louisville, Kentucky, Schreck works with adult patients. In past positions he has worked with incurably ill children and with expectant mothers whose babies had a terminal diagnosis.
Schreck agreed to answer a few questions for us about his work.
Does your heartbeat project have a name?
Sometimes I simply call it “Sounds of Life” or “Song of Life.” It has been called heartbeat music therapy, music therapy cardiography, or heartbeat intervention.
How did you begin your heartbeat project?
I began it at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital while working in the NICU, CICU, and PICU. In the CICU the heart is in the forefront of everyone’s awareness. Many of the patients I served were intubated and sedated. I had begun to serve patients in the hospital’s home hospice, some of whom were expectant mothers whose babies had a terminal diagnosis. I saw this clip online and a light bulb illuminated.
Studying at NYU with Clive Robbins, Ken Aigen, and Joanne Loewy, it was common practice to record everything. I would make lots of recordings that could be used in many ways down the line. Oftentimes, they could be used as legacy projects. However, nothing in intensive care is a memory one would like to keep. So this made sense to me, as a way to still have the patient be at the center/core of the recording project, and connecting with them in a meaningful and ongoing way. We made a video about this work at Children’s and it started to swim around the internet which lead to this article, which lead to this interview, and then to this piece which was played nationally on All Things Considered.
Could you tell me more about the movie that's being made about you and this project?
My old high school and college (Berklee College of Music) friend named Jeremy Frindel makes documentaries. When he found out about some of my work, especially this heartbeat intervention, he said, “Let’s make a movie!”
There have been many papers written about or researching music therapy interventions—but sometimes I believe people need to see it in action with their own eyes to start to understand what it is that a music therapist is, does, and creates with people.
It is a slow process, with funding and traveling (most of the crew lives in New York). Finding the right time and place to be with some of my patients can be challenging. It may take 2-3 more years, but I believe it will provide an accurate and beautiful insight into this work and, most importantly, how music therapy can really transform people during their journey through chronic illness.
Do you only work with cancer patients?
Yes, I now work at the Norton Cancer Institute in Louisville, Kentucky. I serve people in their upper teens to 102 (oldest patient so far) at every Norton Healthcare campus. This work is highlighted in the movie.
What other types of music therapy do you provide?
As a board-certified music therapist, it is always our job to find meaningful ways to connect and target issues (in my case related to cancer, diagnosis, treatment side effects, long hospitalizations, ongoing outpatient treatments and appointments, depression, fear, anger, despair) and use live music as a vehicle to travel alongside and to somewhere different. Everyone is different, so their interventions are treated as such. The patients have all of the puzzle pieces; it is my job to help them try to find some that fit together. This could involve singing, playing an instrument, writing a song, recording a story and a million other things that are specific to that individual and their family.
From your experience, how does music help terminally ill patients and their families?
It helps them feel alive. It can invoke joy, laughter, love, a reason to move, and potentially dance. It brings their life back into the room. It accesses memories that may not have been readily available. It allows people to come closer together, to engage in something as a team, to share something. It creates new memories. And now with this intervention it can keep love alive in a meditative and spiritual sense. It is something that I can continue to work on with a family. It is a way to bring all of their heartbeats together as a symbol of togetherness.
How long have you been practicing music therapy?
13 years: 1 in Boston, 1 in New York City (St. Vincent’s Hospital), 10 in Cincinnati, and 1 in Louisville.
What were some meaningful classes you took at NYU?
Clive Robbins taught a year-long class that was basically case studies throughout his life. Ken Aigen’s theory class. Vocal improvisation with Diane Austin. Every music therapy class with Barbara Hesser, Frank Bosco, Nir Sadovnik…they were all meaningful.
Did you participate in an internship while you were at NYU?
Before, at Beth Israel. I was finished and board certified before I started at NYU.
How did it prepare you for your work?
As you know, practicing never stops. Berklee helped me with jazz, improvisation, and playing with amazing talents from all of the world. Working at the Franciscan Children’s hospital in Boston as a special ed teacher’s assistant and mental health specialist showed me how to be with people on many levels. Hands-on experience with real people over the past 13 years has taught me a lot about life and its possible ups and downs.
Before attending NYU, what did you do? What drew you to study music therapy at NYU?
I was working and living in Boston as a budding music therapy student and musician. Clive Robbins brought me to NYU. I fell in love with Clive as a student at Berklee. We took a trip to the Nordoff-Robbins Center and met with the entire staff. He was my role model of what the work looked like, felt like, and could be—he was innovative, fearless, and took challenges and turned them into adventures! The spark in his eye even in his 80s was evidence of the power of music and for the love of the human experience.
Do you play music on your own?
Everyday. Sometimes with fancy people passing through town. But mostly local rock 'n' roll!!!
-Caroline Lagnado Miller