“I had some reports from people that pain had diminished. I’ve had people feel very energized.”


Director, music therapy program at the Cancer Center
Length of service:
2 years
Other stuff:
Never formally studied music until he was in college; his doctoral dissertation will try to define “transpersonal” or spiritual states that music can induce.

Photo by Candace diCarlo

Growing up in Brooklyn as the son of a psychologist and a family therapist, Brian Abrams was always interested in music. “I always had a deep, intimate connection with music, with listening to music,” he said. “I would just go off into worlds of color and experience and fantasy.”

Little wonder then that Abrams, 32, would later become a music therapist with a particular interest in the heightened states of consciousness music can instill. With a degree in music therapy from SUNY-New Paltz and currently completing a doctorate at Temple, Abrams works at the University of Pennsylvania Cancer Center, helping cancer patients cope with their experiences. On the day that we spoke to him, he had just held a session with two women there.

Q. Would you tell me about the session you had today?
Basically, today we improvised. The idea was to let each person express something about themselves through music, and have the other members of the group support and amplify that.

Q. What sorts of things were you trying to address with these women?
A lot of people who are inpatients, cancer patients — and these were two inpatients — are often very isolated. Both were very ill with leukemia. I believe that what these particular women needed above all was empathy. In the sense of being heard, in the sense of their experience being acknowledged somehow, by themselves as well as by others.
   A lot of the experience in a hospital is people looking at you purely medically; your dignity is sometimes challenged.
   And leukemia has a whole set of implications in and of itself. It’s just something sort of running wild in your bloodstream, taking over your immune system, challenging you in a whole lot of ways. You can get feverish, you have to deal with the chemotherapy, you have to deal with bone marrow transplants. So there’s a lot of challenging things that they undergo.

Q. Why did you decide to do an improvisational exercise today?
It’s kind of tricky when I’m working with cancer patients because it’s hard to tell when someone needs containment and someone needs to break out of structure. On the one hand, you’re locked in there, you’re subject to all these medical treatments, you’re really in a regimented situation. So oftentimes, it’s nice to have the freedom to go where you want. On the other hand, sometimes people are very frightened. Cancer is in some ways an expression of your body being out of control and hence you feel your life is out of control, and so containment – singing familiar songs or composing a song – can be more clinically indicated. It’s really a judgment call.

Q. How did they react?
Each one treated the freedom of structure in a different way. One of them went for a very steady, regimented, solid musical idea — a repeated melody that she was doing on a glockenspiel. In a way, you already have metaphor there for a structured life, very steady, very regimented but not having a feeling of where it’s going. Whereas the other person was expressing how structure maybe needs to breathe freer.
   The way the piece was temporally organized was very open and that expressed to me not only the sense that it’s hard to feel steady and secure and grounded in your body, but also on another level, it’s almost like, Everything’s open; I just don’t know where I am right now. I don’t know who I am right now.
   And by the end she expressed that she was feeling peaceful in her body. Not that that was necessarily the goal of the improv. Maybe it’s not about fixing something but it’s about getting deeper in touch with something that can tell them what’s wrong or what’s needed.

Q. What’s the most dramatic reaction you’ve seen to a therapy session?
I had some reports from people that pain had diminished. That’s at a real basic physical level. I’ve had people feel very energized. I’ve had some people sink deeper into what they’re experiencing but in a way that maybe is part of what they needed, to do their healing.
   On the spiritual side, I have been involved in a technique called Guided Imagery in Music. Guided Imagery in Music [GIM] is a participatory form of listening in music that involves nonordinary states of consciousness.

Q. What happens in GIM?
With their eyes closed in a reclining position, a person will go into a relaxed state of consciousness and begin to imagine whatever comes with the music. At the same time, they’ll be talking to the guide about what they’re feeling. A person might be experiencing a nice beautiful meadow, and butterflies and the sun’s shining. You’re still in the biographical realm. You’re still in the realm where they’re having an experience as themselves in some way. Then a person might imagine, I’m becoming this meadow. And now I feel myself becoming the world. I feel I am the stars shining, I feel I’m communing with the whole universe. At that point, words start to break down.
   Very often once a person’s been working for a long time in GIM their consciousness begins to go to new levels of expansion where they really get beyond the bounds of conventional therapeutic goals of working through emotional material, biographical material, and starts to get into realms that go beyond the personal. It becomes about the universe and God and things that go beyond the boundaries of the skin. From my perspective, that’s one of the most dramatic things that can happen.


Originally published on October 28, 1999