URI counselor uses music as medicine

Posted on
KINGSTON, R.I. –February 14, 2007– About once a week, you’ll find Brian Howard, interim assistant director of the University of Rhode Island’s Counseling Center, tucked behind the nurses’ station of the intensive care unit of The Miriam Hospital in Providence, filling the unit with music from his Native American flute.

“The unit is usually very quiet and sterile, so it is nice to be able to break the silence with some soothing music,” Howard said of his reasons for volunteering at the hospital for the past year. “The flute is a nice instrument because it is very relaxing and research has shown that music has a capacity to heal. The music is also a tension reducer for the staff. They are more relaxed and work more efficiently, which in turn gives the patients better care.”

Howard also focuses on calming the patients’ families. “Being able to sit and hear the music is a nice release for them,” he explained, noting that playing the flute is a form of meditation for him.

He doesn’t play any particular pieces, but rather plays whatever he feels at the time. “I don’t have to think about what I am playing,” Howard said. “It’s about the breathing and not stopping to think about the right key or how it sounds.”

The URI counselor likes to work in a behind-the-scenes environment. “I try to stay hidden and not get in the way. I usually go and play and kind of sneak out the back door.”

Arlene Orcutt, volunteer coordinator at Miriam, says the music therapy program at the hospital gets rave reviews, particularly from the staff. “The music’s very soothing and helps relieve tension, especially in a critical care area where things are tense and serious,” Orcutt said.

Volunteering at hospitals is something that Howard has done since college. While attending the University of Hartford, Howard played music at St. Francis Hospital in Hartford.

Howard played more traditional instruments in concert and jazz bands before deciding to pick up the flute in 1993.

For a man who is constantly submerged in a world of counseling with words, he says it is nice to communicate with people through a different medium.

He recalls a time when playing his flute with a man in Laos was his only means of communication. He also describes another time when he played music on the steps of a bank of the Ganges River near a funeral pyre with a mourning family in the religious town of Varanasi, India. “It is a remarkable way of communicating with people,” Howard explained.

He owns several flutes. The six hole flute shown in the photograph is a Native American style flute, constructed of cedar and walnut.

Howard currently lives in Hope Valley, and also serves as the assistant training director at URI’s Counseling Center. He did his post-doctorate work with the URI Counseling Center and returned to the center last spring.

Howard plays for Miriam year-round. “ICU is not for long-term patients,” Howard said. “I try to celebrate every day if I can.”

He is currently thinking about organizing some volunteers and set up a similar program locally in Westerly or South County. Anyone interested can e-mail Howard at bhoward@mail.uri.edu.

URI News Bureau photo by Nora Lewis