My Journey into Healing Harp Music

April 3rd, 2008, 11:22 pm

Ever since I was a little girl I was mesmerized by the beauty of harps and harp music. I vowed I would someday own and play one, but they seemed so expensive and big that I put the dream way in the future, stating I would have a harp when I was older, age 50.

I discovered folk harps,smaller in size and still expensive, but not as much. My then fiance Mike,(now husband) bought me my first harp when I was 38. I chose a Paraguayan folk harp for my first instrument.It didn’t have any levers or pedals to get sharps or flats, but was a nice size, and had clear, bright tone quality. I took a few lessons from a traditional South American harpist, then some from Melissa Morgan who played a variety of folk and pedal harps and styles.

I had just finished nursing school, and the idea of practicing scales and doing exercises seemed like way too much work.Melissa gave me songs to learn that allowed me to have fun and learn at the same time.

After I had been playing for a couple years I brought the harp into the Mental Health Unit at the hospital where I was working at the time in San Diego. It was a large 25 bed unit, and many of the patients were very restless, pacing a lot, with short attention spans.

I sat down to play, quite nervous myself, and played for about 45 minutes.I was very surprised to notice that most of the patients had sat down to listen, and stayed there listening the whole time. I think that was the first time I really started to realise the healing power of harp music.

I then moved to Coos Bay, Oregon and started working as a hospice nurse.I only had a few times in the first few years when I played for a patient as he or she was dying, but it was always a special time. The last few years at hospice I changed from doing the job where I did routine nursing visits to several hospice patients a day, to a job where I stayed in the home for 12 hour shifts as the patient was dying, on the average for 3-5 days. It became much more common to bring my harp and play for patients and family.For the family, I would play things like the Irish Blessing, with the theme of “Until we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of his hand”.This frequently brought a release of tears and helped open a discussion of the importance of giving the person dying permission to go. I noticed patients sometimes lingering until their families seemed to have accepted them going, and them they’d slip away quietly, sometimes waiting until everyone when out to eat or was asleep. If families were very high energy, nervous, and talkative, waiting around for their loved one to die, it seemed very hard for the person to let go and die. It was like trying to fall asleep during a party! I would play very slow, spacious harp music to settle the family down and help the patient relax.Sometimes I would just sing very slowly and softly, like a lullaby, and if it was the person’s time to let go and pass on, it was very helpful.

I remember one time in particular. It was at the home of an older woman who lived right on the ocean, with lovely art work around.There had been lots of family and friends there, and when they finally all left for a while, I used the time to do very slow, gentlle humming and singing, with the sounds of the ocean behind me. I felt the woman slowing down and relaxing into a deep peacefulness,and her breath slowed and stopped.Then I had a sense of her spirit leaving her body while I was just softly singing.It was a very special moment.

During this time of working at hospice, I went to a conference on Dying and Spirituality in Eastern Oregon. Among the presenters there was Therese-Shroeder Sheker. She is the founder of The Chalice of Repose, a music school dedicated to teaching people to play harp and sing in a healing manner at the bedside for people ill and dying. She was a real pioneer, managing to convince the hospital,hospice and home health in her town to all pay to have harpists on call for their patients.Therese had started her journey as a nursing assistant in a nursing home. She shared that one of the residents was dying and the other staff came and went out of the room very quickly.She felt strongly about wanting to stay with the person and support her during her dying process, and ended up staying very close,holding the person, and breathing with her as she passed.This had a strong impact on her and led to her eventually focusing on music for the end of life.

She sang and played her harp there at the conference.She plays beautifully, and has a very angelic voice.She shared songs that were blessings and prayers from different cultures. It was very moving to hear her.

I was inspired to find out more about her program. She has done quite an in depth study of spiritual music played for the dying in different countries and religions. I spoke to someone who had taken her program. It sounded very wonderful, but way too structured for a free spirit like me that likes to follow my own intuition and make up my own music! This was at least ten years ago.I haven’t heard how the program has evolved more recently, but it has expanded and continues.

I also was intrigued by the work of Ron Price, and flew out to Northern Illinois University for a weekend introduction to his Healing Harps program. Ron had a mild case of cerebral palsy at birth, yet functioned quite well until later in life when his body started to have a few more problems.If I remember correctly, he played a horn, maybe French Horn? and it became harder to play standing and blow effectively, so he decided to learn the harp because he could play it sitting down. To his amazement, he discovered that when he played harp regularly his body felt stronger. It seemed to him that the harp playing actually stimulated his nervous system and he could walk and move better. He started experimenting, and introduced harp to other people with disabilities, and many of them had the same response.This led to a teacher’s training, and people around the country and beyond starting Healing Harps groups. I was intrigued by this idea, so I went to the weekend. I met several harpists with disabilities.One was a woman with mulitple sclerosis.She was a professional musician that played another instrument as her main instrument.She had reached the point where she needed leg braces to walk. She told me that when she plays harp regularly she is stronger and can walk better. She has stopped using the leg braces.

At the time of the conference, no one had done any indepth study of why the harp seems to help both the player and the listener in a healing manner. Ron stated that it may have something to do with the way the overtones vibrate all through the body when a harp string is plucked. For the player, the way it is held against the body causes the sounds to vibrate all through the body. Also, the way you play uses both sides of the body and stimulates both sides of the brain. Perhaps those two together causes the positive stimulation in the nervous system. Another harpist told me that she had played for her father when he was in the ICU, and that while she played, his vital signs would calm and stabilize, when she would stop, she would see a change in the monitors.

Another teacher at the conference was Liz Cifani. Her day job is as a professor of harp, and she also was a pedal harpist in an orchestra that played for operas.She also loved improvising on folk harps for fun,and was very talented on the double strung harp.She has an exceptional ear, and she shared that when she goes to a hospital and plays harp for a patient, she listens to the person’s speaking voice, and plays music in the key that the person speaks in. She found that to be very soothing for the person. She would try to get a sense of what the person needed. If the person seemed sad, but unable to express his or her feelings, she would start playing in a major key, and gradually move the music into a minor key or more melancoly mode, to help the person drop down into his feelings. If the person was emotional, and needed cheering up, she would maybe do the opposite. She would start with something melancoly, meeting the person where he or she seemed to be emotionally, then gradually move the music into a major and happier mode.

I tried to find out on line about The Healing Harp today, but it seemed to not be an active organization now. Ron Price’s health was not great when I was at this conference approximately nine years ago, so it has possibly ended, though I’m sure the work is continuing in other forms.

While at the conference I bought a beautiful, blue pedal harp. My dream finally came true. I had imagined getting one at age 50, and it came at age 51. I now wished I had imagined getting it at 30, maybe I would have gotten my harp a lot sooner! We can only begin to reach a goal if we can imagine having it, then work hard toward it!

The last few years I’ve again returned to working in mental health, just a little on call. I keep a folk harp at the hospital and play for the patients whenever possible. It is very interesting to see a withdrawn patient who has seemed very paranoid and psychotic, not uttering a word, relax, sit down and even talk a little after I played the harp.

I teach mindfulness based stress management in the hospital too. For the classes I frequently bring a Native American flute to play at the beginning of doing a relaxation technique. It has a very calming and centering influence on people. My first two CDS combine harp and flutes, and I wanted the music to help people feel more calm and peaceful. All the music has this goal in mind. I’m continuing my journey of finding new styles of music to play, and new places and people to share my music with. My third CD shares my singer-songwriter music and has several songs that are more upbeat and lively.There is the theme of coming alive, rejoicing in life, and self-expression.”Our Spirits Our Rising” will hopefully be done in the late fall of 2008.

If you have any questions or comments about playing harp, flute, singing, healing music or mindfulness please feel free to contact me. Lynda

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