Park Record Article, 10/30/15 on Heidi Jaeger and Therapeutic Harp

From an article in the Park Record, October 30, 2015 by Scott Iwasaki

Music can do wonders.

In a split second it can conjure up memories of decades past. It can touch the heartstrings and make people cry. It can evoke joy and it can also make people angry.

Some people use music to heal, calm agitated nerves or usher a terminally ill person to the next life.

This is what therapeutic musician Heidi Jaeger does.

Jaeger is a Silver Creek resident who plays her harp at Bristol Hospice, which is a subsidiary of Avalon Health Care.

“Hospice is a great place for therapeutic musicians,” Jaeger said. “It’s whole goal is comfort. We can help people relax and when they do that, they can cope better with their pain and regulate heartbeats.”

Jaeger usually steps into a patient’s room and gives a formal introduction.

“I tell the people that I’m here to help them relax,” she said. “I tell them to ignore me and let the music take them wherever it will take them. I also tell them if they fall asleep, that is the best compliment they can ever pay me.”

Not only does the music help the patient relax, but also puts family members, if they are present, at ease.

“It helps them get in touch with what is happening at that moment,” Jaeger said. “The death of a loved one is always a hard time because there could be unresolved issues or an unease because they don’t know what to do. So, it’s good for them to get in touch with their emotions.”

The harpist plays an array of pieces. Some are known works, and some are made up on the spot.

“Sometimes I play songs like ‘Greensleeves,’ but I also had to learn to improvise,” she said. “One reason why therapeutic musicians improvise is because known pieces always come with emotions and there are memories and experiences attached to these songs.

“For example, ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ may evoke a happy memory of a childhood watching ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ and for others, may bring them to tears,” Jaeger said. “So, there are times when we need to stay away from familiar songs. However, other times, a familiar song will help form a connection. We all have to be mindful of that balance, and there is a lot of watching to see the reactions.”

A common misconception Jaeger faces every day is that she’s a music therapist or a music thanatologist.

“There are differences and it’s all in the training,” she said.

Music therapists usually have four or six years of academic music training in an accredited university.

“There is a lot of crossover with the three occupations, but the main difference is the training,” Jaeger said.

A music thanatologist is focused on death and vigils.

“They are trained to prescribe music while someone is in the process of dying,” Jaeger said. “They will stay with the ailing person and play music for the various stages of dying.”

A therapeutic musician, on the other hand, plays for everyone.

“We play for those who are ailing and those who are actively dying and those who just need to be uplifted,” Jaeger said. “For example, I usually work with people in hospice, but I also do corporate wellness sessions and retreats. I’m trained to go where people are at emotionally and take them to someplace better.”

Jaeger discovered therapeutic music at a craft fair in St. George in the 2000s.

“I was a weaver then and had a booth and a harp maker had a booth,” she said. “It was raining and no one was there, so I wandered over and became enchanted by this tiny harp.”

Jaeger ordered the harp and, although she knew she had to have it, the instrument sat around her house collecting dust.

“I would walk by it and strum it occasionally and I also ordered a book on playing the harp and would dabble at it, but nothing more,” she said.

After going through a series of life-changing events that included a lot of loss, Jaeger decided to play more often.

“I would work on some pieces, albeit they were nothing hard,” she said. “I wasn’t trying to master the instrument. I just wanted to play it, because it gave me peace and comfort.”

Jaeger had remembered an article she read about therapeutic music and, after some research, discovered some programs.

“I contacted Christina Tourin, the director of the International Harp Therapy program in 2009, and she advised me to read her book ‘A Cradle of Sound,’” Jaeger said. “She told me if I still wanted to do this, to call her back after I finished the book.”

After reading the book, Jaeger called back and enrolled in the two-year certification program in San Diego.

“I told her that I really didn’t know how to play the harp and asked if that was going to be a problem and she said that playing the harp will be the least of what I would be doing,” Jaeger said. “She said what I needed to be more than anything is open to energy, spirituality and be able to adapt to a health-care facility setting.”

The sessions also taught Jaeger that playing for people as a therapeutic musician isn’t a performance.

“I do not go in and demand attention and a spotlight and entertain people with my virtuosity before taking a bow,” she said with a smile. “Instead, the harp program uses modes to connect emotionally with people. We’ll start with a particular mode so I can go to where these people are and then bring them to a different mode.”

Since 2008, Jaeger has been professionally bringing peace and comfort to those in need.

“It’s been an incredible and sacred experience sitting with someone as they die,” she said. “People ask me how I can do this and I say it’s like being with someone who is giving birth.

“It’s intense and there are some difficult aspects, but it’s a privilege to be with someone in that moment of life or that moment of rebirth when a person passes,” Jaeger said. “It reminds me that every day is a gift.”