My 2017 Harp Focused Summer Vacation

I returned recently from the International Harp Therapy Program workshop in Cedar Falls, Iowa and the follow up  experiential workshop on Resonant Tone in Albert Lea, Minnesota. While I wasn’t looking forward to traveling to the mid-west in August from all I had been warned about: sweltering heat, oppressive humidity and bugs; none of that proved to be the case, at least while I was there. The weather was agreeable, even cool and rainy and the bugs stayed home.  It is always inspirational and validating to come together with the IHTP tribe of Therapeutic Harpists, including new students, former teachers, experienced practitioners, and old friends.  We speak the same language and have shared experiences. While all presentations at this weekend conference were valuable and informative, my favorite takeaway from this session was the Aromatherapy Workshop. I use aromatherapy with patients by dabbing it on my wrists.  The movement of my arms while playing harp sitting close to the bedside then sends it subtly into the room. My favorite blend is from Young Living Farms called Forgiveness. It includes sesame seed, melissa, geranium, frankincense, sandalwood, coriander, angelica root, lavender, bergamot, lemon, ylang ylang, jasmine, Helichrysum italicum oil, Roman chamomile, and rose.

“Forgiveness™ contains an aroma that supports the ability to forgive yourself and others while letting go of negative emotions.”(https://www.youngliving.com/en_US/products/forgiveness-essential-oil)

It is useful when people are at the end of life and can’t seem to let go because of anger, bitterness, resentment, guilt and fear.  And I love the smell.

Pamela, my new IHTP sister, friend, and roommate for both workshops, acquired a room spray of Frankincense to help us sleep and ground us while we were there from Rodney Schwan, which she liberally spritzed every night before bedtime. It seemed to do the trick. Rodney is a Massage Therapist and Aromatherapist who works in the field of palliative care.  The knowledge and personal experience he shared about using various scents in palliative care use was extremely valuable and which I intend to include more of in my own practice.  

On Saturday night, Gaylord Stauffer, Cedar Falls host, harpist and gardener extraordinaire, invited us all to his home. The following pictures are from his incredible gardenscape, where we were able to wander and wonder at our leisure while our friends played harp and sang into the evening.  Good food, good company, and incredible creative landscape artistry created a magical environment for us all to refresh and relax.

 

 

 

Albert Lea and ESM Workshop

“ESM – Experiential Specialty Module – The Experiential Specialty Module requires in-person attendance for all students. This is a week long Module. The ESM is scheduled at venues in many countries, and you can take it anywhere it is offered. This allows the program to be quite flexible and moderately paced for all students. The Experiential module (which is an extension of Unit 4) enables the student to be ‘recommended for Hospice work,’ as opposed to those who only take the theoretical Unit 4 about Resonance.”  (http://harptherapycampus.com/campus-2/faqs/).

Diane, Pamela, Sharon, Heidi

There were four of us in this training:

From  left to right: Diane from Idaho, Pamela from New York, Sharon from Edmonton, CA, and me. Included is Sharon’s Stony End harp which we all got to play one evening in the hotel lobby for our own amusement and that of the hotel staff and guests while it poured rain outside.

Being such a small group with 2 fabulous instructors: Christina Tourin and Judith Hitt, allowed us to really go deep into the training which was so appreciated by us all.

Having gone through the theoretical ESM training seven years ago, much was review for me but the experiential resonant tone was practice-changing for me.

The concept of resonant tone is based on the fact that we all vibrate, and that which vibrates, produces sound. As Therapeutic Harp Practitioners, we must be centered, focused and attentive to our patients and their surroundings, integrate that information and meet the patient where they are at within that moment vibrationally, emotionally, and mentally. Any vocalizations produced by the patient provide a clue as to their resonant tone which we try to match with our musical selections.  Items in the room provide clues to their interests and personality and whatever they are willing to share with us in that space also helps. Being open to all of this and completely focused on the patient allows intuition to assist with the choices. Some of my colleagues refer to this as “the voice”, “Creator”, spirit guides”  “universal intelligence” and “pure coincidence”.  Whatever the source  for an idea that comes to us to play a particular tune or improvisational mode for a patient that is absolutely perfect, it will come to us if we are open to it,  paying attention, and grounded in our intention to do the best we can for the person we are with.

Watching the response of the patient to our musical selections, key, rhythm, genre, allows for opportunities to change and select a more appropriate choice to connect with the patient as needed.

At the end of the week we gave a performance for the residents of the facility which had provided  a beautiful space for us all week. Then we traveled to a different facility where we were allowed to shadow Christina and Rachel Christianson, IHTP graduate, amazing harpist, and local host for our training, as they provided Therapeutic Harp music for selected patients.   They used harp, voice, conversation, shared experiences to establish that special connection for the patient and their families within a limited amount of time.  There is no way to glean the benefits of this level of training without being present and experiencing it first hand.

At Rachel and Dave’s house Tina and Rachel jamming on the Heartland harps

 

 

 

 

Another dinner party, this time hosted by Rachel and Dave Christiansen of Albert Lea, MN at their lovely home on the lake.  From L to R: Tina, Judith, Pamela, Sharon and Diane.

I have been able to develop a new depth to my own practice of bedside playing for hospice patients because of what I learned in both of these workshops. It was well worth the time and money to participate, expand my skills and work outside my comfort zone with such incredibly talented and dedicated professionals.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Playing for the Dead

Sometimes I don’t arrive in time to play for the actively dying patients before they pass.  If the mortuary has not come yet, I may sit with the body in a low-lit room and play for the newly departed. My personal belief is that the newly dead remain in the former space for a short period of time. Like birth, the end of life transition from mortal to spiritual being can be traumatic and confusing, initially. I imagine the abrupt cessation of pain, gravity, and fear when the spirit finally releases the physical shell, combined with the impending launch into the light of unconditional love with the soul family and Creator, may cause some momentary resistance, at least for some.  So, I play for that spirit who may remain, encouraging it to take flight.  I play for the hospice staff and family members who remain in the room grieving their loss.  I play for the facility staff who clean and prepare the body for the mortuary to pick up and are mourning, as they complete this final service for a patient they have come to know and love.  This is a sacred space and time and I feel a responsibility to hold and preserve  that sacredness for just a bit longer with music if I can.

Rudy was a patient who was loved by everyone he met throughout his life. He came to America as a poor Russian immigrant when the Soviet bloc collapsed in the 1980s and he could leave Mother Russia. He brought his family with him including his wife and several small children and was a man who made friends wherever he went. According to one son, Rudy never forgot his old acquaintances while continuing to make new friends his entire life.  How he remembered all those people, their names, the details about their families and lives was a mystery to everyone, including Rudy’s own family.

Rudy’s final days were spent on hospice in an assisted care facility he had been living in for a while. Even before Rudy was admitted to hospice, I knew him. He had met me when I came to play for our hospice patients at the facility and we had spoken in the lobby while I tuned the harp and he was waiting for his daughter to come and visit.

When I first entered Rudy’s  room with the harp, he looked up and smiled. “Well, I guess it must be my time, the angel has come for me, now”, he said.  He remembered who I was from our prior brief meeting. I told him I hoped we would have many therapeutic music sessions together.  He just shrugged, leaned back in his wheelchair, closed his eyes and let the music envelop him.  We did get to have many sessions together but not as many as either of us would have liked. I remember him always smiling and welcoming me into his room even as his diminished health steadily declined.

I was unable to be there with him while he was actively dying but I was told he was surrounded by his loving family and friends. By the time I arrived at the facility to play for him, Rudy had passed and his family had left so I sat in his room with his body and played some of his favorite songs.  Soon the Nursing staff came in to prepare Rudy’s body for the mortuary.  I asked them if I could stay and continue playing while they worked.  The two Aides agreed although my request seem to surprise them. Both were tearful while they lovingly bathed Rudy and covered his body.  Rudy’s  departure would leave a large hole in the world for all the people whose lives he had touched.

When the mortuary came for Rudy, his body was carefully transferred to the gurney and his face covered with a drape.  A rose was placed on his body and the processional to the waiting van began with the hospice nurse, the 2 mortuary staff people, and the gurney with Rudy. The nursing assistants and myself walked behind out to the waiting car. I believe Rudy’s spirit had already departed by then. I played only for his memory and for the people he had left behind to comfort us all in our grief.

 

Some Days Are Better Than Others

I realized that I might have overdone it that day when I pulled into the grocery store on my way home from work at 7:30 pm on a Friday night. Instead of buying some nice, sensible  salad fixings for dinner, or even a pre-made comfort meal from the deli, I bought a pint of cookie caramel crunch gelato and a tiny little jar of Nutella. Oh, and some salty, crunchy, calorie-dense, nutrient-poor condiments and side dishes to enhance the main course. This is what I ate for dinner while I binge-watched Glee reruns on Netflix. Predictably, by bedtime I was suffering from bloat remorse and a bit of queasiness.  I confess, this is how I self-medicate.

The day started with me getting a late start on a one hour drive for a Mother’s Day lunch harp gig, only to discover when I arrived (after breaking speed limits without getting caught) that the lunch actually started an hour later. Since I was at a long term care facility, I had patients there to see anyway.  I went first to the one patient who I had read via email was probably transitioning.  I sat by his bed and played ionic, rhythmic improvisations in mostly major keys. I threw a couple of hymns in as well. I could not detect any sort of outward physical response to the music. For all intents and purposes, the patient appeared relaxed, calm and sleeping like a baby. I moved on to patient number 2 who was sitting in the dining room waiting for lunch. I played for him until it was time to gravitate to the Mother’s Day lunch celebration.  I was put on the stage with a spotlight and microphone and played my heart out for an hour and 15 minutes. That is about my limit, without a break. When I reach that point of “so-done”,  I start making a lot of mistakes. The brain begins to go first, and the fingers aren’t far behind, similar to hypothermia effect. It’s best to stop while people still think I’m a fairly good harp player. Fortunately, the facility staff in their gratitude for my serenade offered me lunch which was reviving as only lasagna, salad with raspberries and cupcakes frosted to look like flowers can be.  I proceeded to see and play for another 4 patients at the facility.

My email alerted me as I was finishing up that there were no less than 3 patients I knew well who were transitioning to actively dying at a facility I would be driving right past on my way home. I felt compelled to stop and play for them and their families, if there were any family members present.

Before I got to anyone’s room, I ran into one of our hospice chaplains. He confirmed that there were three of our patients in various stages of dying, none of whom were expected to last the weekend. I assured him I intended to see them all before I went home.

The first patient I saw at the facility,  patient #7 for the day, was lying in bed with open, unseeing glazed eyes and death rattle breathing.  Her roommate had not gone to dinner and was lying in bed watching TV, which she blessedly turned off after I arrived and began to play. I am always so grateful for this thoughtfulness in shared space. No matter what someone’s financial situation is, they should be allowed to die in peace and not have to listen to the dreadful evening news or Jeopardy blasting 10 feet from their bed. So often though, they are left in a shared room where the roommates are doing their best to ignore the fact that one of their own is dying, while family and friends are present and grieving around the bedside. If there is space available, sometimes the nearly departed and entourage are moved to a private room but often, there is no space available and everybody must suffer together.

I played chord progressions with right hand improvisations, including both major and minor keys, the Kyrie Eleison from Hildegard Von Bingham’s  Missa De Angeles written in the 11th century and pentatonic improvisation with some standard hymns thrown in. Finally, the patient closed her eyes and appeared to fall into a deep sleep. Her breathing was still audible and wet sounding but not so loud and labored as before. I left her quietly and went to see my next patient.

Patient #8 was surrounded by children, grandchildren and a young great grand-child.  This room was also shared with another patient hiding behind a thin curtain surrounding her bed. A son told me that his mother loved music and came from a musical family. I had been playing for the patient for a couple of years as she slowly declined but she had never been able to communicate with me beyond gibberish, moans and cries. She had severe dementia in addition to co-morbidities so while I knew her, I never really knew her at all or who she had been before she became a hospice patient. The patient was sleeping peacefully and I didn’t know that I had much to offer her. However, the family was in the throes of grief and their pain and agitation was very real.  I find that familiar music and hymns seem to help in those situations. I extended the repertoire with improvisations but I focused on standard hymns, finishing with Somewhere over the Rainbow, You Raise Me Up and Wind Beneath my Wings. More family arrived and I departed to make space for them and to see my third patient.

Patient #9 was a dementia patient who was blissfully alone in her room. There were no other patients or family with her at that time. Prior to her recent health decline, she used to love to sing along when I played harp for her. Even in her current state, she was still humming, very quietly, while she lay in bed with her eyes closed. I began with her favorite songs and then shifted to unfamiliar music and then improvisations. She continued to hum along anyway.  When I left, she was still humming some favorite tune only she could recognize.  She did not appear agitated or uncomfortable, which had been the case earlier, according to the nurse’s report.

I did not notice my own exhaustion while I played for our patients but after I finished it hit me. As did the pulsating neck pain radiating up into my head. I still had an hour drive home after seeing the last patient but at least the commuter gridlock traffic had abated by then. Good thing, because I think I drove on autopilot most of the way. That is, until I got close to the grocery store and began obsessing about ice cream and Nutella.  Eight hours of Therapeutic Harp playing is too much, at least for me.  But sometimes things happen and there is no real choice in the matter. You do what needs to be done; then go home, eat ice cream, watch Glee reruns, and hope tomorrow is better.

 

 

Finding our Calling

“I believe things happen for a reason. I just don’t know what it is yet.” During a dark period of my life, crying in my therapist’s office, I actually uttered those words of hope. It surprised us both. That was over 10 years ago and I am only beginning to see the connections and purpose of events that guided me to the here and now, a far better place.
I attended a seminar this week focused on “How to deliver your message”. It was really a 3 hour introduction to a 3 day workshop the presenters wanted to sell to us. They offered some useful tips on how to really define our personal meaning of life. Everyone quotes Victor Frankl when delving into the domain of meaning of life (how can you not?) If you don’t have a life purpose, a calling, and recognize it, you’re survival odds during adversity, are not so good. Frankl watched this theory be proven time and time again at Auschwitz concentration camp during WWII. He survived because he knew his purpose was to tell the world the story of Auschwitz, lest the truth never be told. Over time he learned his life had greater purpose than just that one. He has helped millions of people find their true purpose and understand the value of that.
When you know your purpose, you can help other people find theirs. During the seminar one of the exercises we did was to work with a partner, the person sitting next to us who we had never met before. We each had 3 minutes to listen to the other tell us their life purpose without questions or interruption. When they stopped talking, we could only repeat the question, “What is your purpose?” as they peeled away the layers of their profession, their livelihood, their lifestyle, their goals, to get to the heart of “What is your purpose?” It was not an easy exercise, especially for my younger partner who really hadn’t thought about his life purpose. He told me about his company and how it provided a good lifestyle for him and his family and how he came to founding it and where he wanted to take it. But none of that really addressed his true purpose. I suspect that long after the seminar, he will be pondering the question and how to best address it. Because, when you find your purpose, or calling, invariably, you realize it isn’t about you at all. It’s about how you can serve others.
I can’t remember my exact words during the 3 minutes I had to talk but I’m pretty sure I focused on my perceived calling of playing harp for hospice patients to ease their transition from this life to the next. It didn’t occur to me until after the workshop that there might be a deeper layer, when I later made a connection between the seminar and an encounter I had with a woman earlier in the day at a long term care facility. Not all the residents at facilities where I play are in hospice or need to be, and over time I get to know some of the others. That day, I had finished playing for my patients and was preparing to leave so that I could get to the seminar on time, about an hour away in rain and commuter traffic, a bad combination for a timely arrival. There was a group of people visiting in the lobby area, patients and family members, where I paused to get organized before running to my car with harp, gig bag, stool and keys. A young woman in a wheelchair in the lobby stopped me and asked if I would play something for them before I left. Although I was in a hurry to leave I agreed. I played Somewhere Over the Rainbow followed by What A Wonderful World. When I finished, the young woman who had requested I play asked, “How long have you been playing the harp and why?” I told her, “Over 20 years and it’s my calling to do this work with hospice patients. It helps them relax and sometimes be better able to face what is next.”
She thought about that quietly for a moment and then said, “You know, I wonder about what my purpose is, especially after the accident now that I’m stuck in this chair. I think my calling may be about helping people cope with bullies. I get so upset when I read or hear about people being bullied I just want to do something to help them!” There was real passion in her voice, a good indicator for recognizing your purpose. Passion is an essential ingredient.
“Sounds like a good purpose”, I commented. We chatted a while longer and then I left because the rain had stopped momentarily. I did not know then that the seminar would focus on purpose. I thought it was about helping people be better public speakers. Actually it was both of those things. However, those two events in one day got me to think more about my purpose. Victor Frankl had a primary purpose that he credits helped him stay alive in the worst possible situation any human could endure. He went on to live a life where his purpose became greater as a psychiatrist and author who helped far more people than he could have imagined by sharing his story.
Another musician’s story that I find truly inspiring is that of George Flores, a quadriplegic former rock and roll performer who became a harp builder of some fame. If you aren’t familiar with George’s story, the following is a brief video about him. https://www.facebook.com/GeorgeHarps/videos/1195973339065/

Story telling is a powerful transformative tool of the universe with a wide ripple effect. So is the harp.