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Stories from the Harp: How it Began

June 17, 2016
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Charcoal drawing of a harp and a heart intertwined

by Laurie Riley

One evening in 1990, long before bedside music was used in hospitals for other than hospice patients, and no certification programs yet existed for it, I learned that my father had pneumonia and was in Intensive Care. I packed my bag. At the last minute, I decided that since he was only semiconscious, perhaps the best way for him to know I was there would be to play my harp for him. I put it in the car.

At the hospital, I found him hooked up to monitors, tubes, and machines. I asked his nurse if I could play for him, and because a harp in a hospital was unheard of at the time, she said bluntly, “For five minutes.” After five minutes passed, no one told me to stop, so I kept going. I began to hear whispers from the nurses. “It must be the music . . .” Soon, a doctor tapped me on the shoulder and whispered words that would soon create a big change in my life: “Pythagoras said music heals. Please don’t stop.”

I was surprised to hear this from a doctor, and happy to continue as she asked. I kept playing, and the monitors showed improvement in my father’s vital signs; he breathed more deeply and his pulse became more regular. Whenever I paused, alarms buzzed and care personnel came scurrying. It seemed like a good idea to comply with the doctor’s wishes and not stop at all.

The family had been told that my father would not make it through the night. I played late into the night, and then stood at his bedside to whisper my final good-bye. I went to sleep on a cot in his room. When I woke at sunrise, the sound of the heart monitor steadily beeping seemed the finest thing I’d ever heard - he was still alive! I got up and played some more.

As the days passed, I played as much as possible, and my father improved daily. It was made clear by the medical staff that I had become part of his healing team and that my efforts were important. I assumed at the time that the music made a difference because I was his daughter and we therefore had a connection. But the nurses and doctors asked me to play for other patients in ICU, and there were positive effects for them as well.

What I would never have expected was how this experience made me feel. Being present in a place where life was tentative and where, every minute of every day, amazingly dedicated people were saving lives, gave me a sense of what’s truly important: love and connection. I felt more alive there than at any other time or place. I stayed for a week, playing for several hours each day and often late into the night. The nurses and doctors told me again and again that the music was making a positive difference for the patients, and for themselves, too.

At the end of the week, my father was transferred to general care to complete his recovery. I had concerts coming up, and I had to leave. While packing to go home, I was asked by the head nurse if I would consider accepting a permanent paid position at the hospital. I was amazed and honored, but I didn’t live in the area. I felt I had to decline. (Looking back now, I should have moved there on the spot.) But I decided that since the medical personnel had taken the effects of my music so seriously, I should learn everything I could about how music affects the body and how it could best be applied in medical settings. (From long years of experience, I already knew how it affects the psyche and the spirit).

In those days, nothing was available in print about the therapeutic effects of live music for the critically ill. Without case studies to consult, I volunteered in a hospital near my home to gain further experience. I felt at home in medical environments I had been trained in medical protocols as a nurse’s aide. I also had years of playing live music in nursing homes. This background was immensely helpful.

I experienced how live, restful music benefits birthing mothers, general-care patients, children, and emergency room patients. One day a surgeon asked me to play in the O.R. There seemed to be nowhere in the medical setting that music wasn’t beneficial.

In 1993, I was invited to Melody’s Music in Houston to lead a day-long workshop on playing harp in hospitals. After the workshop, two women asked me about creating a training program for bedside musicians. I thought for about two seconds and said yes. It felt right.

The two ladies (Martha Lewis and Maryann Schulz), the workshop sponsor Mary Radspinner, and I immediately formed a board of directors to accomplish this. We knew that although we could teach music skills, we would have to engage medical personnel to teach clinical deportment, anatomy-physiology, basic pharmacology, patient monitoring, charting, infection control, and so on. We carefully developed a comprehensive two-year curriculum. We would also require ourselves to take all the classes and to meet the program requirements to earn our own certifications. We named it The Music for Healing and Transition Program. Soon the program was being offered nationwide.

It is said that when an idea’s time has come, it will be manifested in more than one place. Two other similar training programs emerged around the same time, and in the years that followed, several more programs were founded by graduates of the original programs. Much later, in 2004, the National Standards Board for Therapeutic Music (NSBTM) was formed to develop and maintain standards for therapeutic music training programs and to define courses of study, scope of practice, a code of ethics, and other rules of conduct for the certified therapeutic musician.

One of the important tasks that came up was discussion between the NSBTM and the American Music Therapy Association (AMTA) to ensure clarity on the scopes of practice between the fields of Music Therapy and therapeutic music. (The former is a title owned by the American Music Therapy Association, and the latter includes the work of Certified Clinical Musicians, Certified Music Practitioners, Certified Harp Therapists, Certified Healing Musicians, and Certified Bedside Harpists.) A precise way to define the difference is this: Music Therapy is the use of music as a tool in interactive therapy, while therapeutic musicians use music as the therapy itself.

Bedside therapeutic music is never a performance. It is a service, a compassionate action without agenda, with the focus on the patient and never on the musician. We observe a patient’s musical needs by watching body language, breathing, and vital signs indicated on monitors. When patients know that they are not expected to focus on the musician, the result is deeply relaxing; studies show that it promotes production of endorphins, alleviating the awareness of pain and anxiety, and enhancing immune response (per subsequent studies).

Most healthcare music is simple in structure and arrangement. Complex music is excellent for stage performances, but it is not often useful in medical settings. I’ve heard healthy people outside medical settings remark that therapeutic music is boring and repetitive. Yes, to healthy people, it is! But to the very sick, it is often a relief and a blessing. It is the therapeutic effect of resonance, rather than the entertainment value, that is important.

Needless to say, therapeutic music changed my life as a musician, and continues to benefit thousands of patients worldwide as more harpers and other musicians take up this wonderful work.

Laurie Riley is best known as a harpist, although she also teaches lessons in banjo and guitar and does professional consultation in music career development, recording production, performance skill development and ergonomics.

If you have a personal story, photo or video that speaks to the therapeutic power of music, we would love to share it as part of this series! You can contact us here.

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