Saturday, October 13, 2012

A Harper in the Infusion Room

I just had to share this wonderful video, article, and slideshow about harp therapist Marilyn Lemke as she plays for herself and others in the chemotherapy infusion room of the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia, PA. It's too beautiful and inspirational not to share.

I had the pleasure of meeting Marilyn on the very first day of my own harp therapy internship at Abington Memorial Hospital several months ago and she was so warm and encouraging. As a fledgling harp therapist it means a lot to receive words of support from those who went through the same process of first masking and then gradually shedding the layers of self-consciousness and uncertainty in the service of a greater calling. I had no idea at the time that she was dealing with cancer (I hesitate to say "struggling with" or "battling" cancer since Marilyn's graceful approach to the situation seems to go beyond simple adversarial metaphors), and even watching the video it's difficult to believe that such a vibrant person is anything but the picture of health.

This story provides a taste of what wonderful things live harp music can do for patients, staff, and visitors: The Harpist - Part I and Part II.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Another Threshold: Being Cleared to Play for Patients

7/12/12, 2:25 PM

Yesterday I did something I've been dreading. In order to begin playing for patients, I had to first play a 10-15 minute session for the founder of the program. She has been playing in the therapeutic capacity for more than a decade and has been deeply involved in music her entire life both as a student and a teacher. No pressure, little amateur harper, no pressure at all. As a matter of fact when we sat down, I with a harp cradled between my knees, to start she even said "now don't be nervous" as if I could help it. One might as well ask water not to be wet.

I did not get a chance to warm up that day even though I got up extra early. I hit some unexpected traffic and it took a while to find a parking spot in the garage. So I played cold and it was not pretty. I stumbled through songs I play fairly well at home and had played decently in the hospital common areas before. I picked the wrong notes to accompany myself and created some awkward harmonies. Then she had me do some noodling and I did better with that. She said the point of the exercise was not to criticize but to see how well my sound was. She said I did fine and cleared me for patient rooms but I felt worse about it after than I did before.

Then she gave me a CD which was supposed to be included in a goodie bag we received at the end of the last module (they forgot to place them in the bags). I knew it was going to be of "relaxing music" but that was it. It is a recording of her playing through several songs in her repertoire as she does for patients - all strung together with languid ease and cascading arpeggios. And I want to cry. Not because the music is lovely (don't get me wrong, it is) but it just feels like another testament to my inadequacy. I may never be able to do this.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Book Review: The Healing Power of Sound

The Healing Power of Sound: Recovery from Life-Threatening Illness Using Sound, Voice, and Music by Mitchell L Gaynor, MD

This book explores the theoretical framework behind various methods which the author, an accomplished oncologist, has developed to assist his patients in the healing process beyond what is offered by standard medical procedure. Although the author was already employing a more holistic mind-body approach with his patients’ treatment plans, it was his meeting with a Tibetan monk named Ödsal that seemed to be the catalyst towards in delving into sound and music therapy in particular. It is Ödsal who first introduces Gaynor to the singing bowl, and though the author has chosen crystal bowls over the traditional Himalayan metal versions, they form a constant thread through the book. The repeated descriptions of their sound and calming effects really has me intrigued and I would love the opportunity to experience them for myself.

In addition to the use of the crystal bowls, toning and chanting plays a major role. As I was reading the sections regarding the creation and use of a personal life song, I was immediately reminded of the songs used by shamans in traditional societies to call their personal spirits to aid in the Otherworldy journey to retrieve solutions for their clients. These songs are unique to the practitioner, typically kept secret, and are often said to be gifts from the shaman’s spirit guides or allies.

I was not at all surprised to learn later in the book that the author has some familiarity with shamanism, however I felt that it was a topic he could have explored in more depth in relation to sound therapy. Much of the book had a very transcendental approach to healing and integration - emphasizing an expansion or rising beyond the sensual world towards a more conceptual, ideal state as the solution to our maladies. I feel that a more in depth consideration of shamanism and the worldviews of the animistic cultures in which it originates would have effectively balanced this approach. The following quotation really summed up his perspective for me and confirmed what I had already suspected:
These audible sounds, when mindfully invoked, lead us toward the abstract sound, toward an experience of ourselves that is nonphysical and infinite.[…] The process takes us beyond the immediate experience of our physical pain and emotional suffering, and puts us in touch with a reality greater than ourselves — as apt a definition of spirituality as any I’ve come across. (43)
Gaynor refers to this aspect towards the end of the book as one’s Essence, a term which in itself demonstrates this perspective. The "essence" of a person, in Gaynor's opinion, is his or her non-tangible facet. In other words, the physical is not essential. I believe this belies the mind-body-spirit continuum that a music therapy approach takes.

This tendency does seem a little strange to me considering that the experience of sound and music are so thoroughly sensual and embodied: we hear vibrations through our ears, feel them resonate in our bodies, see the strings respond when they are plucked, etc. I’ve found that much of the information available on sound therapy, and even more specifically harp therapy, tends to lean towards this transcendent approach and I do find that personally disconcerting.

The sections on toning brought to mind some of my studies of galdr which is a practice rooted in ancient Germanic traditions and involves intoning both the names of runes and the monosyllabic sounds associated with them in order to attune oneself with the powers inherent in the rune and bring about desired change. The author provides a series of monosyllabic sounds as suggestions for composing a life song, but I think my own practice might benefit from incorporating galdr in a similar manner.

I was very happy to find actual exercises in the book which approximate much of the work Gaynor does with his clients. I am very self-conscious about singing when there is even the slightest chance of someone else hearing me, but I did try some of the toning exercises in my car involving transforming one’s pain or anguish into a specific sound, and it did work at least on a temporary basis. I’m not very familiar with classical music on the whole, but the section of music selections associated with each of the elements (pages 223-225) has me very interested to listen to them and see what effects they might have on me personally.

Overall, this book provided a veritable smorgasbord of food for thought in relation to how sound and music can be used in healing modalities. Although I do not think I will be able to use most of the methods directly with harp therapy patients since they involve a lot of active participation, I do see a lot of potential for self-care in its pages which could make me more relaxed and balanced and better able to do the work.

Monday, October 24, 2011

My Harpsicle is on the Way!

After months of waiting and saving, I finally ordered a lap harp. According to the Harpsicle website they are currently taking 5-6 weeks to build and I was hoping to receive the harp before the winter holiday, so I decided to take the financial plunge and order it now. I'm one payment away from finally owning my car outright so I should be able to recoup the funds faster than I would have previously. While comparing the availability of accessories, I noticed that the Harp Center stated that they actually had several models in stock, so I called them up and got to place my order with Sylvia Woods herself. If the shipping Gods are willing, it should arrive this coming Friday or Monday!

It's going to be a transition going from playing 34 to 26 strings* since everything I know how to play was arranged for a larger harp, but I need to get used to the more limited range for harp therapy. I did purchase a few books from the Harpsicle site to get myself started, and I was surprised by the selection they offered. I settled on the Easy Songs Vol. I, Turlough O'Carolan Tunes, and More Christmas Songs books (unfortunately they're really aren't any Yule songs out there, but it would be nice to be able to play something seasonally related).

While at the Harpers' Escape I was able to play another Harpsicle and had some of my previous concerned addressed. My roommate actually brought along her Sharpsicle. The levers were a little stiff, but she had never encountered string breakage issues due to the tuning pins. Another person I spoke with at the event said that she owned one in addition to her larger harp and loved it.

I cannot wait to get acquainted with my new little harp.

* One would think, as I once did, that a lap harp would be easier to play than a floor harp, but with having to worry about balancing the smaller harp and less room for the left hand to wander, it's not actually the case.

Back from The Harpers' Escape

The Harpers' Escape is a place to develop a severe case of harp envy.
The Harpers' Escape weekend has come and gone. I had an enjoyable experience, and I hope I get to attend the event next year. My fear of driving there and back was largely unfounded. The main highways (in my case routes 78 and 287) were easy-going, and the only real issues I experienced where close to the Rutger's University campus where the event was held. Despite the fact that I was using a new GPS system, a software version which according to their website should display the location accurately, the GPS insisted upon placing the address a few miles down the road from the actual site. While getting ready to depart for home, I turned on the navigation system in the parking lot and it couldn't even pinpoint where I was — apparently the Conference Center must be some sort of mystical non-place which confounds GPS units and some web-based map services. Thankfully I had printed out directions for the route home so I wasn't completely stranded (although I did take a wrong turn at one point and was lost for a little bit which was not a pleasant experience). The Continuing Studies Conference Center is a beautiful property, located on the grounds of the former Lindenwood Estate. The mansion held the conference rooms where we had most of our workshops and there were lots of mature, gnarled trees, including some majestic Yews, shading the grounds. The hotel rooms were in a newer wing so they lacked some of the character of the rest of the property but were still very comfortable. The catered meals were delicious.
The first night was the harp circle where we snugly assembled 38+ harpers into one room. We went around the circle, introducing ourselves and playing a tune. I chose to play "Wendell's Wedding", a song I really love playing and which I knew would be familiar to at least one or two of the instructors of the event (my own harp teacher has attended this event and her teacher Kathy DeAngelo is one of the organizers so I figured she learned it from her). I was hoping they would join in to camouflage the mistakes I was sure to make while playing in front of more confident, competent harpers for the first time. Little did I know that "Wendell's Wedding" is the unofficial theme song of the Harpers' Escape and it seemed that more than 3/4s of the other harpers joined in shortly after I started. Not only that, but they play the tune at almost double the tempo at which I'm used to playing it. I got swept away by the waves of sound from the surrounding harps and no one even noticed when I was too nervous to keep up. The second day was largely spent learning two new songs, in my case "Buachaill Ón Éirne" and "Tobin's Favourite." I'm used to learning by ear, but I've never been taught two whole songs in the space of a few hours and it was definitely a challenge. Although we went over both the right and left hand portions, after working on the melodies for both songs a switch flipped in my brain indicating that it had reached its maximum absorption point for the day (I hate it when that happens) so the only part of the songs I was able to retain was the right hand. It's a very different dynamic learning tunes in a small group versus on an individual basis. For future reference, it's never a good idea to sit directly across from the teacher as you have no chance of seeing her hands on the strings properly at that angle. I was relieved to learn that other attendees had also reached their mental absorption quotas fairly early in the day, and later that evening at the teachers' concert one of the instructors even confessed that after a certain point, "hitting a wall" was an apt description for how most of us felt. That evening they held an impromptu session in the dining area. Gráinne played her concertina while Billy took up his bouzouki and whistles (not at the same time, of course), and Kathy bowed her fiddle, all surrounded by a small circle of harpers. I happily observed from a distance for a short time but my exhaustion got the better of me and I headed to bed before it was over. On Sunday the teachers and the majority of students packed our harps and our luggage back into our vehicles and formed a caravan trailing to the New Brunswick public library located a few miles away. There we set up our harps, tuning them for at least the hundredth time in the past 2 days, in front of a small sea of folding chairs. After we were cautiously arranged on the stage platform, the visitors started to file into the rows and be seated. After a short introduction about the history and goals of the Harpers'Escape event, the instructors each took a turn speaking about their background and then playing a tune or two. Then, the spotlight turned to us as a group. We played some of our newly-learned tunes as well as some Harpers' Escape favorites (including "Wendell's Wedding"). The strange thing was that I experienced virtually none of the typical anxiety and stage fright I usually feel when being the focus of someone else's attention. It was surely awkward to try to play songs I had only just learned, but I was frustrated by that rather than by the idea of performing. I'm not sure if this was because I did not know anyone in the audience and it's probably not likely that I will ever meet and/or recognize them again or because after all the initial stress I expended before the event, every other stress paled in comparison, but either way I was thankful.

Friday, October 14, 2011


Tomorrow I set out for the Harpers' Escape weekend in New Brunswick, NJ.

I should be worrying about learning in a strange, new environment with both teachers and fellow students who will no doubt intimidate me with their level musical prowess. I should be worrying about being able to learn 2-3 new songs with accompaniment and ornaments in as many days. I should be worrying about my first harp circle experience. However, my more immediate fears about getting to and from the location of the Harpers' Escape event are easily eclipsing those worries.

I have very serious issues related to driving, especially when it involves highways, uncertain parking conditions, and locations I've never been to before. This trip will have all of those elements and possibly more (ack! roundabouts!). My sense of direction is notoriously poor and I get easily disoriented, and that added to a (rational, but heavily overblown) fear of traveling at a high rate of speed uncomfortably close to other contraptions composed of metal and flammable matter makes for a bad combination. I've been so paranoid about the transit that the event itself pales by comparison per my internal anxiety meter.

But I keep reminding myself that I chose to undertake this journey because of the challenge it would present for me. Facing many of my strongest fears (social, performance, vehicular) head on will be good for me, or so I keep telling myself. Victor Anderson said "anything worthwhile is dangerous" and at the moment I'm taking that on faith.

Yet in the midst of this I am also grateful. Grateful for the opportunity to take this chance. I was thankful for being simply being able to get the approved time off from work and for the fact that I had saved up enough to be able to afford such a luxury. Then after registering to stay on-site and take the workshops, I received an email from one of the organizers advising that there was an error and the website had not been updated properly. The rooms had all sold out. My heart sank upon reading this, but there was a silver lining. Another attendee, a complete stranger to me, had volunteered to share her room with me so I did not have to commute to and from the conference center. I was so touched by this generous offer.

Occasionally I see bumper stickers compelling the viewer to commit "random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty." I feel this person certainly did extend a random act of kindness to me, so I felt a gesture of senseless beauty would be an appropriate response. The small painting to the upper left is something I created to give to her as a "thank you". I'm not very good at expressing my emotions verbally, so I pour my sincerity through my hands and heart and hope others can apprehend at least some of it.

In a way I'm even grateful for my driving anxiety because once I actually get to the conference center whole and unscathed, it will be an immense weight off my shoulders and the challenges presented by the harp will seem so minor and joyful by contrast. I'm praying to my Ancestors that this optimism holds and that I can keep my wits about me!

Friday, August 19, 2011

Setting Foot on the Harper's Path

I was introduced to the music of Gaelic lands around 1997-98. Surprisingly this was not as a direct result of the currently thriving River Dance franchise, nor of my even earlier interest in Paganism despite the fact that there is often a heavy dose of swooning and fawning over anything even vaguely Celtic within those circles. My introduction was fairly simple and straightforward: I was at a listening station at my area Borders store which featured several CDs from various genres. My mom picked out Women of the World: Celtic II from the menu, listened for a few moments, handed me the over-sized earphones, and said "I think you will like this." She was right.

I listened to that CD, spinning and skipping in my walkman (this was the pre-iPod era after all), all the time: on my bus ride to and from school, on my walks in the forest, while doing homework, etc. My collection of Celtic music grew, although through trial-and-error I had to learn that some music labeled "Celtic" really has nothing to do with the traditional music and instrumentation of that culture — in many cases it is just a catchy by-word for anything that sounds vaguely mystical and/or dreamy. I established a small collection of penny whistles over the years, but it had not seriously occurred to me to try to learn to play some of the same music which had captured my interest, and the harp did not become part of the equation for about another decade.

Fast forward to 2007. Through some internet avenue or another, I was introduced to the music of Joanna Newsom. Her peculiar vocal stylings on The Milk-Eyed Mender and Ys tend to be an acquired taste, but the most intriguing aspect of her music for me was the fact that she was a singer-songwriter who accompanied herself, not on the standard guitar or piano or even mandolin, but on the harp. For a reason that is not entirely clear to me even now (I'm sure my failed attempt to take up the acoustic guitar had something to do with it though), that idea planted a seed within me which slowly began to unfurl.

The harp seemed a very direct and intuitive instrument to a music theory-challenged and primarily visual person such as myself: there is no intermediary between the musician and the strings, no bow or hammer, and the notes are not scattered across a neck. The strings are even color-coded! Although Ms. Newsom plays the stately sort of harp one sees in classical orchestras, I could not see myself connecting with such a large, ornate instrument. I did not know anything about pedals versus levers or string tension at that point, but I decided that I wanted to learn the Celtic harp based upon the size and aesthetic of the instrument as I understood it at the time. Of course, even just the name "Celtic", and later "folk", was a touchstone for choosing this type of harp on a subconscious level. However, I understood "Celtic" to refer to the type of instrument (in much the same way as the French horn is the name of a specific kind of horn) and did not necessarily anticipate playing Celtic music upon it.

In March 2007 I wrote to a local teacher I found via a web search who specialized in Celtic harp and set up my first lesson. It was such a delight to actually find someone local. I remember being surprised at seeing the 34 and 36-stringed floor harps serenely regarding each other on my first visit to her home since I was under the false impression that a Celtic harp meant a lap harp! That first meeting we discussed my interest in the harp and my musical background (I studied violin for a few years in elementary school and I improvise on Native American Style flute). The next few weeks she taught me about navigating the harp strings, hand position, etc. and we got started learning tunes fairly quickly. She teaches in the manner traditional to Celtic harpers which is aurally, and I found that I really responded well to that teaching method.

For almost 2 years I had classes weekly, then things in my life started to fall apart and I had to stop taking lessons. I had planned to continue learning on my own, but with my atrophied sight-reading skills and the continuing deterioration of my personal state, my plan never really got off the ground. Due to space restrictions, my poor Ravenna ended up being boxed in by various things in a spare room and I could not even reach her without considerable effort. Out of sight, out of mind. Many months passed and I nearly forgot I even had a harp. The songs I once knew left my fingers, and the harp was just another guilty pang on my list of personal failures.

One day I chanced upon information about harp therapy certification in a pamphlet from my local community college. The descriptions were intriguing, and it struck me as especially wonderful do be able to do something both creative and heartfelt. I found myself wishing I had kept up with my harp studies since at that time, I could not play ten songs as required for application to the program. I wasn't in the financial situation to be able to take the courses, but I filed the notion in the back of mind for later consideration. More months passed.

Then the dreams started. I began to dream about harps and see my own hands plucking the strings. Emotions of regret, longing, and wistfulness seemed to well both within me and the harp itself. In one dream, the harp was strung with fine saw blades like those used in a jeweler's saw. I bled as I played but it didn't dismay me; it seemed appropriate. After a few of these dreams, I finally got the message, freed my harp from of its fortress of stuff, and moved it to a newly-renovated room in the basement. I had found some sheet music of one of my favorite songs and decided to try re-learning it. I tuned my Ravenna and compared the sheet music with my faded memories. I stumbled, but I remembered. The experience was so cathartic that I found myself weeping.

I started taking lessons again. It had been about 2 years since my last class, and we started with the song which I was learning after my long latency (it's The Skye Boat Song/Over the Sea to Skye in case you were wondering). I have been able to relearn all the songs I had lost and then some. While there is a certain amount of comfort in returning to something that once felt long-lost to me, the situation is very different this time around. There is a new value and an earnestness in this enterprise which I lacked before, and I do not think I could have obtained without first having it all fall away. I've decided that I want to pursue becoming a Harp Therapist, and am actively working towards that goal.

To bring things full circle, I'm currently learning a song which I first heard on that CD I purchased almost 15 years ago: "The Rights of Man." The version I'm used to is a heavily stylized fiddle interpretation with lots of improvisation thrown in for good measure by Eileen Ivers, but to pick up the threads from the core of a well-loved song is no small thing. This also happens to be the first piece I've learned which involves a lever flip, so it has significance for me in that way too: it represents a threshold of skill.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Comparing Therapy Harps

Many makers are now offering harps intentionally designed for therapy. Although there are harp therapists who can and do use their usual floor harps (and even pedal harps) for this purpose, lap harps are beneficial in that they can be easily transported from room to room and even played while strolling down hospital corridors. Ideally, harps intended for therapeutic work should not only be lightweight to reduce strain on the player, but also strong to withstand frequent use and interactions with patients, and their tone must be mellow and soothing (overly bright or harsh tones sometimes produced by high-tension strings can potentially be agitating to patients*).

Even with therapy and other small harps, one size does not fit all. The choice of available harps was a bit overwhelming for me, so in an effort to help clarify my own options, I created the following chart of some models from reputed sources. All of the information was gleaned from the maker's and/or retailer's websites. The prices listed reflect a full set of levers, but most of the harps are offered at a lesser rate for partial levers (or no levers at all). Some of the prices also include other accessories including a case, lapbar, etc. Note that one of the harps, the Niamh 27, is priced in Canadian rather than US Dollars.

harp# of stringsweight (lbs)price (fully levered)
Bass Minstrel
by Marini Made
268• $1241 (Loveland) | $1331.00 (Universal) | $1396 (Truitt): Marini Made Harps
Christina Therapy Harp
by Triplett
257-9• $1695.00 USD (Camac): Triplett Harps
• $1881.00 USD (Truitt): Emerald Harp
County Kerry
by Jeff Gaynor
246.5• $1374.00 USD (Truitt + case): Emerald Harp
by Stoney End
269.5• $1699 USD (Truitt + case, lapbar, strap, stand, etc.): Emerald Harp
• $1399.00 USD (Truitt + case): Stoney End
by Harpsicle
264• $799.00 USD (Robinson): Harpsicle Harps & Harp Center
Jessie Ultra-Light
by Lewis Creek
276• $2199.00 (Truitt + case, strap): Emerald Harp & Lewis Creek
Marie XP
by Blevins
235• $2926.00 (Truitt + case, strap, surcingle): Bedside Harp
Marie FX27 Hybrid
by Blevins
276• $4438.00 USD (Truitt + case, strap, surcingle): Bedside Harp
by Marini Made
266• $1066 USD (Loveland) | $1131.00 USD (Universal) | $1196 USD (Truitt): Marini Made Harps
Morgan Meadow
by Rees Harps, Inc.
238-11• $2475.00 USD(Rees + stand): Rees Harps, Inc.
Niamh 27
by Timothy
279-11• $2450.00 CND (Camac): Timothy Harps
by Lewis Creek
277.5• $2199.00 USD (Truitt + case, strap): Emerald Harp; • $2299.00 (Truitt + case, strap): Lewis Creek
by Caswell
299$939.00 USD (Loveland): Caswell Harps

I had the opportunity to try several of these harps at the 2011 Somerset Folk Harp Festival which I really hoped would narrow my choices down, but for the most part, I'm still in a quandary. The vendor hall at the festival was rather loud so for the most part I do not think I got to hear the harps at their best. Price is definitely an issue for me, and not just in regards to the grand total for the harp and accessories, but also the availability of financing. Of the harps listed above, Caswell Harps offers a great no-interest payment plan and Triplett has a rent-to-own option which is also quite reasonable.

My favorite of the lap harps that I tried was the Marie Petite. It was a beautifully crafted instrument with a very nice tone and is exactly what I'm looking for aesthetically. However, it is at the top of the price range and, for that price, I think I would like something with more strings. Blevins does offer a Marie with 27 strings (not shown in the chart) but the weight was not listed and it is nearly $3000.

Heartland Harps is making 36 and 38 string harps out of carbon fiber which are remarkably light for their range and are practically indestructible , but they cost at least much as a standard wood harp of the same size. I wish they would consider making a smaller harp (maybe 27-30 strings?) out of the same material so it would be both featherweight and small (and hopefully less expensive!).

I'm tentatively settled on the maple Fullsicle due to its ease on my shoulders and pocketbook (it's both the lightest and cheapest of my options). Christina Tourin recommended them for the budget-minded harper on her site, but with the caveat that since the lower strings overlap the pillar, it would be difficult to hold the harp by the pillar, allowing it to hover over a patient while he or she plays. However, it was just redesigned so the harmonic curve and fore-pillar are slightly larger which not only improves the tone and volume, but also makes it so the lower strings no longer overlap the pillar. My only reservations are that the Fullsicle (I believe) uses zither pins rather than standard harp pins which in my experience are more of a pain to tune and tend to cause string breakage. I also don't have any experience with Robinson levers. Aesthetically, it is a little clunkier than the other harps. I really enjoyed playing it at the festival though, and as an added bonus, the cost for shipping and accessories for the Fullsicle is also cheaper than for other models.

Update - February 02, 2015: I've tried to correct some broken links and update some of the pricing with more current figures. The ultimate resource for this information is, of course, from the harp-maker's own website, so please verify their information before purchasing. To my knowledge, Caswell Harps are no longer being made as unfortunately harp-maker and accomplished musician Chris Caswell passed away in January 2013 from cancer.
*"The tension needs to be lighter than most harps. Tight-tensioned strings produce a tone too bright for the comfort of many patients, especially when played at the bedside. Patients on morphine drips are especially sensitive to the bright sounds of a harp with tight tension."
- Christina Tourin Cradle of Sound: Harp Therapy Manual