Harp is Medicine for the Soul
Local Harpists Provide Music that’s Medicine for the Soul
The old woman had been a daughter, a sister, a wife, a mother, a nurse and a widow over the course of her 76 years. Now she lay in a metal bed in a Lynnwood nursing home, as a cancer patient, and accepted the gift of harp music brought to her by two strangers.
At first, she fidgeted and moved to get up. A lifetime habit of offering lemonade to guests was hard to break. But as she submitted to the music, her arm fell across her chest, her hand rested against her neck, her eyes turned to the window where purple paper flowers were glued to the pane, where green leaves brushed the glass outside.
The music, beautiful and soothing, let her reflect on a full life - an Alabama childhood, a long and happy marriage, the death of her son, the birth and bloom of her daughter.
“Oh, it’s so sad sometimes. But that’s how life is. . . and I have had a good life.”
The use of music to comfort the sick and the dying is ancient and its benefits well documented. Physicians say the heart rate slows, breathing clears and rest comes when calming music is played to the ill. The Greeks knew it. The Celts knew it, and medieval monks knew it, using chants to bring what they called a blessed death. But the practice was nearly forgotten in modern times as societies became disconnected from the spiritual significance of death. Now, musical medicine is experiencing a renaissance. Though not yet mainstream, the practice of playing harps for the ailing has been revived, with numerous schools and training workshops opening around the country. Jeri Howe, 45, and Gary Plouff, 48, met in 1994 when they became part of the second graduating class of one such school in Montana. Over the past few years, they have together and separately played hundreds of vigils. They carry their harps down the darkened hallways of hospices, trauma centers and nursing homes to the bedsides of the dying, where they play and sing. They give comfort and reassurance. They gain enlightenment. “We’ve learned that life is holy,” said Howe. ” That life is fragile and precious and temporary. And we’ve learned that there is something more, something sacred and eternal, too”. “Our culture hides death away, and you can live your whole life without seeing someone die. But to see it, to witness it and to know that it doesn’t have to be scary, to know that there is transcendence, is an honor.”
Plouff remembers an elderly woman in a hospice in Montana. He and another harpist were with her in her room. He knelt down by her bed. He held her hand, stroked her cheek and sang. As she died, he felt her spirit pass out through the window, into a meadow of wild flowers and the world beyond. Plouff remembers playing in a room filled with people who were saying goodbye to a 17-year-old boy. As Plouff played, they embraced and prayed and cried together, and the love that they had for the boy, who was dying of leukemia, moved Plouff.
Howe remembers a woman about her own age who was dying of breast cancer. As Howe plucked her harp in the woman’s West Seattle home, the woman died. Her mother and sisters surrounded her. “It was beautiful and peaceful. The sun was setting on the one side, and the moon was rising on the other. She picked a perfect moment to die.”
EMBRACING THE HARP
Howe was a stay-at-home mother with a toddler and a newborn, a husband and a house in Shoreline when she bought her first harp to play lullabies to the baby. She was already an accomplished pianist and took to the harp naturally.“It’s so beautiful and fun to play and it feels so good when you wrap your arms around it,” she said.
In 1991, she was asked by her church, the United Methodist Church, to play at a retreat for people living with AIDS. “Their bodies were wasting away to nothing, and they could hardly walk. But they would come and lie down by the harp to receive the music. I could see the need and the thirst. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I knew that it was something.” Shortly after, she read about the school in Montana that calls itself The Chalice of Repose Project, and she knew, though it would take her several years to get there, that she had to attend.
Plouff was working as a caregiver for the terminally ill in Eugene when he, too, read about the Chalice Project. Originally from Massachusetts, where he’d played the church organ as a young man, he had moved to New York in the 1980s, during the emotional height of the AIDS epidemic, to study photography at New York University. He got his degree and, as a result of the crisis, also became deeply involved in caretaking and healing techniques. “I knew that I was called to help people in need, to work with the dying. . . . I ended up in Eugene, working as a caregiver but not really knowing why I was there,” he said. “Then I read an article about the Chalice Project, and it called to me deeply.” Unlike Howe, he had not played the harp before he arrived at the school. The moment he did, though, he said, “Where have you been all my life?”
MORE THAN MUSIC
Along with their classmates in the two-year program, Howe and Plouff studied epic literature, music, medicine, pharmacology, anatomy, social work and voice. They did research and wrote papers about ancient rituals surrounding death and dying. They practiced and played until callouses formed on the tips of their fingers. Howe commuted from Montana to Seattle to see her husband and her little girls during her tenure at the school, and she returned home upon graduation in 1996. Plouff, who had no lasting ties to Eugene, moved to Seattle that year as well, where he now lives on Capitol Hill. Requests for their services come from social workers, spouses, doctors, daughters and chaplains. The charge for an hour-long session is flexible, depending on the means of the dying and their loved ones. The two have never denied a request for service and often have gone unpaid. Though it’s not a lucrative calling - Plouff works a second job taking care of an elderly couple - its rewards are profound.
MEMORIES SET TO A MELODY
At Lynnwood Manor, Sara Hansen brushed tears from her eyes after Howe and Plouff played “Garten Mother’s Lullaby” and “Jesu dulcis” for her. She talked about her little boy, David Eugene Hansen, who died of cancer when he was 4. She talked about her husband, whom she met during World War II while he was in the service and with whom she moved to Marysville, then Everett, then Arizona. “We made a good marriage of it.” She talked about her parents. Her dad was tall, her mom was very short, and they raised four midsized daughters in a poor but peaceful home. She talked about her daughter, her grandchildren and her one great-granddaughter who lives over the mountains in Spokane. She gave Howe and Plouff a hug before they left. “I wish I had something to give you,” she whispered.
But she already had.