RoJean Loucks, BS, MS, CMP
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Purchased for my own entertainment, to share with our children and grandchildren in the privacy of our home, that little 22-string harp arrived out of tune, feeling awkward and unfamiliar in my arms. As I gradually learned the tuning and playing intricacies needed to produce pleasing sounds, friends learned of this new musical venture, and begged me to play for them.
Easing the stress of a friend dealing with a damaged relationship and another recovering from breast cancer; summoned by a hospitalized neighbor, restless and unable to sleep following surgery; accompanying my elderly mother into the impersonal cubicle of the pre-op ward; and visiting a frightened colleague who’d given birth ten weeks early, all with a harp in my arms and music in my soul, gave me a deep respect for the healing power of music.
Simply leaning the instrument against my body and strumming an undefined melodic sequence brought peace and calm to my own spirit. No other musical experience in my previous forty-plus years ever eased my stress as this instrument did!
I packed my little harp in the car for a weekend family reunion and when the high energy of the gathering felt overwhelming, I strolled outdoors and sat on the bank of a small stream plucking simple melodies on the harp. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a small dark mass in the water at my feet, but when I stopped playing and looked in that direction, it simply disappeared. I resumed playing and the dark swirling reappeared. This time I continued to play and identified the mass as a school of little black fish circling near the bank. And when the music ceased, the fish swam away.
It would be a few more years before I understood that those fish were responding to the vibrations of the plucked strings resonating through my body, into the ground upon which I sat, and on into the water in which they swam. My friends, likewise, had responded to the resonating vibrations produced by the plucked strings.
These experiences were among many that motivated me to further explore the growing applications of therapeutic music, and led me to enroll in the Music for Healing and Transition Program (MHTP), a program accredited by the National Standards Board for Therapeutic Musicians. I wanted to learn specifics: 1) why does a favorite tune work in one circumstance, for example, but become a hindrance in another?; 2) what are the situations that call for playing the lower octaves, when upper octave music could actually be harmful?; and 3) how does one determine optimum tempo of the music for each patient? MHTP is one of a handful of accredited programs certifying musicians to serve the ill and dying with live music facilitating and promoting healing or to assist in the life/death transition, and was my choice for learning the answers to these and other questions.
During my MHTP internship with the skilled care nursing department of our local hospital, I was mentored by an experienced therapeutic musician, and supervised by the hospital staff nurse in charge of the department. She was so favorably impressed with the positive results of music intervention in the healing process of patients (and reduced stress of staff during the hours I played for them) that she wrote a grant for the hospital foundation to fund a part-time position for my work to continue when my internship and training were complete.
It was the beginning of a new focus in my life, and I resigned my fulltime position with the school district to embark on a therapeutic music career. Two weeks after my resignation, my husband was diagnosed with late-stage multiple myeloma (and subsequently put on permanent medical disability), and we learned the foundation grant would not be funded, due to new budget restraints. The following months were full of soul searching amid cancer treatments; they also proved the tenets of the therapeutic music for us, personally applied.
During intense pain, my husband could only tolerate, and gain pain relief, from improvised unfamiliar music, mostly played in the lower octaves of the harp’s range. By this time, I was playing a larger folk harp, with more strings affording a larger musical range. Through sleepless nights, it was harp music that relieved my own stress and subsequently calmed my husband into restful slumber. It was also a time when new tunes emerged through my emotional pain, played out as my response to our shared journey.
Shortly after the final cancer treatments, I co-wrote a successful grant through a community foundation to provide therapeutic music for local hospice patients. When the grant funding ended, the hospice organization deemed the music project valuable enough for me to continue on a contract basis.
One-on-one, I have been privileged to take my harp into the homes of individuals dealing with end-of-life issues. When they are lucid, I play favorite tunes that frequently evoke memories they can process with family members. When they are experiencing pain, I adapt the music to ease the discomfort and offer emotional release, timing my stroking of the strings with their breathing patterns. And in the final transition from life to death, I provide a sonic bath of improvisational arrhythmic melodic flow so that they are not held in the moment but allowed to let go.
It is delightful to note that the harp brings pleasure to client and family alike. Sometimes it provides a needed distraction from the heaviness of the moment; an otherwise nonresponsive patient may nod, smile, wiggle toes or tap fingers to the music. Frequently the harp music evokes tears – of joy or sorrow – to others gathered in the room. The therapeutic effects often resonate with family members, bringing them relief and even joy, an unexpected bonus.
I’ve come full circle with the whole process. Following recent major surgery, I found the little harp I’d brought along to the hospital felt awkward and uncomfortable to hold. Limited mobility and various tubes attached to my body became obstacles, and it seemed the harp would not bring me the comfort I had anticipated. However, our young granddaughter came to visit me, picked up the harp and sat playing her own variations on familiar tunes. I drifted into a sweet and restful slumber, bathed in the music of love.
The Author: RoJean Loucks, BS, MS, CMP, is a lifelong musician, singing from her early childhood years, beginning piano lessons at the age of six, and adding flute and organ a few years later. Her discovery of the folk harp in midlife launched a whole new career path. In addition to playing for hospice patients, she currently teaches beginners on the harp, composes and arranges music for harp, and provides music for weddings, festivals, memorial services, and other community events. Singing in her church choir, facilitating a community grief support group, and spending time with her husband, children and grandchildren bring fulfillment to her life. Her BS is in secondary education; MS in early childhood education, and CMP (certified music practitioner) is through the Music for Healing and Transition Program (MHTP), a program accredited by the National Standards Board for Therapeutic Musicians.
For more information visit: www.roharps.com and www.musicforharp.com and www.therapeuticmusician.com
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