[published in a private newsletter in September, 2013]
My work as a therapeutic musician brings me into contact with a range of people I do not usually meet in my social life. There have been fascinating conversations over the years about King David, the Psalms attributed to him, the spiritual properties of music and the harp in particular… a whole slew of topics I find myself discussing, quite off the cuff.
Sometimes, however, a connection is made that just knocks me over. One afternoon recently, I was playing quiet music to a variety of patients in the oncology ward of Shaare Zedek Hospital. Some people wanted cheerful, rhythmic music to mark the upcoming Jewish New Year [Rosh Hashanah]; others preferred meandering medieval tunes that are so old, they don’t really belong to any one ethnic group any more.
Working my way slowly down the corridor, from room to room, I never know whom I shall be greeting. Sometimes it is somebody I have been playing for over a long period of time (months or even years); sometimes it turns out to be somebody I know personally from the outside world. And sometimes it is somebody who gives me a big surprise.
The fourth room I played in on this particular occasion was occupied by a woman who was sitting up on her hospital bed, swinging her legs a little. She lit up when I began to play some Hassidic tunes. [The Hassidic community, divided into many independent sub-groups, is a ‘charismatic’ branch of ultra-Orthodox Judaism with roots in 18th-century Eastern Europe.] After a few melodies for Shabbat, I played one that is a firm favourite with many of my Jewish patients: Keli Ata, a setting of Psalm 118:28 – You are my God and I will praise You, my God, and I will exalt You.
The melody I played was composed by Rabbi Schneur Zalman (1745-1812). He is revered – as he was in his lifetime – as a mystic, philosopher and spiritual guide, an authority on halacha [Jewish religious law], a talmudist, a prolific writer, and a composer.
In the midst of all of this work, he founded the Chabad movement in Liadi, then in tzarist Russia. His followers called him Der Alter Rebbe (the Old Rabbi), among many titles and names. He had clearly been a child prodigy, having completed at age eight a commentary on the Torah based on the works of three great scholars of an earlier era. He is also said to have composed ten outstanding melodies, and Keli Ata is one of these. Often, when I play this in the hospital, even non-religious people begin to sing along. It’s one of the great Jewish classics.
Imagine my wonder, then, when I finished playing this lovely tune for the woman sitting quietly on that hospital bed. She beckoned me closer and asked if I knew what I had been playing. I mentioned the psalm and the popular title of its respected composer. “Yes,” she confirmed. “And I am one of his descendants.”
She was so filled up with this melody that she did not want me to play anything further at that time. It was enough for her, as she clearly was moved to think back to her remarkable ancestor. And I? I was speechless.
Harping for horses
[published in a private newsletter in June, 2012]
I have been playing therapeutic harp music for over eight years, having acquired certification through a distance course in the United States. I have given lectures about this kind of work and have written several articles on some of its aspects for the Harp Therapy Journal in the USA. There is always more to discover and learn, however, and nobody can cover it all. Each course (mostly in the USA) offers a different angle or focus, but ultimately it is in the field that one learns the most.
Over the years, when I have rehearsed at home or in some other private setting, I have noticed the reaction of pets to my singing and playing. Our late lovely tabby, Rebecca, used to snuggle into the soft lining of my harp bag or guitar case, or curl right up against my side and stay there for as long as I was making music. One time, at a cousin’s house, his dogs all came running in from the garden when they heard the music, and settled themselves at my feet. There is no doubt that it affected them.
Then, in 2010, I read an article that really fired my imagination: a woman in the USA had begun playing therapeutic harp music for horses and found it very beneficial to them. There are several stables and ranches around Israel, and I found myself wondering whether the locals (the four-legged kind) might also respond to the quiet reverberations of this kind of music.
My association with horses has been tenuous. I have always liked and admired them, but I was never one of those girls who became obsessed about them. To my delight, I learned that one of my great-grandfathers (my paternal grandfather’s father, I believe) served in the Russian Imperial Guard in the 19th century. The story in the family goes that the army was desperate for tall men. They must have been desperate to take a Jew at that time, but he was apparently very tall indeed. Sadly, I know nothing further about his story, but it is abundantly clear that he had two characteristics I myself never inherited: his height and his ability to ride a horse.
My own experiences with these beautiful creatures have been few, far between and — with one exception — rather uncomfortable. The exception occurred two years ago, soon after I had read that article about using music for horses. A local stable advertised a reduced rate for an evaluation lesson. I leaped at the chance. (My leap at the horse’s back was slightly less graceful, I have to admit.) It was a charming experience, and the horse accepted me very kindly. I would love to take further lessons, but this will have to wait until I win the national lottery.
Nonetheless, the memory of this one positive experience with a horse has remained with me. Imagine my joy, then, when I met someone at a party some weeks ago, and we got talking about our respective interests and professions. She has adored horses all her life; and when she and her husband moved here from Australia three years ago, they bought a house in a rural village and brought in three horses. They hire the animals out for lessons, and are interested in using them for therapy. I told her about my therapeutic work and about the article I had read. Would she be interested in a little experiment? It didn’t take much to convince her. I sent her the article the next day, she wrote back almost immediately, and a date was set.
First stop: the private house and ranch. There, in a sandy, fenced-off yard, stood three creatures who towered over me: a chestnut (glowing copper in the Middle Eastern sun), an Arab/appaloosa mix (with that fine Arab head and delicate dark gray speckles on a paler gray background), and a ‘painted’ (looking as if a modern artist had splashed tan and black on a white canvas). My hostess planted a sun umbrella in the middle of the yard, to protect both me and my prima donna harp, gave me a chair, and I settled in, unsure of what to expect.
The horses were curious about the odd structure standing in the middle of their usually bare yard, and came to taste the awning a little. Then they began to notice the music. I cannot say that anything dramatic happened, but it was clear that they were listening. Wherever they were — whether in the yard itself or back in their stalls — their delicate ears were firmly cocked in the direction of the sounds coming from my harp. Experimenting with the atmosphere, I played medieval and traditional tunes, improvisations in regular Western keys, and then some in medieval modes; and sometimes I simply let the wind play through the strings — an ethereal sound that no human hand can reproduce.
Within a few minutes, my hostess could see how still and relaxed the three horses had become. To experiment further, she got me to take a break after 30 minutes of straight playing. We watched the horses, and they began moving around much more. When I began playing again, some of them came and stood behind me, looking over my shoulder at my wondrous music-maker. This is the closest I have ever been to a horse when not attempting to mount or dismount, and I have to admit that I found it slightly daunting. I simply had to trust them not to trample me. I am here to tell the tale.
A little later, we went on to a large ranch down the road, where they keep some 25 horses. This time, I sat under a permanent awning that continued down one wall: the acoustics were wonderful, despite the strong wind that day. Many of the horses could get quite close, just beyond the railings. Some of them were clearly fascinated and stayed almost rooted to the spot for minutes on end, never turning their heads away. Some of the new mothers became so relaxed that the ranch staff thought they were practically asleep, and two of the foals simply lay down on the packed earth.
The staff were all delighted, and quizzed me about my therapeutic work and the ideas behind it. Pun unintended, it struck a chord with them all. The experiment was pronounced a success. I hope they act on my suggestion and hang a small harp up near the animals — to sing in the wind.
Little Bundles of Hope
[copyright Jill Rogoff 2012]
During my eight years of playing therapeutic harp in both private and public surroundings, I have always tried to find time to play in the NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit) at the Shaarei Zedek Medical Center. It has not always been possible: some days, the cancer units are simply overflowing; but it is with a delicate combination of joy and anticipation that I make my way towards the penultimate floor of the hospital, scrub my hands thoroughly, and tiptoe into the main room of the NICU.
There, I see truly tiny babies in incubators that are hooked up to noisy machines — each of them beeping somewhere around a B note — and adults in various coloured garments (pink for the volunteers, yellow or blue for family members, white for the staff), hovering and doing their best for each little person.
Babies have always appealed to me but, since becoming a grandmother to a very healthy little boy, the poignancy of the NICU has become particularly strong for me. I see each premature baby as a bundle of hope, some of whom are so tiny, I believe they might fit into the palm of my hand.
Because of all the machinery — and hospital rules, of course — I cannot approach too closely; but I stand or sit just inside the doorway, and let the music spread all over the room. If I had to work there all day long, I suspect the constant drip-drip-drip of the beeping machines would drive me crazy, so I try to alleviate any tension that the staff and visiting families may be feeling, spending hours with that amount of repetitive noise.
I set my harp levers for the G major scale and begin. I start with a long medley of Irish and Scots tunes in that key — more slowly than I would play in concert, but lively enough to add a gentle but positive beat that gradually embraces those mad beeps around the major third tone of G major. After a few minutes, the beeps slip into the background: they are loud enough for a staff member to hear, should they need to attend quickly to a baby, but playing in this key makes their insistence a little less aggressive, making them a part of the music. The staff and families relax a bit. This is Good.
After a while, I begin to improvise, keeping to G major and sometimes slipping into D major as well, if the mood takes me. Research into the therapeutic effect of live harp music on both premature babies has shown that they respond most clearly to the positive vibrations of the major scales and a regular beat just a touch closer to their own heartbeat than I would play for a recumbent adult patient. Studies over the past 30-odd years have shown that the babies absorb oxygen more efficiently with live harp music playing in the background. Recorded music can also have a positive effect, and I imagine that other quiet stringed instruments (such as guitar or lute) would also be beneficial. I feel very lucky to have a harp in my hands, and people always appear delighted when I wheel it into the unit.
In the other room, there are babies who have made it through the most dangerous phase, and are staying on in the NICU for a few days more, just to be sure that they are healthy and strong enough to go home at last. This is a much quieter room — much less of that pesky beeping. The families are calmer, too, and the hope of a happy return home is often much nearer to coming true, though some babies remain there for several months.
There have been people who have begun to hum along quietly to their baby, accompanying my playing. Others, whom I have met in the elevator returning to the lower floors, have told me that their child is now a few years old and coming along very well. In some cases, I have seen the little survivors for myself. In every instance, everyone in the elevator gets very emotional: what a joy! I am not allowed to ask for the names of the families or the individual babies in the NICU, and, as a result, I can never know which are the lucky ones who survive to go home to their loving families. It is clear that a certain percentage does not survive, but when I meet a former NICU patient, I am always overwhelmed with relief.
It is invariably hard to pack up and leave at the end of a session, but there is always another opportunity to look forward to.
[excerpt from an article published in the Harp Therapy Journal, Fall 2011]
During our training in various healthcare music programs, many of us have heard Jewish music mentioned fleetingly. Quite often, the tutor will say something along the lines of, “Here’s the Phrygian mode: this is the mode in which lots of Jewish music is played.”
Allow me to lay this misconception to rest: the Phrygian mode as we know it today consists of the following configuration (based on setting the harp to the C major scale): E F G A B C D E. In other words: half-tone, tone, tone, tone, half-tone, tone, tone.
The Jewish scale that people mistake for the Phrygian mode is called Ahava Raba or ‘Deep Love’. This is the name of a prayer recited daily in the Jewish morning service*, which is often sung in the scale: A B C D E F G# A. This means: tone, half-tone, tone, tone, half-tone, 1.5 tones, half-tone. It’s the 1.5-tone jump that gives the scale its distinctively emotional feel. As I usually tune my harps to the Western scale of Eb major (three flats: Bb, Eb and Ab), I often play Ahava Raba with the following notes: G A Bb C D Eb F# G. Same thing.
What this does resemble is the Phrygian dominant scale: E F G# A B C D E, or half-tone, 1.5 tones, half-tone, tone, half-tone, tone, tone.** The difference is that, in the Phrygian dominant scale, the 1.5-tone jump occurs between the second and third notes, and the dominant is E. In Ahava Raba, the jump occurs between the sixth and seventh notes, and the dominant is A. Naturally, this changes the harmonies that you use to accompany the melodies.
One of the interesting phenomena of this scale is that it is found in the music of both Ashkenazic*** and Sephardic**** Jews. This means that it was used, over many centuries, from Western-most Europe to the Middle East and North Africa. Using Ahava Raba, I can sing a lullaby in Yiddish from Poland; a love song in Judeo-Spanish from Spain; an ecstatic Sephardic song of praise for Jerusalem from Turkey, or Ashkenazic psalm-settings from the Ukraine.
In my therapeutic work, I adapt many of these well-known melodies to clinical settings. Even some of the bouncier ones can be gentled down to play for terminally-ill patients: of course, you need to judge this on an individual basis. Once you become familiar with a few of the most popular tunes, it’s very easy to segue from one to the other, and to improvise around them. When I am playing for a terminally-ill patient, I sometimes improvise a niggun (a spiritual melody) in this scale, and find that — because the scale is so familiar to people in this family of communities (in Israel, Jews, Muslims, Druze and Christians alike) — that even an unknown melody will bring comfort…
* The prayer begins, ‘Deep is Your love for us, abiding Your compassion…’
** for more details, refer to the following link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phrygian_mode
*** Jews from Central and Eastern Europe
****Jews from Spain and Portugal
Something to Celebrate
[published in the Harp Therapy Journal, Spring 2011]
Since 2004, I have been playing therapeutic harp in Israel, playing sometimes for troubled adults and for premature babies, but predominantly serving the community of adults suffering from various forms of cancer.
Over time, I have found myself playing for particular patients who — sadly — are regulars in the ward or the Oncology Day Centre. Some patients introduce themselves and then want to know about me in return. Others become very friendly but I never learn their names. I will play for some for months on end and then will not see them again, or they may only return after a long hiatus. It is impossible to know whether they have recovered completely, are in remission or have passed away, and this situation leaves me somehow holding my breath.
One gentleman I played for, for three years or so, is the husband of a former employer. He always greeted me very warmly, and told me plainly how much he appreciated the music. And then, suddenly, he was no longer at the hospital. I was worried. Having a personal connection with his wife, I considered calling her, but was afraid it would turn out to be inappropriate. Imagine my relief, then, when I saw him recently at a local supermarket, looking much healthier. When I expressed my concern, he told me that the new medications have worked wonders and that he’s well on the road to recovery; he no longer needs to attend regular sessions at the hospital.
It hit me then how seldom my colleagues and I witness such ‘happy endings’, however temporary they may turn out to be. We become fond of the patients, protective of them, and as concerned as the other staff, but there is an accompanying feeling of helplessness when we are unable to enquire about them.
Another ‘happy ending’ was shown me a few months ago. The elevator moving down from the top floors of the hospital was full, and — as often happens — there were the usual jokes about elevator music, and how I should just travel up and down all day, playing for everyone who gets in. A young woman was standing against the back wall, holding the hand of a little boy aged about four. He looked a bit delicate, but his speech was perfectly clear and appropriate for his (estimated) age. His mother asked me whether I had been playing in the NICU and, when I confirmed it, said to me, “You played for my son when he was a premie, four years ago. I have never forgotten your music and what it did for us while we struggled to bring him to health.” Needless to say, we both cried. What a joy!
I suppose it was predictable that I would become emotionally involved with patients. How good it is to be able to celebrate a positive outcome when it happens.
Some Reflections on Healing Music in Jerusalem
[An earlier version was published in the Harp Therapy Journal, Spring 2009.]
Since my first ‘session’ in the hospital nearly five years ago, I have always been struck by the response of many listeners, who immediately make the connection between King David and the harp. Some recall the Biblical episode in which the young shepherd plays soothing music for the depressed King Saul; others mention the Psalms. On one occasion, my playing prompted a patient to search in his personal copy of the Psalms for a particular reference to harps. He consulted several other religiously-observant Jews in the waiting-room, and they all seemed to enjoy the distraction of some intellectual activity. His response to the instrument, and his excitement and passion, caused general amusement and delight.
There are many situations in which I have wondered “Would this happen elsewhere?”. The religious mix here necessitates a sensitive approach. For a start, I dress in a way that will not offend the sensibilities of ultra-Orthodox Jewish patients and their families, ensuring that shoulders-to-knees are pretty well-covered, though I do not pretend to be religiously observant myself. If my mode of dress disturbs the patients, the music will not have the effect that I aiming for.
Because of the fraught socio-political situation here in Israel, so stickily intertwined with issues of faith and ethnicity, I also consider my therapeutic repertoire carefully. Some specifically Jewish tunes — e.g., settings of Psalms and prayers for healing — are for everyone. I definitely do not play Israeli songs with nationalist connotations — not for anyone. However, folk tunes, improvisations on modes and Middle Eastern scales, and medieval and Renaissance melodies, all provide me with plenty of material.
Another consideration is the tradition of kol isha (Hebrew for ‘a woman’s voice’). In some Orthodox Jewish communities it is considered inappropriate for a man to hear a woman’s voice in song. In private rooms, where I can shut the door, I have sometimes sung for patients and their visitors at their request. One ultra-Orthodox Jew asked me to play for his wife, who soon asked me to sing in Yiddish, the language of Eastern European Jews that is still widely spoken in their community. She loved the lullaby I sang. She proceeded to ask me personal questions, telling me that this was the first time she had ever spoken with a secular Jew. She felt that we had connected. We were both deeply moved.
Although I am predominantly a singer, I generally do not sing in the public areas of the hospital. It interests me, however, to realize just how flexible some religious traditions can be. A devout Jewish man once asked me to sing in a public area of the Oncology Day Centre. In fact, it was the eve of Tisha b’Av, a somber day of mourning and fasting for religious Jews, when listening to music is forbidden. Present there, as usual, was a mix of men and women, secular and religiously-observant Jews, and people of other faiths. When I expressed concern about both Tisha b’Av and kol isha, he said, “Ah, but this is not entertainment; this is for healing.” I wanted to hug him (forbidden, of course). In medical or therapeutic situations, strict customs may be set aside deliberately, in recognition of other needs. I sang for thirty minutes and then, to my joy, everyone began talking to each other. The music had helped to break down barriers. Afterwards, I simply floated home.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The informality in Israeli society (where you are addressed by your first name 99 percent of the time) spills over into medical settings. People may speak as loudly there as they do in the street, and they are sometimes interested in your business as well as their own. All this makes for an atmosphere that differs strongly from the hushed, more sedate settings which my studies had prepared me for; however, although there are times when I long for more quiet around the wards, I have become accustomed to much of it.
This casualness hits you in different ways. On one occasion, the head nurse at the nurses’ station began singing along with the medley of Jewish melodies that I was playing. Smiling, one of the patients came out of her room and also joined in. Gradually, other patients and visitors gathered around: the music brought joy and comfort to all who were listening.
In a small country like Israel and an intimate city like Jerusalem, finding unexpected personal connections is not uncommon. I have sometimes found myself playing for friends or the families of friends. A nurse on one of my regular ‘stops’ eventually discovered that we have family in common. It caused considerable hilarity on the ward, and one of the volunteers asked if she could please be in my family, too, because she loves the music so much.
I was once asked to play for a man with stomach cancer. After chatting for a few moments, he and his wife discovered that they knew some of my cousins. Even the director of the unit, it turned out, was an old friend of theirs, and he joined us in a long discussion about the informality in Israeli hospitals. When he needed to drain the patient’s stomach, he asked me to stay. I began to build a simple, spare pattern on the harp, playing for nearly an hour (keeping my eyes firmly averted from the procedure). Some days later, my lawyer called: he had just attended the patient’s funeral, and wanted to tell me that my playing and how much it had meant to the patient had been specifically mentioned.
Another day, a young woman — clearly due to give birth at any moment — asked if I would play for her husband in the Urology Department, where he was recovering from surgery. The patients gathered around as I began to play rhythmic-but-gentle Irish and Renaissance music, and the baby, quiet until that moment, began to dance in its mother’s belly. This became the focus of everyone’s attention. When I first entered the ward, I could sense the unhappiness and pain that the patients were feeling, and could see it in their faces; the baby’s response to the music brought joy instead, and I left them all smiling. I was smiling, too.– © 2009, 2011
Music Adds New Dose of Healing at Sha’are Zedek
[published on the Sha'are Zedek web-site in January 2007]
Walking through the halls of Jerusalem’s Sha’are Zedek Medical Center you’re bound to hear many of the sounds typically associated with a major hospital. Doctors and nurses on the phone, patients quietly interacting with visitors. Yet, as a result of a groundbreaking new therapy program taking place in the hospital, those sounds are now being joined by the melodious chords of the harp — an instrument with an ancient history connecting it to Israel’s capital which is today working to soothe the often–frayed nerves of patients, medical staff and visitors alike.
Part of an initiative by the local organization called Nevel: The Jerusalem Harp Network, several harp players can be regularly found in various departments around the hospital. Patients who serve to benefit from the music include those suffering from terminal illnesses, and the Hematology and Oncology wards are always included in the harp tours around the hospital.
According to Jill Rogoff, a professional singer and recording artist who co-founded Nevel and now uses her talents to the benefit of Shaare Zedek patients, harp music has a powerful therapeutic effect — particularly for patients coping with difficult prognoses. “In our work, the music itself is the therapy. While other quiet instruments are also effective in calming the spirit, the harp has proven itself particularly suitable for this work. Time and again, patients, visitors and staff have expressed their appreciation of the special comfort and serenity that this gentle instrument brings into their day.”
Therapeutic music has been endorsed by many medical practitioners as an important means of assisting patients to relax and get their minds away from pain. The harp program has received the enthusiastic support of Dr. Nathan Cherny, the Director of the Cancer Pain and Palliative Care Service at Sha’are Zedek and one of the world’s leaders in the area of palliative care.
Beyond just the wards where one would most expect to see music therapy being provided, the harp also makes regular appearances in the neonatology ward, where the musicians say that the soothing sounds of their instruments have been found to help premature infants in these critical stages of development.
According to Ms. Rogoff, there is a great deal of comfort for patients which can be represented through harp music played in the proper manner and setting: “While we can only play for a short while in each place, the effect of the music can linger for many hours afterwards, helping patients and staff alike to deal with the stressful situations in which they find themselves. Just as the medical teams try their utmost to ease their patients’ way, so do therapeutic musicians aim to ease the minds and spirits of those we encounter in our work.”
Harpers in Hospital Wards
[Published in a private newsletter in May 2006.]
I continue to train as a therapeutic harper in the course offered by American harper Laurie Riley. Over the past two years, I have been playing at the Sha’are Zedek Hospital up the road, and in recent months in its Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.
Recent research in the USA has shown that premature babies absorb oxygen more efficiently when a harp is played to them — not recorded music (though that does have a positive, if weaker effect), but a live harp. The vibration of string on wood seems to have a deep influence on these tiny creatures struggling to survive. So it is deeply moving and exciting for me to play for the babies, their worried parents and grand-parents, and the tense staff. My appearance in the ward is greeted with joy and relief.
A favourite moment was when an ultra-Orthodox [extremely devout Jewish] father began to sing along softly with my harp, as his wife gently fed their child. Another mother, stroking her baby’s skin as I played, encouraged her to listen to the music.
I find myself improvising in a slow 6/8 rhythm to the machines beeping around the room. I always play in the key of G, which is musically compatible with the B-note that the machines emit. In this way, the beeping becomes a part of the music and is immediately far less irritating. On some occasions, the improvisation will last for a full 15 minutes, before I move on to another piece.
On several occasions now, ultra-Orthodox men have spoken to me about the instrument, the music, or asked for a particular tune. Normally, they would never speak to me, as it is clear from my clothes that I am not of their community. Perhaps they allow themselves this measure of direct communication, seeing me as part of the staff or because I am doing what they consider to be a mitzvah [a religiously-sanctioned 'good deed']. I am happy that the music is breaking down traditional barriers.
I play, too, for people who are at the very end of their lives. It is impossible for me not to be moved by the distress of the family at their side. One woman, hovering over her fading husband, grasped my hands and searched my face, asking if the harp music would help him. I could only say that it would do him no harm, and that it is thought to help both spirit and body. She told me that he was already quite deaf, but I said that several people with experience in this work note that the ears are one of the last organs to fail: there was a good chance that her husband would still hear the music, even if only subliminally; and his body would certainly receive the vibrations from the instrument, even though we would not be able to see it. She accepted this and allowed me to stand in the corner of the room, playing quietly for some thirty minutes. After twenty, I noticed that the patient’s body was relaxing more, and so was his wife’s.
The staff who have encountered my colleagues and me have come to believe implicitly in the power of the music we play. When I have been away, some of the nurses tell me later that they have missed the music and need a regular ‘dose’ of it. Others are mildly annoyed when one of the patients refuses my offer of music. I have to tell them that this is absolutely the patient’s right; in fact, it may be the only thing they can refuse when they are in a helpless situation in a hospital. Other patients simply have not experienced this music, and may not realise how beneficial it can be. Increasingly, however, people are excited about the presence of the harp in the hospital, and anticipate our visits with pleasure.
We are now halfway through our course, and our enthusiasm isn’t waning. On the contrary, we are deeply encouraged by the positive response we are meeting everywhere we go. Long may it continue.
Playing therapeutic harp music
[published in a private newsletter in May 2005]
In September 2002, I helped found Nevel: The Jerusalem Harp Network with two other harp enthusiasts. Our circle has grown, both in numbers and scope. Apart from our musical agenda (workshops, concerts, etc.), we aim to use harps to reach out to underprivileged and at-risk youngsters, and — most immediately — to play for the sick and needy in hospitals and private homes. Our belief in the therapeutic properties of harp music has moved several of our members to begin studying to become certified therapeutic harpers, adapting one of the existing American courses to our local situation.
We have already received two harps from generous donors. The first of these sits permanently at Sha’are Zedek Hospital in Jerusalem, waiting for whichever of us visits next. My first one-on-one experience, a ‘field work’ requirement for the course, was playing recently for a Jewish woman, a former American, hospitalised in an oncology ward. This situation is always nerve-wracking for the musician: you can never be sure how someone is going to receive your music. We want to serve their needs by creating a serene, comforting atmosphere: this is neither entertainment nor an opportunity to show off.
Entering the room, I introduced myself by my first name alone. I asked the patient if she would like some music, and when she agreed, I urged her to stop me if it bothered her at any point. That point never came. I instinctively lowered my voice to a murmur when addressing her, and my harp-playing began at the same level. However, after a few minutes, she asked me to play a little more loudly. When her family began to gather, they indicated that they would like me to remain. Slow tunes are best suited to this situation, when the patient is lying on their back, possibly drifting in and out of sleep. I played several of my regular Celtic repertoire, but slowed each one down almost beyond recognition. Instinctively, you find yourself sticking more or less to the basic tune with the simplest of arrangements. Improvisation on a musical pattern or scale is even better. You play very rubato (without a set rhythm), letting notes linger through the room — the Aeolian harp effect. It is deeply relaxing and soothing — not just for the patient, but also for visitors and staff.
After 50 minutes, I rose to take my leave, not wanting to overdo it. I mentioned to her that I also sing, and that I would do so on my next visit if she would like that. One of her sons immediately requested that I sing something in Hebrew before I leave. I was a little stumped: my usual Jewish repertoire on the harp is in Ladino (Judeo-Espagnol). Note to myself: I need to quickly learn to play some Hebrew and Yiddish tunes on the harp for such situations. After a minute’s careful deliberation, I thought of the evergreen Erev shel shoshanim (An evening of roses) and sang a verse and chorus for the whole room, to their evident delight. I was quite exhausted after the session, but happy that I was able to do what I had set out to do.
Because of the different ethnic and religious sensitivies of patients here — Jewish or non-Jewish, Israeli or Palestinian, devout or not, men or women — we have had to think out our repertoire with particular care. This work is physically draining, but when a session goes well, when the patient and everyone else around them is soothed by the magic of the harp, the player feels deeply thankful for having been able to help in this small way.