Soothing strings

Click here to listen to an audio clip of the reverie harp.

EAST HARRIET — Over a year ago, Chaplain Ann Bergstrom came across a unique tool that’s since been quite helpful in her ministry at Walker Methodist Health Center and Elder Suites.

Here’s a hint: it has 22 ball-end guitar strings, a solid redwood soundboard, a solid cherry frame and weighs less than 5 pounds. Never heard of such an
instrument?

That’s because she uses a one-of-a-kind reverie harp, designed by a Stillwater folk instrument outfit to be used specifically for music therapy. The harp is small and lightweight, which Bergstrom said works well in her ministry with residents at the senior health center. Tuning the harp to the pentatonic scale, Bergstrom said, is a way to make sure anyone can make beautiful music.

“It’s tuned so it can’t play bad notes. So it can be played be someone who doesn’t have a musical background,” Bergstrom said. “The harp makes a really pleasing sound that just diffuses [stress] and brings calmness.”

She said that in some cases, senior residents aren’t able to hold the harp despite how little it weighs. Its accessible size, though, makes it easy to set on the resident’s lap. Bergstrom said residents love feeling the strings’ vibrations — which, Bergstrom said, are very healing.

Bergstrom said she provides pastoral care for a woman with arthritic hands who is also grieving the loss of most of her eyesight. The woman strums the harp with her fingernails because she is unable to move her hands very much. While making the harp’s placid sound, she joked to Bergstrom.

“I’m working to get my stroke smoother,” the woman said. Then she became serious. “I could do this forever.”

For Bergstrom, this kind of story demonstrates what the reverie harp, which was donated by a late resident’s family member, is all about — helping those with whom she shares the harp feel successful about making beautiful sounds. The harp’s inventors had a similar goal in mind.

The concept for the reverie harp began when Peter Roberts, an Australian who runs a nonprofit organization dealing with thanatology — the study or practice of end-of-life patient care — and music therapy, met with Jerry Brown and Matt Edwards of Musicmakers while staying in Stillwater after delivering a presentation at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester. At the time, Roberts was a customer of Musicmakers but envisioned a way for the company — which handcrafts build-it-yourself guitar, dulcimer, banjo and harp kits, among other folk music products — to create a harp that Roberts could bring to his patients and business contacts back in Australia.

Roberts was interested in designing a harp to be used specifically in music therapy — especially one that patients themselves could hold and strum. The three got started on the project, tried several prototypes, and through trial and error, came up with the latest incarnation of the reverie harp. Roberts is now a Musicmakers dealer in Australia.

“We’re kind of Peter’s hands in producing an instrument that he finds helpful,” Jerry said, though he also spoke of his company’s desire to help people. “And we’re benefiting from his pioneering and his ideas.”

Jerry credits music therapists and others like Bergstrom — who says she doesn’t claim to be a music therapist, but someone who uses the harp as a tool in her ministry — with creating amazing stories of bringing comfort and healing to people in need.

“Ann’s amazing,” Jerry said. “She does an amazing job. The harp is a perfect fit for her work.”

He also cited elementary school classrooms, including special education; maternity and OB/GYN wards — where nurses and mothers are playing the harps for newborns; and other hospitals as examples of places the instrument’s angelic sounds are being put to use.

“There’s been a big surge in harp music at hospitals and nursing homes. In intensive care wards, doctors or nurses can sit next to the patient’s bed and play the harp,” he said.

Jerry also said that doctors have been able to show that listening to the harp’s music can lead to slower heart rates and decreased blood pressure — evidence of the music’s calming effect on patients, nursing home residents and others. Jerry said the harp provides a great way for people to connect in these scenarios.

“In OB/GYN, with babies so premature they can’t be handled, parents have held the harp up and played it for their babies. The music is a way for them to interact,” he said.

As Walker Methodist resident Mary Pearl played the harp for the first time, she spoke about her love of music. As a young woman from a musically inclined family, Pearl toured the Midwest as a member of the Golden Echoes, a Gospel music group. She then went solo and sang at various churches in Iowa and Illinois, she said, in addition to learning to play the piano and drums.

“Music, it does something to you,” Pearl said. “It helps your brain. When I hear music, I feel it in my whole body.”

Sometimes, Bergstrom said, she plays duets on the reverie harp with residents. They sit knee to knee, each playing half of the instrument’s strings. Bergstrom said this is done not so much for comfort, but for engagement with the resident.

“There’s pleasure in seeing what happens — making it up as you go,” she said. “It’s a metaphor for life: we do the best we can with the notes we’re given. It’s not like printed music and having a goal of playing it perfectly.

“It’s to express what’s in here,” Bergstrom said with a hand on her heart. “As a chaplain, I try to let people’s spirit out, and that’s what this does.’”

Bergstrom said the harp has been very helpful for seniors suffering from dementia, chronic pain, worries or anything else that is a burden for them.

“The reverie harp brings them distraction from these burdens, as well as focus, joy and comfort,” she said.

Among the positive anecdotes Bergstrom associates with the harp is a Walker resident’s out-of-body experience. Sometimes, Bergstrom said, during her ministry with end-of-life residents, she’ll sit by the bedside, invoking the harp’s ethereal sound. This dying woman hadn’t been talking, but was aware and conscious, according to Bergstrom. Then the woman spoke.

“‘I’m up there,’ the patient said. And I said, ‘Where?’” Bergstrom remembered. “I asked her, ‘What do you see?’ And she said, ‘I’m looking down and I see you and me down here.’ I asked her, ‘Do we look happy?’ ‘Oh, yes,’ she said.”

That resident died a few days later, Bergstrom said, but the woman’s son was able to take comfort in that story, knowing his mother was happy at the end of her life. The sound of the harp facilitated that experience, Bergstrom said.

Another resident, also female, allowed Bergstrom, upon entering the room, to play the harp for her. She played for a while and asked the resident, “What word comes to mind?”

“Immediately, she said ‘Joy.’ So I asked her what else gives her joy, and she said, very clearly and emphatically, ‘Nothing,’” Bergstrom said. “She told me that her toes were curling and hurt a lot. So I asked her if I could play a little joy to her toes.”

Bergstrom went on to play the harp so its melodies were directed at the woman’s toes, and then to her hip, which the woman mentioned as another source of pain.

“The harp and its music didn’t fix her, but she got a respite from her pain for that moment,”
Bergstrom said.

Walker Methodist’s Director of Marketing and Community Affairs, Matt McNeill, said the harp, as part of the organization’s spiritual care and music component, has really excelled at helping ease the cumulative grief and anxiety on residents’ minds. For many residents, McNeill said, life changed quickly when they entered the health center, and many no longer live with loved ones. There is often a kind of loss of freedom, McNeill said — even the freedom to do something simple like grabbing the keys and driving home — that leads to some of this grief and anxiety.

McNeill also said that music triggers residents to talk, which is important in the final stages of life. It helps them engage with their families and themselves, and it allows residents to share stories and memories. Music at the Walker chapel on Sunday morning services also gives residents and their families a sense of community they might have lost by connecting them to shared past experiences of church, McNeill said.

“It’s an opportunity for them to connect outside the center — to the community, so they don’t feel like they’ve been isolated here,” McNeill said.

Contributing writer David Streier lives in the Kenny neighborhood.