Pulling On Heart Strings


Jacquelyn Brown

"Juliette" by Gustav Courbet

I have been playing the harp since 1990 and found the soothing, comforting and healing vibrations of the harp are personal therapy for me. Most harpists and harpers feel the same way. There is a unique calm, a peacefulness that permeates every cell and dimension of the player. Performers are never quite the same after a session on the harp. Listeners echo this, whether it's on the concert stage, retreat, or hospital bedside.

There is something profound about the vibrational energy that comes from harp strings when pulled with the intention of being fully present in the moment. The resonant properties of a vibrating harp string produce frequencies that are in and beyond our hearing range. These harmonics travel infinitely, into dimensions that most of us do not comprehend. Our spirits, minds, emotions, and bodies are affected. We know instinctively that we need more, we don't want it to stop. One feels better for having heard the live harp music.

Several years ago, I felt called to bring harp music to the bedside of suffering people. When I called the local hospitals and asked if they would like gentle harp music, I was told, "we can't have wandering minstrels in the halls."

Actually, I agreed with them. I secretly wanted to be by the bedside, not just in the halls anyway. So, was I to give up this calling, this dream? For a while I let it go.

Then I was asked to play the harp music on the award-winning palliative care video titled Not A Day Goes By. This is the story of a brave London woman who died of cancer. Their frightening and lonely hospital experience is told by her very eloquent husband. He relates how on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day, not a soul came to visit, to help ease the pain of their coming toward death.

I was so touched by their story and the process of creating the music that would play behind the words of her husband. It was the spark that I needed to persevere with my dream.

I approached palliative and pastoral care boards with ideas and proposals. I scrambled to take hospital clinical pastoral education training and harp therapy training when I had already set up a concert touring schedule.

I knew that I "should" be on the road for two years with the new release of my second harp recording if I wanted to "be successful." That's what people were telling me. But after a short tour I found myself reevaluating the idea of what success meant for me.

I still struggle with what the world deems as success and what my spirit believes. At the time I just had to walk through those doors when they were opened to me. And that has been my style of journeying. Walk on through... for the moment may never pass this way again.

I believe the main goal of harp therapy is to enhance the quality of life. It is for me the reason I want to be by the bedside. It also helps to support transition, letting go, empowerment, relaxation, rehabilitation, socialization, process.... Harp music has the potential to help meet some of the special physical, emotional, psychological, social and spiritual needs of people during illness or transition. It has been my experience that live harp music pulls on the heart strings of the patient, their loved ones, and on the caregivers.

I use two sizes of harps for this process - a small lap harp of 25 strings and a larger 38-string folk size harp. For special transition work I prefer to use the larger harp for the deep bass notes. My lap harp is used more in the lighter situations. Staff, patients and family members who want to experience playing the instrument usually move to the larger harp. Soft singing with harp music is used only when requested. A mid-to lower-range voice is very soothing and comforting.

My harps are "user friendly." That I think is the added bonus. Once people realize you are not there "to entertain" or "give a concert," you can invite people to journey with you through a unique process in a peaceful, trusted environment of sound, imagery, life review, tears, conversation, laughs and silence. Many people have secretly desired to play harp and when a musician or a practitioner frees himself from the fear of instrument damage, there are beautiful rewards. Yes, there have been broken strings and, yes, sometimes the harp gets extra scratches, but the smiles and genuine joy of the person who has this first time experience is a treasured memory for all.

One such beautiful memory is of an Old Order Mennonite midwife, plainly dressed with her hair cupped in a white prayer bonnet, running her fingers along the harp strings with such sighs of relief at 4:30 in the morning. We had just finished a five-hour team journey in candlelight and harp music as we transitioned with a mother in birthing her second child. I was holding this lovely, fresh new male child as mom and dad brought in their little girl to see the new addition to their family. Harp notes and joyous laughter were heard ringing through the halls.

A little taste of heaven. That's what intrigues me about the transitions of birthing and dying. You are as close to the other side as you can get without being there. You get the taste of it, the feel of its mystery right in your bones.

For the last few years I have been journeying at the bedside of dying patients. It has been my main focus, my original dream.

The seed planting for this dream began when I survived a violent experience that brought me near death. I was 19. When my spirit crossed over, I found myself vibrating through a long, peaceful tunnel toward another reality that seemed familiar. I often long for this "home" feeling. When I play certain notes on my harp, it immediately puts me there - close to the other side - heaven - home.

                       INTO DARKNESS

                        Be still... my soul...  for we shall be set free
                        from pain and death.
                        I give my anguished body unto you
                        in life and breath.

        Chorus:    I hear the church bells chime
                        ringing out the Divine.
                        I feel the church bells chime
                        echoes of the Divine... Presence...

                        Angels guard my bed,
                        when the reaper comes to call.
                        Hold me safe and close.
                        Oh, my body must not fall
                        into darkness... into darkness...

                        I'll leave behind my loved ones, oh so dear,
                        with suffering hearts.
                        Yet peace and freedom beckon at my door
                        'Twill pierce my heart.

                        Carry me through death
                        on your feathers soft and white.
                        Through the darkness deep
                        I see glimmerings of the light of tomorrow...

                        "Come unto me,
                        all ye who are weak and heavy laden,
                        and I will give you, rest."

harp music & lyrics © Jacquelyn Brown 1995


Into Darkness - Earth * Air * Fire * Water CD - September 1995

As an on-call chaplain and a practitioner of harp therapy, I have transitioned with many patients and families. This is a walk along a mysterious path. It is the path of compassion.

My own heart strings have been pulled and stretched in many ways, till I thought they might shred and snap like the gut strings of my harp. Luckily, you can change harp strings, but you can't change the strings of a heart.

I see many hearts break right in front of me. But somehow you find the love, the deep compassion that brought you to this place, this present experience. You walk through the tinge of fear. You call on all of your= faith, all your training, all your life experience and you make yourself fully present in that moment that is often life changing for that family.

This is sacred ground....

One experience that graced me with possibilities happened when I was wearing two hats, both the chaplain hat and the harp practitioner hat on the same ward. A verbally crusty old gentleman nearing death taught me a lot about letting go. Initially he used to flick his hand at me and tell me that the only angels he wanted to see around him were his wife and granddaughter. He clearly didn't want me near him. My harp reminded him that death was closing in on him. Gently each visit he grew to accept my presence and harp music. We moved all the way from "bug off" to him talking to me, to him walking down the hall and listening to me play, to him touching the harp strings, to him asking me to play harp for him over lunch at his bedside, to his sharing about his fears of dying, to his accepting death. After a two-week absence, he returned for his last few days. He was no longer able to speak. I spent a while with him asking him if he would like me to play by his bedside. He gently squeezed my hand and I told him I'd be down shortly. Later, after checking with his wife who had been resting, she said her husband had said two words. With all his strength he had said, "harp, harp" to his wife. She couldn't believe it. We spent a lovely, tender time together, this soft hearted man and his dear wife and the harp music. Next day at his time of death, I was called in as on-call chaplain. I marvelled at how far he had come, at how much he had taught me.

More recently, I played harp for two meaningful services - a memorial and a funeral.

As artist in residence at St. Paul's Anglican Cathedral, London, Canada, I played for a Diana, Princess of Wales memorial, just a couple of hours after the televised funeral. A thousand weeping and grieving people sat in front of me as I set the tone with a half hour prelude of harp music. I sat right beside the table with her picture on it as people were bringing flowers in honor of her. I thought to myself, "if I can do this - survive playing through this deeply sad and vulnerable experience with so many grieving persons - then I can do almost anything."

Well, the "almost anything" came just four weeks later when I played at the funeral of my oldest nephew who died at the age of 24. It was the first time I wept openly as I let the harp music vibrate its healing tones through my own body, mind, spirit and emotions as people gathered for the funeral. After, I played "The Winds Of Love" as I watched my three sons help carry out his casket. Tom was special to me, again another teacher. He taught me so much about courage as we journeyed in conversation in the last months of his life.

Sometimes harp music is there for the patient, sometimes it is there to= create a calm atmosphere for loved ones, and sometimes it's there just for= yourself.

Yes, live harp music has a way of pulling on your heart strings.

Jacquelyn Brown lives in London, Ontario Canada with her husband, three sons and one daughter. She is a troubadour harpist, singer-songwriter, harp therapy practitioner, and artist in residence. Having had rickets, she has= experienced the arts as therapeutic and spiritual from her earliest memories. A former dancer and gymnast, she now focuses her energy into performance and harp therapy. Her original music deals with the heart's response to life, nature, healing, and spirituality. Jacquelyn has two recordings to date: Awakening... the breath of life and Earth Air Fire Water.

web site: http://www.jacquelynbrown.com/
email: bcp@jacquelynbrown.com

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