Last September, a brief article published in the Daily Mail entitled “Natural Painkillers” echoed the interesting results of an American study saying that music, harp music in particular, can reduce pain in patients undergoing treatment. It is not rare that such studies show the impact of music in that matter. The results are such that some hospitals have now a harp therapist among their staff, and programs, such as the International Harp Therapy Program, have been set up in many countries. As an introduction to the subject, we asked the harp therapist Anouk Platenkamp to tell us what a day playing the harp in hospital is like.
Anouk Platenkamp: It’s the middle of the afternoon when I enter the care facility that I have been going to on a regular basis for the last few months. The surroundings are familiar to me now: nurses walking around, busy caring for their patients, family visiting their loved ones and patients walking in the hallways going to visit their kin. I pass an in-house hairdresser that is always buzzing with energy and many different living rooms, where patients sit together, playing games, reading books, doing crafts or watching TV.
On my way to my appointment I pass many locked doors, all can be opened with a code, in order to keep patients from wandering off and getting lost. It’s the one thing that makes it clearly visible: this is a facility for people with dementia.
The woman who comes out to greet me is an activity councillor. She usually organises group activities like games, storytelling or live music, but today she wants me to visit some individual patients, one in particular. The activity councillor explains the situation, her voice sounding troubled: “we have been trying to find something to do for this patient. She can no longer walk or talk; her dementia is in the last stages and she can only lie in bed all day. The trouble is that she has also gone blind, which makes her afraid of everything around her. You can see it happening: she starts by shuffling her feet and when no action is taken she will get very agitated and start yelling. Taking her out to one of the special activities for bed-ridden people is no option, because she gets agitated if we move her. On top of that she doesn’t get many visitors anymore…”.
She goes into the room and introduces me: “there is a lady here to visit and she brought her harp with her, we thought you might enjoy the music”. We don’t get any reaction, but the activity councillor indicates to me that it’s okay. When I sit by her bedside I can see the lady is getting agitated with all the different sounds around her, I imagine it must all be very confusing when you can’t see what is happening. So I start by playing one string very softly and watch for her reaction. There is none. Softly I begin to play an unfamiliar but soothing tune in a mode that will usually calm people (a mode is a type of scale coupled with a set of characteristic melodic behaviours). Her reactions are small, but she turns her head towards me and her face seems to relax a little.
After a while I make a small stop, to continue with a different mode, and there it is: her face tenses and she starts shuffling her feet under the blankets. Time to go back to the original mode I played in. I stay there for half an hour, playing softly while the lady listens, at a point you can see she is so relaxed she almost drifts off to sleep, but she tries to fight it and stay awake to listen to the music. When she finally does fall asleep I continue for a short while and then quietly leave the room. The activity councillor is thrilled: she has not seen such a reaction from this lady in a long while, and we agree that I will come back and play for her again.
[Read more on Anouk Platenkamp on the Edinburgh International Harp Festival’s blog]