CelticHarpBlog: On your website, you mentioned the results of an American research saying that 71% of the patients in hospital breathe easier, 84% felt less anxious and 63% experienced less pain when listening to harp. How does Harp Therapy work?
Anouk Platenkamp: Playing therapeutic music is all about the reaction you get from a patient. Music can be a small escape from their daily lives that are in many cases filled with confusion and/or pain. It can also give a shared experience with their family or caregivers; it makes it easier to connect together. The music is improvised, fitted to the person you play for. The reaction that music can get from people is amazing and makes for a very intimate experience. In comparison, there is not so much time to get this reaction from the public at a concert, also because the musician is focused on his/her performance.
The musical effects
Music has different effects depending on the modes you play, but no two people are the same and their reaction is different. I start by choosing a mode to play in based on the first impression of the person I play for. There is a mode that will relax the listener, a mode that can be very touching and even a mode that will lift the spirit. You need to adapt your music to the moment.
Then there is the tempo. You can try to fit it to a person’s breathing. Slowly taking the tempo down a bit helps the people to relax more deeply. Again, it is very important to observe the patient’s reactions: is it too soft for them? Do they prefer listening to the lower strings of the harp or perhaps to the higher strings? Many times you can also find a specific tone that best fits the person you play for. It’s a tone that resonates with the person: the resonant tone. As a musician you might have already experienced this yourself, because you might prefer pieces in a specific key over other pieces.
One of my strongest experiences of resonant tone was when I played for a boy with severe mental and physical handicaps. He could not eat on his own and had to be fed through a stomach-pump, which was not a very pleasant experience for him. He was only relaxed when I played on the highest notes of my harp, particularly the high F and G, and although to me it did not quite sound like music. If I played something else he would be moving and making noise, while if I played those two notes he would be calm and listening, even smiling.
Sometimes people tell me beforehand that a patient likes certain types of music or maybe a particular song. When there is time to prepare beforehand this can be a good thing, but therapeutic music means to have some tunes ready to play at any moment. Once in hospital, a man asked if I could play for his wife. She was in such a fragile state, that no one was allowed in her room except when wearing special gear. They had heard me play in the hallway and his wife had wondered if I knew how to play Greensleeves, because they both had strong memories with that song. I stood at the doorway and played, while they held hands inside the room and had an intimate moment together.
The social aspect
In such places, we forget sometimes that these people are humans before being patients. In my opinion, the social aspect is more important than what illness the person has. When playing for people who are able to communicate, a conversation normally occurs. Most often about music or the harp; sometimes they will tell me about memories that the music stirs in them. We hardly ever discuss their illness, although when playing in a hospice, sometimes people will talk about their impending death and how they would like to be remembered. I am not there as a doctor, treating their physical illness, but as a person and musician bringing them some respite from their condition.
Even when people are unable to respond to me, I will always introduce myself and tell them why I am there; it’s a common courtesy. In observing them, it’s not the illness that I look for, but their response to what I am doing. That way I am trying to make a connection with the person in front of me.
When a patient is unable to communicate directly, it helps to get some information from the family and the staff. Even small details about their taste in music or their profession, their personality before they became ill can make a big difference in connecting with them. Doing this sort of work isn’t so much about playing music, it is more about listening to the person in front of you and making a (musical) connection.
An expected recognition
Many countries have developed some form of music therapy, but this usually involves getting a university degree which is specific for the country. The training for this type of work is much more extensive than the one offered in therapeutic music courses. There are many different types of music that are played “at the bedside”, very often by volunteers, some trained as a musician or therapist and some untrained. Unfortunately, there is no official recognition for this type of work. Therapeutic harp music falls in the “bedside music” category.
In Europe any training programs that exist are usually individual programs. That doesn’t mean that it’s not a good idea to get some training. At the very least, it will show to any potential clients that you are dedicated to what you do and it will also make you able to share your experiences and benefits with other harp therapists. Maybe in the future it will become such a big movement that official courses will be organised everywhere. For now, we are all still pioneering.
CHB: next month, you will be giving a workshop on Harp therapy during the Edinburgh International Harp Festival. Could you tell us briefly what you are going to do?
AP: The focus of the course will be on one of the most important things while playing therapeutic music, which is the capacity to adapt your music to the situation. We will work on how to start improvising in the different modes that I mentioned before, using left hand patterns to keep rhythm. Participants will learn about the effect that the modes can have on people and how to start using them to create music for the person for whom you are playing. We will also discuss repertoire choice when playing familiar music. The emphasis will be on adapting music to the specific person/group. It is not necessary to have many years of experience playing the harp; the material presented in this course is new to a lot of people and will challenge advanced players as well as beginners, at a personal level.
[Thanks to Mair Sethi for proofreading this interview]