TOWSON, Md. (AP) Across the country, more harpists can be seen at the bedsides of the dying.
In a small but growing movement, the musicians are receiving medical training to play for those living their final moments.
The practice has its roots in an 11th-century Roman Catholic monastery, where monks kept watch at the bedsides of their dying brothers, singing until after the final breath was drawn.
Patients, relatives and physicians say the harp sessions bring the same comfort, soothing pain and fear, helping patients sleep, consoling families.
“The music touches a place within us that’s not physical,” said Annie Burgard Kumar, a harpist who has been working with patients at St. Joseph Medical Center in Towson for the past few years. “There is a presence that the music brings a reverence, a peacefulness.”
The musical selections are unfamiliar to most people Gregorian chants, medieval music, sometimes lullabies. The music-thanatologist plays differently depending on the circumstances. It’s called “prescriptive” music, and it’s directed toward the patient’s emotional, spiritual and physical state.
Since ancient times, the harp has been a symbol of healing, gods and kings. In many cultures, the harp was a revered instrument, played only by noblemen or chieftains. Harps and harpists were even buried in tombs with kings to provide for a desirable afterlife.
Over time, a type of musical medicine evolved, and practitioners passed down knowledge about how music, and harps in particular, aided in healing.
But by the end of the Middle Ages, people turned their backs on this practice as nonscientific, said Fred Paxton, professor of history at Connecticut College. He’s been studying the elaborate death rituals of Roman Catholic monks in the monastery of Cluny, France, in the 11th century.
When a member was dying, all 300 monks would gather in a circle around that person to sing prayers and chants.
“Death is a transition, an important moment in the biography of all of us. It should be met with beauty and spirituality, and this music does it,” Mr. Paxton said, referring to music-thanatology.
He teaches students at the Chalice of Repose Project in Missoula, Mont. Founded by a woman who drew on the Cluny practices, the school is a two-year, graduate-level program in music and medicine. It isn’t under the auspices of any religion.
Since the project started training harpists several years ago, music-thanatologists have worked around the United States and the world, playing at vigils for patients in many different situations, including burn victims and patients who attempted suicide.
These harpists have often been present while a respirator is turned off or as a mother rocks a dying baby one last time.
The connection between harps and healing has broadened nationwide, as an increasing number of harpists are using their music to help the chronically ill.
People with neurological disorders, anxiety or stress get “musical massages,” in which the harp’s sound vibrates against certain spots on their bodies. Other patients, with problems such as traumatic brain injury, are learning to play the harp as a means of therapy.
“You’re actually hugging it against your chest. It vibrates through your body,” said Sarajane Williams, a nurse and psychologist who plays the harp and started the Harp Therapy Journal to document the instrument’s healing effects.
Physicians and nurses at St. Joseph who were initially skeptical said they’ve been won over.
Ann Kennedy, the St. Joseph nurse who coordinates the care of dying patients, said they have documented cases in which patients who had been unable to sleep because of uncontrolled pain slept for six to eight hours after a vigil. Other patients pass away during vigils.
“In the beginning, there was a lot of snickering, but boy, they are sold on it now,” Miss Kennedy said.