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Song of the Heart

CVI's Harpist Heals Hearts with a Different Instrument

Nancy Kleiman, BIDMC harpist

Most patients in a cardiac intensive care unit (ICU) are facing serious conditions. While hospitals provide continual care and monitoring in these settings, there are times when apprehension, fear, or pain escalates.

"Our ICU patients and their families have usually been experiencing great amounts of stress," says Jeri Willner, Unit Coordinator of the Cardiovascular ICU at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. "They are exhausted and often at their lowest mental and physical point."

That's the point when Willner calls on the CardioVascular Institute harpist, Nancy Kleiman. At an increasing number of hospitals, including BIDMC, music therapy is used to calm and soothe patients, family members and even staff when levels of emotion or discomfort are running high.

Willner recalls a man in his late 50s who was admitted in critical condition after a heart attack.

"The patient's family was there to meet with physicians, and his wife was having difficult time - she was just overwhelmed," Willner explains. "When I called in Nancy, and she began to play her harp, the whole atmosphere changed. The patient was soothed, the family began to relax a bit and the wife was better able to cope with the situation."

Send a Friend Heart-Soothing Harp Music A Harpist with a Big Heart

Kleiman, 62, has been playing music therapeutically for the past seven years. A self-taught harpist with training in therapeutic harp music, she was recruited to play at BIDMC through a grant designed to bring live harp music to hospital patients, families and staff. Her efforts received subsequent support from the Susanne Marcus Collins Foundation.

Kleiman and her harp travel the halls of BIDMC, stopping in patient care units, waiting areas or lobbies to play music and connect with patients, visitors and staff. Regular visitors know her by name and reach out to her like a close friend. When she stops to play, the golden, shimmery tones of her harp transcend the hospital environment to create a sanctuary that soothes all within earshot.

"When I play, it's never a solo," says Kleiman. "Collaboration is made between the harp and all who receive its vibrations, creating energy that alters mind and body."

Becoming "God's Instrument"

Nancy Kleiman, BIDMC's harpistKleiman is a deeply spiritual person who has spent a lifetime working and praying to use her gifts "to be God's instrument." Raised in a Catholic family with many musicians, she entered a religious order after high school to combine her faith and love of music by becoming a nun and music teacher. Over time, Kleiman's music expanded from trumpet to French horn, violin, piano and guitar, and her spiritual life grew beyond the monastic walls.

She eventually left the convent to teach music in a private school, and both music and spirituality continued to serve as a foundation for the next chapter of her life. Kleinman converted to Judaism, earned a graduate degree in Jewish studies, and taught both music and Judaism while enjoying her life as a wife and mother.

Kleiman eventually became interested in the harp through a fellow musician and former instructor, Tony Cuffe. When Cuffe was diagnosed with cancer, many of his friends played their music to comfort him, and when he died, five harpists from around the world gathered to honor him.

"It was at that moment that I found the instrument that combined my music and spirituality," says Kleiman.

The Science Behind the Strumming

Why is music therapy so beneficial for those who receive it? From the scientific point of view, a recent study found that listening to enjoyable music actually increases the diameter of blood vessels by 26 percent, an increase higher than that caused by either laughter or relaxation.

Another study that focused on patients with congestive heart failure showed that listening to music reduced anxiety and had a positive effect on heart rate, respiratory rate and blood pressure. This study involved participants who listened to recorded rather than live music - which means that music can also be a valuable tool for those recovering from illnesses at home.

Music therapy also provides avenues for communication that can be helpful to those who find it difficult to express themselves in words, according to the American Music Therapy Association.

Kleiman echoes this thought. "Music empowers everyone; it allows those struggling to feel control over their state of being by delivering a peaceful state of mind."

Make Your Own Kind of Music

You may not have a harp handy, but - whether you have cardiovascular health issues or are feeling anxious or unwell - listening to your favorite kind of music can help you create a sacred space of your own making. Music can be a conduit for emotional and spiritual connection, a universal language that transcends both physical and religious boundaries. It reminds us that life is good, and in doing so, helps your heart feel that way, too.

Send a Friend Heart-Soothing Harp Music »

Above content provided by the CardioVascular Institute at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor.

Posted February 2012

Contact Information

CardioVascular Institute at
Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center
330 Brookline Avenue
Boston, MA 02215