The Celtic Harp Healing Music Program

Celtic Harp Healing Music Program

A female musician from BIDMC's Celtic Harp Healing Music Program playing the Celtic Harp.

Recognizing the power of music to soothe, comfort and cure, the Celtic Harp Healing Music Program at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center offers the services of live Celtic harpists in a variety of locations, including patient care units, waiting areas and lobbies. The program was established through a one-time, anonymous donation in 2007 and has been generously supported over the years from the Susanne Marcus Collins Foundation.

The harpists provide a range of music and services from lullabies for premature infants to bedside vigils for patients dying alone. The program’s musicians are an integral part of the medical center team, carrying pagers and business cards so that staff members can request their services whenever and wherever they are needed.

Recent studies — along with the program’s anecdotal evidence — suggest that music can ease patients’ pain and breathing difficulties, reduce anxiety, improve blood pressure and respiration, soothe them to sleep and help them and their families better cope with the devastation and loss of illness. Equally affected are BIDMC’s employees for whom the Celtic harp offers a brief and welcome respite in their busy, often stressful days.

“I have witnessed the incredible effect of our harpists’ music on our patients,” says BIDMC President and CEO Kevin Tabb, MD. “They create a truly healing environment and through their art bring to life our medical center's mission to provide holistic, patient-centered care. This program has been a special gift to everyone at BIDMC.”

BIDMC hopes that the live Celtic harp music will be a source of serenity and joy to all who have the opportunity to hear it. To request a visit from the harpist, please contact the Social Work Department.

Notes from a Harpist’s Journal

One morning , as I began to set up my harp in the Feldberg Lobby, I looked up to see the daughter of a patient who beamed when she heard the music. “I knew I’d find you at the right time! My mother is so anxious and has an hour to wait until her surgery. Could you come with me to her room right now?” When we arrived the patient smiled and asked, “Could you play Greensleeves?” I began and ended with her request and when the bed arrived to take her to surgery, she looked at me and said, “Nothing prepared me better for my surgery than the harp.”

As I was playing in the Shapiro Lobby, I looked up to find a wheelchair-bound woman waiting patiently to speak with me. I asked if she was a musician and she answered that she was actually a pedal harpist — that is, 20 years ago before she developed MS. She spoke lovingly of the grand harp that was sitting silenced in her parlor. I asked her if she ever tried the new therapy harps that are strapped on like a guitar. “Could you come back here tomorrow?” I asked. “I want to bring in my small harp for you to try.” As a small crowd gathered in the lobby the next day, we played the first of many duets and basked in the applause that followed. The harpist has since bought her own therapy harp and recently invited me to her home to see her “new addition!”

A nurse from intensive care stood leaning against the pillar near where I was playing my harp. “This is my first break of the day and your music just lifted me up,” she said, sharing a rejuvenated smile.

I knew I had come to play for a death vigil, but I was not prepared to be welcomed by two little girls who were waiting with their father while their 40-year-old mother lie upstairs in palliative care. As a preschool teacher, my instincts were to whisk the girls away from this heart-breaking reality. Instead, the musician in me took over and I pulled out my therapy harp and offered each girl the chance to play a glissando. They laughed with glee and wanted to try again and again. It was then I remembered that I had a small lap harp in my car that had been donated — a harp I mistakenly judged worthy only as a decoration — and I tuned it to mine with the confidence that I could teach the girls a tune to play for their mother. Within an hour, the older daughter was ready and the younger chose the role of “singer.” Together we walked upstairs for our debut — a performance worthy of Carnegie Hall.

A woman stood watching me play harp in the lobby. Then came over to speak with me. She was very moved by the music and told me it was the first time she had been able to cry. She explained that her mother was dying. She was thrilled when I said I could go with her to play for her mother. While we were there we made a recording of my playing with her smart phone. She was able to put it near her mother so that she could listen to the gentle music even after I left.

Parents of newborns experience strong emotions. This is a time for bonding which is very important for infant development. Bonding can be particularly difficult when an infant is premature and spends the first days and weeks of life in the hospital. Using my harp and simple lullabies music can help to strengthen that bonding by providing an experience that promotes that bonding. Strong emotion accompanied by tears often occur as a parent holds his/her infant while listening to the gentle sounds of the harp. Parents have been so appreciative of this experience. One father said "you should come with a warning," as he was visibly moved while holding his son.

Quotes from Patients, Families and Staff

"There is something truly wonderful, calming, and deeply touching about hearing the music, even if it is only a few notes as one is flying through the corridor." - RN, Infectious Disease

"The sound of the music made everything bad fade away." - Patient

"What a treat and instant relaxation to come into the Shapiro Center or Farr Building and be greeted by the lilting sounds of the harpist. It is a lovely welcome to patients and visitors." - Patient with Cancer