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Rice Hospice uses gentle sounds of the harp for patient, family care

Donna Jo Kopitzke shows off one of the Reverie Harps acquired this year by Rice Hospice. Tribune photo by Anne Polta

WILLMAR -- Music shimmers forth as Donna Jo Kopitzke gently plucks the strings of her Reverie Harp. The sounds linger, then slowly fade.

Rice Hospice recently began using the soothing notes of the harp to help comfort terminally ill patients and their families on the journey toward death.

"It's comforting. It's easy. It's accessible to almost everyone," said Kopitzke, who is the music coordinator for Rice Hospice.

The harps, one for each of the eight hospice offices in Appleton, Benson, Dawson, Granite Falls, Montevideo, Ortonville and Paynesville, arrived in July. Since then, Kopitzke has been working to introduce them to hospice staff and volunteers and encouraging them to try playing one of the harps.

Kopitzke first learned last year about the Reverie Harp and its use as a form of healing musical therapy in the health care setting.

"It seemed like a perfect instrument to introduce to our hospital volunteers," she said. "It's a wonderful instrument for people who are ill."

The Reverie Harp was developed by a music thanatologist from Australia, with the help of two Stillwater musicians who design and build their own instruments. Crafted from mahogany and cherrywood, the teardrop-shaped harps are reminiscent of a lute. They're small and lightweight enough to hold in someone's arms or on a lap while the 22 strings, which are tuned to a simple five-note scale across three octaves, are gently strummed.

"Very lovely, very soothing, very comforting," is how Kopitzke describes the music they produce.

It doesn't take a musician to play a Reverie Harp. The instrument's steel strings are meant to be plucked at random or tapped like a hammer dulcimer, creating soft, pleasant sounds that invite a state of relaxation and contemplation.

Even the vibration of the harp while it's being played can be soothing, especially when the instrument is held close to the body, Kopitzke said.

"For people who are hearing-impaired, we actually hold it up against their heads," she said. "The vibrations are lovely."

Hospice volunteers are finding that it's comforting to gently play the harp, and perhaps sing along, while the patient is sleeping, she said.

In some cases, patients who otherwise aren't very responsive have taken notice of the harp. Kopitzke recalls an elderly woman who became more alert and even grasped the wrist of a nurse while the Reverie Harp was strummed.

"It seemed we were making a connection," Kopitzke said.

Often it's people with the least musical experience who seem to enjoy the Reverie Harp the most, she said. "They feel so special when you come and make music with them. It's also something the families can do for the patient."

When Mary Beth Potter, director of Rice Hospice, first heard the music of a Reverie Harp, she was intrigued. "I thought it was cool. What I really liked was the vibrations and how those could be soothing and healing," she said.

She's looking forward to what the Reverie Harps will add to hospice care.

"It's kind of cutting-edge," she said. "We're fortunate to be able to offer it. The more modalities we can bring into the homes and the nursing homes and the hospitals, the more comfort we can provide."

Rice Hospice isn't the only hospital program that is using the harps. The Rice Institute for Counseling and Education has acquired one for use in its mental health occupational therapy service. The Willmar Cancer Center also has a Reverie Harp that patients can play.

"We felt this would be a wonderful addition," said Barb Hoeft, director of the cancer center. "We're hoping to get some volunteers that are interested in music to spearhead this for us."

For chemotherapy patients who are often in the clinic for long periods of time, the Reverie Harp might be something to help them pass the time, she said. "They would really enjoy something like that. ... I think it's going to be a wonderful piece for our cancer center."

Kopitzke says the harps are "slowly but surely" catching on.

"Most people are intrigued by harps. It's something new and yet something very old," she said. "It's just a beginning for us. I think it's just a little extra we can offer to our patients."

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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