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A Harp Therapy Workshop at Clive Morley Harps

In order to find out more about harp therapy, I attended a workshop by Christina Tourin, director of the International Harp Therapy Program, which was held in May 2006 at Clive Morley Harps.

One of the first things I wanted to know was why harp therapy in particular, rather than any other instrument? The answer given was that the harp and psaltery are the purest in tone: when viewed on an oscilloscope, their wave forms come closest of all natural instruments to a pure figure 8 pattern. That question satisfied, Christina explained to us the basics of harp therapy. She stressed that playing the harp for people in hospital is not music therapy. Instead, it is therapeutic music. The distinction is important, as music therapy aims to alter people’s behaviour, whereas therapeutic music aims to match the mood of the listener, taking into account the patient’s breath and heart rate, resonant tone and musical preferences. The piece of therapeutic music to be played – which is either an existing tune or improvised – is chosen according to its mode*. The idea is that different modes have different effects on the listener and so the harp therapist chooses the mode closest to the patient’s mood. Then Christina introduced us to her “Celtic Circle of Healing”, which cycles through several different modes in order to take the listener on an emotional journey. This method is based on the ancient Irish requirement that harpists be masters of three distinct types of music: Suantraighe (music to calm people); Goltraighe (music to bring about tears) and Geantraighe (music to awaken lightness and joy.) To give us some idea of how this works in practice, we improvised a piece which moved through three different modes, each one corresponding with one of the ancient Irish musical types.

It is also possible to use the harp interactively with patients. Simply playing music chosen by the patient can bring them great pleasure. Patients are also encouraged to express themselves using the harp, if they show interest in doing so. Obviously then, the harp that is used for therapy needs to have certain attributes. Good tonal quality is essential, as the actual sound of the harp should have a direct effect on the patient. Harps must be quiet, yet still resonant (something that only the better makers can achieve!). As they are sometimes used by the patient, they must be lightweight. A large compass is not as important with therapy harps and therefore smaller, 19-25 string lap harps are proving to be ideal for this purpose. The better therapy harps have a knee bar rather than feet to support the harp and a shoulder strap: both of these help those who are weak to support the harp.

While it should be possible for a sensitive harpist to play in homes and hospitals without any formal training, the International Harp Therapy Program offers a thorough training for those who wish to become a certified Harp Therapy pracitioner. Although based in the United States, the course is also taught in Europe.

*A mode is a scale built out of different combinations of tone and semi-tone steps. The Western major and minor scales are themselves examples of modes: Ionian and Aeolian respectively.