This afternoon, I joined my dad at The Woodlands for their weekly hymn-singing. Dad is the senior adult pastor at his church, and has been leading the residents of this local assisted living community in singing their favorite hymns for years, and it's such a privilege that I am able to join him (one that I aim to not take for granted).
At first, it was to serve as a way for me to "get my feet wet" in playing the harp for a smallish group of senior citizens, playing a song here and there in between the hymns. For the past few weeks, though, I've begun to try my hand at playing along with the singing and with Dad's piano accompaniment. It's quite the challenge, as I am no great sight reader, but it's fun! It's like a game of keeping up and figuring out the best chords as I go along--exercising the part of my brain that's used for spontaneity, and I love it.
I also love the camaraderie that's present when we gather with the handful of residents in the little chapel at The Woodlands. It's one of my favorite aspects of old-time church life: a simple, stripped-down sense of togetherness, all cozy, and carried by the old hymns. No one's there to impress anyone, but to share the simple, yet profound joy of singing familiar songs of faith together. Few things give me more of a sense of being at home than such moments.
What's more, it's a time when I can watch and listen to my dad playing piano and leading the room in singing. Dad would never call himself a pianist, but he can certainly lead a group in song, and it's such a pleasure to experience! He is, and always will be, my favorite worship leader. I should get him to play more at home, when I visit...
DISCLAIMER: This post is an edited version of my observations that were submitted to my teacher. Due to the scarcity of articles and blogs on the subject of therapeutic harp, especially from a student's point of view, I have chosen not to shorten it. :)
I arrived at the nursing home on time yesterday morning, with my roughly 20lb “burden” (read: Smartwood harp + semi-portable music stand) in tow. The activities director came to meet me and help me set up, but I asked to use the restroom so I could wash up. She graciously offered to hold my harp for me and I let her, after checking with her that she’d be able to handle the weight (she was). I came out of the restroom to find her and a couple other staff singing “Happy Birthday” to a handsome golden retriever, who then got a doggie cupcake! The director then led me to the sitting room where I was to play. She explained that some residents were awaiting getting a hand massage in there, and I would be playing the harp for them before time for their massage. What a perfect pairing--harp and a hand massage!
When we got to the room, there were already two residents inside. The two ladies were both friendly and very excited that I was going to be playing the harp for them, and when I brought my harp out of its case, they and the director all commented on its beauty, which made me smile even more than I already was. After I began playing, more and more showed up, until there was a total of about five residents (that I recall), and a few staff that had gathered to listen. During my third or fourth song, I could hear a staff member yelling from down the hall, “Where’s the harp?!” That made me grin! Apparently, the sounds of the harp carried out of the room and down the hallway, which surprised me, since the Smartwood isn’t known for having a very loud volume.
For this first session, which lasted about 45 minutes or so, I observed that the two residents who were there when I’d arrived seemed to be in a very friendly, welcoming mood, and they, along with the director and the other residents, helped me feel quite at ease the entire time I was there. As I set up the harp and music stand, I invited them to relax and feel free to sing along, fall asleep, whatever they liked, and jokingly told them I need to tell myself to relax, as well. They chuckled and said something encouraging. I opened with “Amazing Grace”, followed by “What A Friend We Have In Jesus”, and some sang along during both. I only sang on the second hymn, and fumbled a bit, but I don’t think it was noticeable (I did keep playing as if there were no mistakes). After I finished those, one resident asked if I could play “Showers of Blessing”. I said, “Not yet, but I would like it to be one of the next hymns I learn.” (I'm using their requests to help inform my repertoire.) By the time I’d finished playing for this group, there were about five residents, including one gentleman (a former big band drummer!) and the rest were ladies, and they all seemed to have really enjoyed my playing. They would applaud after each of the eight songs I played for them, and kept saying how well I played and how beautiful it all was--as the director put it, this was quite an “ego-booster”! ;) Once I realized that I’d played for longer than the planned half-hour, I packed up and assured them that I would be coming back, and thanked them for all of their kind words, and for listening to me play.
I was then led to the other end of the nursing home, where some “less cognizant” residents were sitting in a small sort of lobby next to a nurse’s station. There were three residents, all ladies, slumped in their wheelchairs and looking pretty out of it. As I began taking the harp out, though, two of the ladies started to ask, “Is that a harp? Are you going to play the harp?” I smiled and told them I was. Two more ladies were wheeled over to listen to me as I set up and began to play, and they both seemed happy to get to be there and listen. One of the first two ladies that had asked if I was going to play harp grew talkative. She was so sweet, and talked of how she enjoyed the music, how her mother had played piano and that’s how she herself had learned, and then she asked if I knew “How Great Thou Art”. It was difficult for me to speak loudly and clearly enough for her, though I tried. Nothing phased her, though. She also sang along to the three hymns I played. She and one other lady remained engaged with me the entire time I played during this session. The lady sitting closest to me appeared to be napping most of the time, though at one or two moments in the middle of my playing, I thought I saw her perk up or hum along with the music.
I have to say, I’ve been thrown off by people singing along with my playing in the past, but I just reveled in it this time. I felt truly connected with the residents and staff as if it was more of a family atmosphere than the cold, clinical feel such facilities often seem to have. It may well not always be like this, but I was certainly grateful for this first day of my internship to go so well and to feel so at home. And something unexpected happened for me: the entire experience infused me with greater motivation to keep at it and work much harder at mastering the harp and all of the studies that go with it than I’ve felt in a long time. The joy and fulfillment I felt from just this first day are immensely affirming, assuring me that this is indeed my calling, a vocation I am able to work hard at and use to minister to others.
Do you have any amusing or touching anecdotes from working with the elderly? I'd love to read them in the comments!
Welcome! Writing helps me untangle a bit of the mess and sharpen my focus. Join me as I chronicle my journey to become a full-fledged therapeutic harpist.