Today’s post is by Anouk Platenkamp, player, teacher and certified therapeutic harp practitioner.  

Anouk will teach a 5-day course on playing for the sick and disabled at the Festival. This is a great opportunity for anyone who has previous experience or intends to explore the possibility as the course will show you how modes affect people’s moods and will help you to utilise them in improvisation. 

Anouk-Platencamp-thumbnailWhen I was about twelve years old, a friend of the family asked me if I was willing to play at a care facility for elderly people with dementia. She had heard me play the harp at some occasions and worked as an activity councillor. Places like the one she worked at would regularly hire live music for their patients, to entertain and break up the long days.

At the time,I had been playing the harp for about two years and I loved playing for people. As far as I can remember, however, this was my first ever experience with dementia.

It was quite a challenge getting the harp there, the place was huge and we had no transport cart for my harp, so we had to carry it through long hallways, stopping at doors to open them with a code. My parents had told me some of what to expect, but nothing could have prepared me for what followed.

I sat there, with my prepared sheet music, having chosen some songs that I could play well in order to perform them. In the corner of the room was a lady with a huge smile on her face, she was smiling and laughing to herself the whole time, but every time I made a small mistake or hesitated for a moment this lady would happily yell: “WRONG!”

To me, it was quite disconcerting. Was I really playing that badly?

When I took a little break, the activity councillor came and talked to me. She asked me to take a look around and listen to what was happening: in the group of elderly people that sat around me, some had vacant eyes, some were murmuring to themselves and others repeating the same words or sounds over and over again. People seemed to be quite restless. She asked me to try and check what was happening when I was actually playing.

This opened me up to a whole new experience: when I was playing, people seemed to calm down. Even the lady in the corner, she had been one of the people making a lot of noise, now she was positively quiet (apart from the occasional “wrong!”). I also noticed that some of the very restless people, the ones who were walking the hallways all the time, sat down and listened for as long as I played, then got up again once I was finished.

Almost at the end of the session, an elderly gentleman came to me and lay his hand on my neck, smiling down on me. The staff was there to explain: this man doesn’t speak anymore, so his only way of expressing his gratitude is by touching you when he likes something.

Overall, the experience made me realise that music can be so much more than entertainment. Even though I felt I did nothing special, there still seemed to be a connection with these people through the music that I played. It shaped the musician I was to become and made me look for ways to help people through music.

Over the years I have learned to adapt my music to the people I play for; ranging from elderly people with dementia to people with a mental handicap, people whoare in hospital or dying, people whoare grieving and even healthy people in yoga-classes. Sometimes it will mean playing a familiar tune, other times it means improvising in low tones and who would have thought that in some cases all you need to do is play two notes and the person you play for is happy?

When you learn to improvise and react to the physical clues that clients give you, you are able to make a connection with them and improve their well-being, help them in a healing process, bring them joy or give them just that little time they need to finally express their sorrow, no words needed.

To anyone reading this, thinking of taking the healing harp course during the EIHF, I chose to share my first ever experience playing in a non-concert setting to show you how the most important feedback is not the one that is directly given to you, but the one you can observe in the little details of behaviour. Sometimes messages aren’t as clear as you might expect, and the effect your music can have on people is not always visible on the surface, but it’s always there. As a musician you will hopefully get to play a lot of concerts that give you applause or fame, but you probably won’t find anything more rewording than helping people with your music.

If you would like to read more about Anouk’s experiences as a therapeutic harp practitioner, you may be interested in a separate article she has written and is published on CelticHarpBlog.com or visit her website for general info.