Every Tuesday, Martha Lawrance plays her harp for the patients at The Salvation Army Toronto Grace Health Centre (TGHC).

Martha is a certified therapeutic harp practitioner (CTHP) and is accredited by the National Standards Board for Therapeutic Musicians. As a CTHP, she does not diagnose illnesses or prescribe a treatment plan for patients; in fact, she rarely has much knowledge of the specific illnesses of the patients for whom she plays.

“Instead, as a therapeutic musician,” Martha says, “I play prescriptive music through sound and vibrations to enhance their well-being, to create an environment conducive to the healing process.”

Harp therapy, the benefits of which are now documented, is an art based on the science of sound. Live harp music effects positive changes in the emotional, physical, mental and spiritual functioning of individuals with health problems. The resonance and tone quality of the harp provides comfort and gently creates a “cradle of sound” as support, to address anxiety, breathing problems, fear, pain and depression.

“As a CTHP,” Martha says, “I strive to meet the wants and needs of the patient. I do that by designing a musical experience to enhance their quality of life.”

Helping to Heal
Martha has been a harpist for most of her life. She began playing the piano at age six and studying the harp at the age of eight. As a child, she studied with Marie Lorcini of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, and by the time she reached high school, she was playing professionally. During that time, she also worked as a volunteer, both musically and as a caregiver. She furthered her studies at the University of Western Ontario’s faculty of music, and has played the harp professionally with the London Symphony Orchestra, Theatre London, the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony and the Blyth Festival Theatre.

“I’ve always shared my music,” smiles Martha.

After hearing about the benefits of therapeutic music, she became interested in learning how to play her harp in a health-care setting where she could promote health and wellness through music. Her research directed her to Christina Tourin, the director of the International Harp Therapy Program and author of the harp therapy book, A Cradle of Sound. Martha enrolled in the two-year program and trained as a practitioner.

“Central to the program is the recognition that each individual has their own resonant tone, style of musical preference, mood and rhythm,” she explains. “The practitioner, after learning these, is able to combine them to offer the patient their own personal musical journey, their own cradle of sound, to help in emotional, mental, physical and spiritual healing.”

Finding the Tone
When Martha begins a musical session with a patient, she plays in response to the moment, observing such things as a patient’s facial expressions or the surroundings and “vibe” of the room.

Martha plays the harpBeautiful Music: Martha has been a harpist since she was eight
“I’ll evaluate all of this and respond accordingly.”

She will typically play in one of three strains: sleep, sorrow or joy.

“I create a sound oasis, matching tempo with breathing patterns.”

The selection of music can be improvised or familiar, but in most cases, the key, mode and melodies are played in the patient’s own resonant tone.

The musical session can elicit a number of beneficial effects, such as increased relaxation, improvement in sleep, decreased pain and anxiety, stabilization of vital signs and improvement in mood. On a palliative care unit, an end-of-life music vigil can also help a patient to achieve a peaceful transition.

Realizing that some are skeptical but believing that harp therapy is a much-needed service, Martha approached TGHC to determine if there would be an interest in implementing a harp therapy program for their patients. “Although I had serious interviews and auditions,” Martha states, “right from the beginning, TGHC totally embraced harp therapy.” The TGHC is the only hospital in Canada with a therapeutic harp program.

At TGHC, Martha works with patients in complex continuing care, post-acute care rehabilitation, palliative care and those with various mental-health issues. Not all patients want harp therapy but most do; some patients even follow her around.

“Mostly though, I make my rounds on my own,” she says. “Having provided harp therapy at the TGHC for a while, I know the patients that appreciate and need my services.”

Martha wants to ensure that people understand that harp therapy is about the science of sound—resonance.

“Everybody has their resonance tone that can change daily,” Martha states. “But when I’m with a patient, I’ll determine their tone through their voice or something non-verbal such as a moan, if they can’t communicate verbally, or by their facial expressions or body movements. If the notes I play agitate them, then I have it wrong. However, when I find the right tone, the one that is the ultimate sound or vibration that allows the patient to experience the connection of inter-related moving energy between the two sources—the person and the music—that is the ultimate cradle of sound.”

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