Wendy Thompson has learned a lot about the gifts of music since she took up the harp three years ago and started playing her instrument in hospitals in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
She has seen the music she plays comfort people who were very sick, including several who would pass away in her presence. She listened to an elderly woman who suffered from severe dementia sing along with her as she played, remembering every word of the old song.
Thompson, who trained through Bedside Harp, a harp therapy instructional and certification program based in Bensalem, Bucks County, has witnessed powerful responses to her playing, not only from patients, but also from family members, friends and hospital staff.
“This really has exceeded my expectations,” Thompson said. “It’s lovely to play for people, but I didn’t realize that I would get so much out of it. It’s extremely rewarding.”
Having recently moved to Berks County from Bethlehem, Northampton County, Thompson offered her talents to Penn State Health St. Joseph. Barbara Moyer, director of volunteers, was delighted to bring her on board.
“I heard her play and it was really special,” Moyer said. “I was moved by the music and the way that Wendy conducts herself.”
Playing a harp in a hospital is one thing, Thompson explained, but being mindful and aware of who is around you and how the music is being received are quite other things.
“There are a lot of things you have to think about when you’re playing for someone who is sick,” she said.
Cultural differences, personal preferences regarding music, attitudes of family members, the physical, mental and emotional condition of the patient and other factors all affect how Thompson interacts – or doesn’t interact – with patients.
Normally, she explained, she simply walks through a hallway, quietly playing a simple tune or even just notes on her harp.
She’ll slow down in front of a patient’s room, seeking signals that indicate whether or not her presence will be welcomed. If a patient shows interest, she will stand in the doorway or enter the room. If not, that’s okay, as well.
“I’m never offended if someone doesn’t want music,” Thompson said. “It’s strictly a personal preference.”
On a recent day in the hospital, Thompson was warmly welcomed into the room of a male patient whose wife and daughter were visiting.
She played several songs, chatting in between as the family engaged her in conversation about their own musical experiences. They thanked her warmly as she left for the next room, where the patient occupying it had no interest in listening to harp music.
“Every room is different,” Thompson noted. “I’ve learned to be very observant since I started doing this.”
At the door of each room, she’ll look for clues that might help her decide what to play. Someone who has a bible next to their bed might enjoy hearing a hymn, for instance. Balloons in the room could indicate that a child is there.
Once, Thompson related, she had begun to play in a patient room when she noticed that the patient’s hands were shackled to the bed, indicating that he was in police custody.
Without pausing, Thompson continued to play.
“I didn’t need to know any more about that,” she said. “My job was to cheer him up and provide comfort.”
While patients are a priority, the harp music is also targeted to staff members, many of whom appreciate a little diversion from their busy routines.
“I have a series of songs that are intended to be uplifting to staff,” Thompson said.
Thompson’s harp music is expected to continue to be heard throughout the hospital, filling a space where sometimes words fail.
“Music often says things that words cannot,” Thompson said.