Small harp made by Stillwater company calms, entertains patients

By Mary Divine

St. Paul Pioneer Press

 

March 15, 2009

Moving carefully — to keep from ripping the IV line out of her left arm — Annette Blanchette tucked a small oval harp under her chin and tentatively plucked a few strings.

She closed her eyes and smiled as she listened to her first musical composition — performed at the age of 71.

"This is wonderful," she said. "If you kind of cuddle it, you really feel it vibrate."

Blanchette, of River Falls, Wis., was receiving a transfusion of red blood cells at Woodwinds Hospital in Woodbury last month when Denise Boczek, a volunteer harpist, stopped by and asked if she'd like to play a new kind of harp — one that anyone can play.

The harp, called the Reverie Harp, was designed by an employee of a music company in Stillwater. Matt Edwards, who works at Musicmakers in Stillwater, said his harp is perfect for hospitals because it's small and light.

"If you hold it like this and cuddle it, you can just feel it in your chest," Boczek said.

Blanchette said her folks couldn't afford music lessons when she was growing up but she always wanted to learn how to play the harp.

"I never would have believed I could make music," Blanchette said. "It's just the neatest feeling. You know, as it vibrates, you feel the sound, as well as hear it, and it's like the music goes through your whole body. I just love it."

Blanchette and Boczek spent about 20 minutes experimenting with the harp and singing "You Are My Sunshine" and "Amazing Grace."

The harp is tuned to "an ancient pentatonic scale in which all notes harmonize," Edwards said. Translation: "You can play all the strings together, and it's going to sound nice," he said. "Or you can play any two notes together, and it will sound fine. Essentially, there are no wrong notes. There is no wrong way to play it."

ENGAGE THE PATIENT

Peter Roberts, a music therapist who lives in Australia and is a longtime Musicmakers customer, asked the company a few years ago to create the harp. He said he was searching for an instrument that anyone could play — and that would sound beautiful, would fit in a patient's bed and could be played while lying down.

"What he wanted was something that would engage the patient a little bit more — something that could make them a little bit more active, something that they could actually play themselves," said Jerry Brown, the owner of Musicmakers.

Edwards, a former music teacher who has been working for Musicmakers for 10 years, went to work. It took five months and three tries, but he ended up in 2007 with an "egg-shaped" harp with a mahogany top and cherry frame.

It weighs 4 1/2 pounds and is 20 inches long and 12 inches wide. The harp's 22 strings are guitar strings "so they're easy to replace and widely available," Edwards said.

The Reverie Harp sells for $495; kits to make the harp cost $250. The instrument has become Musicmakers' best-selling harp.

"There is no mastery to be achieved on the Reverie Harp. You are an instant success," Edwards said. "It's an instrument made for people who don't know anything about music."

Brown said most people buy the harp as a gift.

"A lot of people who buy it have somebody in mind already — somebody who they think it would bless," he said. "A lot of times, it's an aunt or it's a mother or father or somebody in a nursing home or somebody who's hospitalized ... because a hospital is so boring, you know, you have that television blaring, and you'd like to have some nice peaceful sounds and something to do."

BETTER THAN MEDICATION

A young boy at University of Minnesota Children's Hospital loved to put his feet on the back of the harp while a music therapist played, Brown said. "He just loved the feel of those vibrations through his feet."

Charles Bransford, director of palliative care at Lakeview Hospital in Stillwater, bought a Reverie Harp to use in the hospital's cancer care center.

"You can see people calm down and relax as soon as they pick it up," he said. "For people with chronic diseases, it's a very nice thing."

Mary Del Vecchio, a counselor and pastoral minister, uses the harp during sessions at Hudson Counseling Services in Wisconsin.

She describes it as "better than medication" for calming her clients. She often lets clients strum the harp as they talk. "Within 10 minutes, they'll say: 'I feel so much better. I feel more relaxed. I feel more calm.' "

Del Vecchio also uses the harp at home for meditation and relaxation.

"I probably should use it even more," she said. "If you would do this 10 minutes a day, it would significantly increase your sense of well-being and reduce your stress level."

Robin Vettleson, of West St. Paul, used the harp to entertain her 4-year-old daughter, Ayla — and perhaps her unborn son — while at Woodwinds a few weeks ago.

Boczek, the volunteer harpist, leaned the harp against Vettleson's belly and encouraged Ayla to play for her brother.

"Can you play it? Oh, this is nice," Boczek said. "If you sit down like this, you can feel the vibrations in the wood. Do you think your brother can hear it?"

"I bet he can," Robin Vettleson said. "I think you're putting your brother to sleep."

When Ayla plucked a little more energetically, Vettleson said the baby kicked.

"Oh, that's loud!" Boczek said. "You don't want to wake up your brother."

Said Vettleson: "You'll have plenty of opportunities to do that after he's born."

Vettleson, who gave birth a few days later, said the harp music her daughter played was soothing.

"It's just the perfect tones for a relaxing atmosphere," said Vettleson, 29. "Regardless of what she does, it sounds wonderful, and she can take joy in that as well as us."