New harp provides a strum and a smile

By Jeff Strickler

Minneapolis Star Tribune

December 7, 2008

Wherever "Chaplain Ann" Bergstrom strolls, heads pop up and smiles break out.

Nice as she is, the warm welcome is aimed mostly at the small, rounded stringed instrument she's plucking. The reverie harp, developed in Stillwater, is making a difference in places such as Walker Elder Suites in Edina.

The chaplain sets it down opposite Donna Steele and they play a "duet" together. "This is fun," Steele says.

She strums it for Charlotte Scarlett, who can't speak but shows her appreciation with a huge grin.

She puts it on the lap of Mayme Larson, who initially balks, "I don't have any talent at all." Eventually though, she plays and then she beams and says: "It's soothing. It's heavenly."

Designed for caregivers who lack musical experience and patients who don't always have full use of their fingers, the reverie harp is goof-proof. Its 22 strings are tuned in such a way -- the technical term is "open modal chord" -- that no matter how they are played, they produce a gentle tone.

"Each string complements the sound of another string," said Bergstrom. "There are no wrong notes. People who have physical limits can play this and feel successful, they can feel good about themselves, which is very important around here."

Don't mistake this for music therapy, she warned. "I'm not a musical therapist. They are highly skilled, highly trained professionals. I'm just a pastor who walks around noodling on a reverie harp. I'm something of a strolling minstrel."

The reverie harp has its roots in music therapy. It was developed by Jerry Brown, owner of Musicmaker Kits Inc. in Stillwater, and his company's designer, Matt Edwards. They were approached two years ago by Peter Roberts, an Australian music therapist, who had seen a terminally ill multiple sclerosis patient struggle to play a small stringed instrument. An idea was born.

"He described what he wanted," said Brown, who sells his kits (and assembled instruments, if that's preferred) worldwide via his website,   www.harpkit.com. "He described the qualities he wanted, and we came up with the instrument."

Roberts wanted something small enough to be played by bed-ridden patients holding it on their abdomens. Because hearing difficulties are common, he wanted patients to be able to feel the vibrations of the sound through the instrument. It had to require no musical training, and it had to have a comforting shape and soothing sound.

Six months and five design modifications later, they had it: an egg-shaped mahogany and cherry instrument that is 21 inches long, a tad over 12 inches wide and weighs 4 pounds. Kits start at $250, with the finished instruments selling for $495.

"We've sold about 300 kits and 200 finished ones," Brown said. "It's kind of mind-boggling because we didn't know what we were making. We knew it sounded nice, but we had no idea if it would have any use out in the world. So Ann took a sample one to see what the reaction would be. Now people in the field come back and tell us what they're doing with them -- using them in for prenatal care in hospitals and special-ed in school. It's weird. People are finding new applications for them all the time."

Bergstrom was one of the first testers of the reverie harp. An ordained Lutheran minister who calls herself Chaplain Ann because she provides nondenominational services, she uses the harp as a conversation starter.

"This is an entry point for me," Bergstrom said. "If I walk in carrying a big, black, gold-edged Bible, it sends a message that I have an agenda. This is nonthreatening. This gets them to start telling stories, it lets them control the meat of the conversation. That way I find out what's on their minds."

When she approached Harriet Edstrom, they quickly veered off into a conversation about a trip Edstrom had taken.

"Sometimes the music gets us to places that words can't," she said. "My role as a chaplain is to help them find something they can connect to that gives them meaning and hope. For some people that's faith, but for others it's nature or family or a sense of purpose. I try to match where they are. It's sort of a little dance I do."

Grace Smith's eyes lit up when Bergstrom strolled into an activity room at Walker Elder Suites and set the harp in front of her. Smith ran her fingers across the strings.

"You've got the touch," Bergstrom said.

Smith cracked a wry smile and replied, "You've got the harp."