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Harp Healing: Woman Uses Music Therapy to Help Hospital Patients

After losing three people close to her in eight months, Edie Elkan picked up a harp for the first time in 28 years. Now she runs a program training others to play the instrument for patients in hospitals.

Photo courtesy of Edie Elkan
Photo courtesy of Edie Elkan

Loss is never easy to deal with, and when it occurs in rapid succession the grief can become overwhelming.

When Edie Elkan, a resident of Bensalem, PA, lost three people close to her in an eight-month period, she visited a grief counselor who asked her, “What can you do to put joy back in your life?”

The answer for Elkan was her lifelong hobby and profession of music. She not only used it to help herself find joy again, but turned her pain into inspiration for others by starting the therapy program Bedside Harp. The program has been featured throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and also trained people from all over the world to bring harp therapy back to their communities.

“Everyone needs to have inspiration every day to just live their lives and be reminded to enjoy every moment, because working in health care I know too well how our lives are really moment to moment,” Elkan said.

Finding Joy in Music

Elkan grew up playing the piano, but didn’t continue after junior high. During her first day of high school she got lost and wound up in the music department—that’s where she first saw a harp up close. She knew instantly that she wanted to play it, but it was a very exclusive instrument because of the price and the training required. Because she had six years of piano training under her belt, she qualified and began to take harp lessons in the Philadelphia public school system.

She was awarded a partial scholarship to study at the Philadelphia Musical Academy (now the University of the Arts), but she dropped out after a couple of years because of the cost. For 28 years, she didn’t play the harp. She stayed involved with music, teaching piano.

During an eight-month period in 1992 and 1993, Elkan lost three people close to her: First, was Richard Hogue, a professor at the Philadelphia Musical Academy, who Elkan said was a “surrogate father image for me.” Her actual father died six months later, and he was followed by her dear friend Marie Mackell, who was the same age as Elkan when she died in her 40s.

“The grief really hit me,” Elkan said. “My whole world had been changed in eight months. But I realized if you don’t do what you want to do now, you may never get to do it.”

So to restore joy in her life, she returned to the harp. That’s when she began to grasp the healing qualities the harp possesses.

Inspired to Help Others

The act of playing the harp is a healing activity, Elkan says.

“You hold it, you hug it, you embrace it,” she said. “You play it with a bare finger, so it’s a very immediate, very intimate experience. Then there’s the vibrations that go through you as you pluck the instrument.”

As she played the harp to heal from her personal loss, Elkan began to learn that the instrument was being used as a healing device. She had been training with harpist Elizabeth Hainen and played 80 hours at San Diego Hospice to learn more. Elkan was inspired to start her own harp therapy program in Pennsylvania.

“I knew it would take more than telling people it feels good,” she said. “I knew I wasn’t going to run this program out of my socks, that I needed to partner with a health care facility.”

Elkan worked with Colorado harp maker Dwight Blevins to build a harp with a warm and mellow sound, and something light enough to walk around with in a hospital. Blevins followed the orders and named the instruments he built “Marie harps,” after Elkan’s friend that passed.

She then began volunteering thousands of hours at area hospitals, nursing homes, hospices and other health care facilities to make connections. Still, the program wasn’t taking off.

Shortly after 9/11, Elkan was invited to play concert grand harp at an event, and she also brought her smaller healing harp and literature about her program. Sheila Birnbaum, the patient relations manager at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital Hamilton, immediately embraced the idea. The hospital was treating postal workers infected by anthrax after 9/11, and Birnbaum thought harp therapy was just the thing the hospital needed.

The program began there and continued to grow throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey. For Elkan, a music teacher, it made sense to have a training element to Bedside Harp as well. She teaches harp therapy classes at Bucks County Community College in Newtown, PA, and people have traveled from all over the world to train with her and bring this therapy back home.

Many of Elkan’s students are 50 or older and have never played an instrument before, but she’s created a method to teach the basics—people can learn how to make the beautiful sounds needed to help others. Now she hears about people who learn from Bedside Harp and are self-employed in California, Montreal and many others places. She even had a student come from Japan to learn harp following the tsunami in 2011.

Since the program began in February 2002, Bedside Harp has taught 692 people to play for their own healing and enjoyment and graduated 86 certified harp therapists. Bedside Harp therapists have played for more than 73,000 patients in eight hospitals, and that’s not including any the graduates of the program have gone on to play for.  

“I’m very proud of it because we’ve had the most extraordinary people come through the program,” Elkan said. “I am inspired by the people who come to this program and who want to serve. I truly feel service is the whole point of my life.”

Healing with the Harp

Elkan said she’s often compared to David in the Bible, who she says is “the first harp therapist we know of.”

“So it came about whenever the evil spirit from God came to Saul, David would take the harp and play it with his hand,” the verse reads. “And Saul would be refreshed and be well, and the evil spirit would depart from him.”

But as Elkan recognizes, “it’s hard to measure smiles,” so it’s taken more work to prove harp therapy isn’t just a flavor of the month in the medical field. Recently, a formal research project’s results were submitted to a medical journal by Dr. Mark Rosenberg, chairman of the Department of Emergency Medicine, Geriatric Emergency Medicine and Palliative Medicine at St. Joseph's Regional Medical Center in Patterson, NJ.

“This project speaks volumes about the effectiveness of what we do—how we make a difference with our little harps,” Elkan said.

The study surveyed 61 people, and at least 90 percent of them said the harp helped make them feel relaxed and calm. About 84 percent of participants said the music was valuable to them, and 95 percent said they would recommend the music to someone in their situation.

“The addition of this modality adds little cost yet yields enormous benefits in terms of improved patient and family perception of care while decreasing stress and anxiety,” the study concluded. “As an added indirect benefit, live harp music may also exert a similar effect on the emergency staff.”

Without the study, Elkan understands the healing qualities behind the harp. Patients immediately respond to the beauty of the instrument, and the gentle sounds help people feel better.

“People say to us, ‘This goes right into my soul,’” Elkan said. “Patients who never smiled the whole time they’re in the hospital are smiling and relaxing and breathing better. The harp belongs in every emergency room in America.” 

Everyday Inspirations is a series that features people in Patch communities across the country who inspire others through their work, or people who have faced extraordinary situations and grown from them. They have been nominated by others in the community who have been inspired by their work.

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