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An instrument to soothe the soul

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Reverie Harp
The Reverie Harp, created by Musicmakers in Stillwater, Minn., is tuned to a pentatonic scale. The tuning allows the player to create pleasing music, no matter how little experience they have playing an instrument.
MPR Photo/Marianne Combs

Harpist Peter Roberts works in a hospital in Australia, where he plays at people's bedsides to help them relax and sleep.

But after years of just sitting beside them, Roberts wanted the patients to become more involved in the music themselves.

"I just thought there needed to be something that could be played instantly, immediately," said Roberts. "Something that was gorgeous sounding, that a person could just stroke a finger across, and it would sound lush and gorgeous and uplifting."

Jerry Brown
Jerry Brown is the founder of Musicmakers in Stillwater, Minnesota. The store is finding itself overwhelmed with orders for the Reverie Harp. Jerry's design team created the harp, based on the specifications of musician Peter Roberts.
MPR Photo/Marianne Combs

Roberts contacted his friends at Musicmakers in Stillwater, Minn., who came up with the Reverie Harp. The harp is oval shaped, like an egg, made from cherry and mahogany. It weighs less than five pounds and can be cradled in a person's arms like a baby.

The harp is tuned to a pentatonic scale, so every note complements all the other notes. That means you can't play a specific song on it, but just running one's finger across it sounds like a cascading waterfall. And you can feel the vibrations from the music when you hold the instrument to your chest.

Peter Roberts' hunch was right. By creating an instrument that anyone could strum, and which demanded little physical mobility, Roberts could now invite patients to play, and not just be passive recipients of pretty sounds.

And he found it wasn't just the patients who needed it. Roberts saw a father sitting next to his newborn baby who had been placed in a hospital incubator. He gave the father the harp, and suddenly the worried parent could do something to soothe the baby, and himself.

Mayme Larson
Walker Elder Suites resident Mayme Larson says playing the Reverie Harp makes her think of those she loves who have died before her. For therapists and chaplains, the harp is an important tool for entering into sensitive and emotional conversations.
MPR Photo/Marianne Combs

A daughter played the harp for her dying mother. Nurses immediately wanted their own harps to have on hand.

Jerry Brown, the founder of Musicmakers, says the little harp is taking over his store's business. He's now selling more Reverie Harps than all his other instruments combined.

"It's a very powerful thing, and a very rewarding thing," said Brown. "We go home at the end of the day and we feel like we are helping people. Like this is a ministry."

For Ann Bergstrom, it is a ministry. She's the chaplain for Walker Elder Suites in Edina. Bergstrom regularly walks the halls of this senior residential facility with a Reverie Harp in her arms, plucking at the strings.

"If I, as a chaplain, walked in with a big black Bible under my arm, that would send a message right away that I'm here to talk about the Bible or something," said Bergstrom. "To walk in with this -- it's neutral. There's something about this instrument that opens me up and opens others up."

Chaplain Ann Bergstrom plays the Reverie Harp with Walker Elder Suites resident Grace Smith. Bergstrom says some residents light up when they see the harp, and say they could play it for hours.
MPR Photo/Marianne Combs

On this day, Bergstrom has encouraged two of the Walker Elder Suites residents to try playing a duet with two Reverie Harps. Donna Steel and Mayme Larson -- both in their 90s and neither of them musicians -- are immediately able to produce a lovely sound.

Mayme Larson describes the music as heavenly. But after playing for a few moments, her face begins to look sad, and her eyes tear up. Playing the harp brings back memories.

"I remember my husband, and it makes me remember the son we lost. It's like they're up there waiting for me," said Larson.

Chaplain Ann Bergstrom said it's the harp's ability to get people to open up emotionally that makes it such a valuable tool for her work. She says it soothes the soul and creates a place for emotional and spiritual healing.

Peter Roberts says that emotional and spiritual healing can lead a patient to be more engaged in their recovery, or face death with a greater sense of peace and dignity.

While it's hard to measure such benefits, Roberts believes the new harp has already made a positive difference for patients and their caregivers.

"The news is filled with bad ... there's a lot of greed and a lot of things going on around the world, and the repercussions are affecting everybody. But here's this little company in Stillwater, Minnesota, that's made something absolutely beautiful," mused Roberts. "It brought [the Reverie Harp] into existence, and it's really, really nice and it's going out there into the world."

Roberts says in many hospitals, patients often feel powerless. He says the Reverie Harp is giving them a chance to take some control in their own treatment, and helping them feel more human.