Therapeutic Harp Reaches Neurologically Challenged Children in Canada

by Laurence Marie, The Harp Therapy Journal, Summer 2005

Thanks to the Chocolate River Conservatory of Music (CRCM), which opened its doors in Dieppe, NB, Canada, a few months ago, I have had the opportunity to use my skills as a therapeutic harp practitioner. 

I am breaking new ground. I am the only harp practitioner east of Ontario and there are no Therapeutic Musicians in New Brunswick. I have been working with a few children with various neurological problems and with some elderly patients with Alzheimer’s disease.

Let me relate here my experience with two of the children. R. is an 11-year-old boy with Cerebral Palsy. He is an intelligent, pleasant boy with a great smile. When I met him, last October, he was non-verbal, despite years of speech therapy, had a very short attention span, poor coordination, poor muscle tone (chiefly in his left arm and leg) and was very frustrated at not being able to communicate. R. has been coming for weekly 45-minute sessions. I do a variety of activities with him: singing, making up songs, clapping rhythms, movement, etc. and, of course, playing the harp. 

After a few short weeks R. showed remarkable progress. He started saying words and sentences; when, I or anyone else understands him, his face lights up. His coordination and muscle tone have improved tremendously: from initially yanking at the strings, he can now pluck them gently with his index fingers. At first his left hand and arm were so weak, he could hardly hold them up long enough to pluck a string. Now he can pluck each string alternatively without missing any, using alternate hands, while keeping both arms up! He can reproduce simple rhythms on the drum. I can hold his attention for at least 30 minutes. He can multi task: sing, listen to the melody I play on the harp, and play the drum.

For the first time in his young life he had a small role in a Christmas pageant. He was so excited to tell me about it. Teachers at school have noticed the change and this is what his mother wrote: "The Conservatory has opened a new window in my son’s life. A window that enabled him to see his capabilities, new ones, that seemed, three months ago, impossible to imagine. Eleven years had passed and R. had said very little. When he did have something to say, many did not understand him. With loving and skilled therapy from Laurence Marie of CRCM, his words have become purposeful and a joy to listen to. Harp Therapy not only helped add speech to R.’s life but also has increased his self-confidence and self-esteem. He no longer has to wait till someone understands him, he smiles when he’s understood the first time. R. enjoys his lessons, it’s work but he finds it fun. There are no pressures or expectations. Laurence uses the skills R. has and builds on them, enabling him to be successful in his efforts and work." R. resumed the "lessons" after Christmas and soon he will have a harp to take home. It will be interesting to see where our journey takes us.

E. is a nine-year-old autistic little boy with a beautiful face and great big blue eyes. When I met him, he was non-verbal, could get very upset, waved his hands non-stop or repetitively hit the wall or other objects. I worked with him from early October until Christmas, once a week for 30-minute sessions. The therapy room is a large room and just on entering it, there are a few steps. 

The first few sessions E. spent the entire session on the steps. I would bring him various instruments including the harp. He would arrange balls (with bells inside) or drum sticks on a step. If I threw a ball at him sometimes he would throw it back. Occasionally and very briefly he would make eye contact or touch me. If he got agitated I would improvise on the harp, and he would calm down within a few minutes. Otherwise I played various genres of music on the harp: children’s tunes, but also melodies from the classical music repertory. He also responded to the cymbals and liked to hit his head on a drum. Perhaps he wanted to feel the vibrations? 

As the weeks went by E. liked to share the harp, looking at me through the strings, running his fingers on the strings. He started coming up the steps to explore the room and the various instruments (glockenspiel, triangle, cymbals, wooden rattle, drums, rain stick etc.). He would initiate activities like making music or dancing, and invite me to join in. If I stopped he would take my hand so I’d carry on. He would play something and cue me to respond musically and vice versa. This was very exciting! He started showing emotions with his face and gestures to certain pieces of music I played on the harp, started laughing out loud, humming, and vocalizing. He began hugging me, cuddling up to me and looking at me straight in the eyes with a big smile. 

E.’s father told me he had improved at home, at school and when they were out. He sang a lot, vocalized a lot, and seemed much happier and calmer. Unfortunately E. did not come back after Christmas. His parents enrolled him in a behavioural program, so I won't know the end of that story. 

Music and health have played major roles in Laurence Marie’s life. Prior to coming to Canada, she completed her nursing studies and worked in the field in both England and France. She also holds a music degree. Through various losses and battles with health issues including cancer, she began her search for healing through alternative means, a quest which led her to study naturopathy and homeopathy. While the facilitator for "Virage," a cancer support group, and a volunteer at the Oncology department, she became inspired to explore ways to combine healing and music which led her to the International Harp Therapy Program in San Diego, CA. In 2001 she graduated as a Certified Therapeutic Harp Practitioner.