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There’s a pool of creative angst that’s never too far away from me. Every so often I fall in. I could drown in that pool. It’s filled to the brim with overwhelming emotions: deep longing for my inner music to find expression … grief when I see how far away I am from that goal … intense frustration with the obstacles that delay and thwart my growth … fear that I will die with my music still inside me … and hanging over it all, the dreadful possibility that, despite its relentless clamoring to be heard, my music may not be worth hearing at all! The edges of the pool are slippery, and I’ve never found a reliable ladder. Somehow I always manage to get back out, but not until I’ve had a thorough, head-to-toe soaking.
Last week I was back in that wretched pool again. I can’t quite remember when I slipped, but I usually fall in for the same reason. It starts when I listen to myself playing my harp and I’m struck, once again, by the aching gap between the music I hear in my soul and the sounds I’m able to produce with my current levels of knowledge and skill. The distance between the two looks insurmountable, yet the thought of not reaching my destination seems like the worst kind of death. Will I ever make it? Or is my dream just too impossibly beautiful to come true?
I was still stuck in the pool late last week, even as I was preparing for a weekend road trip. Part of my agenda was to play my harp for a very loving, accepting audience. I felt like a fraud for planning to offer up my puny skills to these kind people, yet I hoped the process of forcing myself to play (however insecurely) would give me some sense of accomplishment. It might even give me a boost out of the pool. Then, the day before the trip, my plans fell apart.
Texas remains in the middle of a record heat wave and drought. Air conditioner repair companies are working practically 24/7 to keep people cool. They’re doing a phenomenal job. Even so, it was 24 hours before our company could get around to us. At 2 p.m. that day, it was 103°F on our shaded front porch and far too hot upstairs. Our musical instrument zoo retreated to the safety of our downstairs living room, where (blessedly) the AC was still running.
The AC technician finally arrived around 9 p.m., coated with a shiny layer of sweat. He had been working on one air conditioner after another since 8 a.m., doing fun things like crawling around in 130°F attics and fielding the complaints of overheated customers. As it turned out, we were the last stop of his very long day. He got right to work.
While the technician went in and out of the house, checking things and testing parts, I stood staring at my living room. The furniture was rearranged to accommodate my harps, which sat sulking under their covers. Looking at them, I was suddenly in the mood to play. Not for myself; I was still angst-ridden and sick of my own sound. No, I wanted to play for someone … and we happened to have a visitor. I asked Michael if this was too weird. He said I should take any audience I can get! Since my other plans had disintegrated, I realized my only audience for the weekend might be a captive one.
So, while the technician was working outside, I unwrapped my Merlin, found a bit of space on the living room rug, and started a mini-concert for Michael. I kept it up when the technician came back inside, all business, writing out invoices and explaining the repair. For several minutes, he gave no real sign of noticing the harp.
Then, during a pause in the AC conversation, he looked up from his clipboard and said, “I’ve never actually seen someone doing that. That’s awesome. It’s really relaxing!”
A smile crept up on me.
“How’d you learn to do that?” the technician continued, eyeing my fingers on the strings.
“Three years of lessons,” I replied.
“Sounds like you’ve been doing it forever,” he said. I looked up in time to see an expression of genuine respect cross his face before he turned his focus back to his paperwork.
It’s a good thing he was covered with sweat at that moment; otherwise I might have embarrassed us both by leaping up and hugging his neck. “Dude, you just made my day,” I thought, “and not because you fixed my air conditioner!”
My playing that evening was nothing fabulous. I still can’t play with enough skill to give life to the music in my soul. It may be many, many years before that will happen, if it ever does at all. The pool of angst is always ready and waiting.
But in spite of all that, when I sit down to my harp and play, a little bit of something does come out. It’s a long way from being able to satisfy me, but it’s good enough to bring joy to the people I was going to play for during my weekend trip. It has been good enough to make a number of other people happy so far. And it was good enough for that hard-working, sweat-drenched air conditioner technician, who more than deserved a nice ending to his day.
Hand me a towel, will you? It’s time to get out of the pool for a while.
Ever since I heard about the concept of “harp therapy,” I’ve been interested in the possibilities of using harp music in medical settings. My first experiment in this realm was on myself! When I went for outpatient surgery two years ago, I loaded my MP3 player with the gentle music of harpist Stella Benson and listened to it during all of the pre-op preparations. I was allowed to keep my headphones on until the last minute before I was wheeled into the OR. As soon as I was released to go home, I requested my MP3 player again. I listened all the way home and kept listening once I was settled in bed. The music made the whole experience much more tolerable.
Of course, there’s a world of difference between recorded music and a live performance. This is even more true when it comes to the harp, which has deeply affecting qualities that are nearly impossible to capture in a recording. With the cooperation of adventuresome medical professionals, harpists have brought their music into hospitals, nursing homes, doctor’s offices, maternity wards, in-vitro fertilization clinics … even operating rooms! Medical studies in this area are still in their early stages, but there are a number of reports about the positive effects of live harp music.
For a while now I’ve been wanting to try something like this with my own harp. Luckily for me, my dentist happens to be the open-minded and adventuresome type, and when circumstances provided an opportunity for me to play for some of his patients, he was willing to give it a try. So today, my Merlin harp and I paid a visit to his office in Fort Worth.
The office has a series of exam areas that are separated by dividing walls but not entirely isolated from one another. I was allowed to set up in an unoccupied exam area where I would be out of everyone’s way, yet could still be heard by the patients. When the drilling began in the room next door, I started playing through my repertoire of soothing tunes.
Not being able to see my audience was weird. I never realized how much I pay attention to small cues from my listeners to know how I’m doing, so this was a revelatory experience. It was like being stuck in a feedback vacuum! By the time I was finished, I had no idea how I’d done or if my playing had been appreciated. I was concerned I’d just been some quirky visitor at best, or an unwanted distraction at worst.
It was a relief when I finally did receive feedback. To my delight, it was all good! The office staff told me that all of the patients had enjoyed the music and found it relaxing and peaceful. One patient asked if this was something new the dentist was planning to do on a regular basis. Another woman said she was horribly stressed out when she came into the office for her appointment, but by the time she left, her stress was gone! When was the last time you heard someone say that about their visit to the dentist?
So, Merlin and I had a satisfying afternoon, adding a dash of unexpected beauty to a few people’s lives and busting some stress in the process. I think I could get used to this!