Therapeutic musician uses harp to help heal patients

By Katie Demeria

STRASBURG — Mary Ellen Hoover, a resident at Greenfield Senior Living, moved her hands along to the same rhythm of the harpists’ finger as he started to play the Irish ballad “Danny Boy.”

“Oh, I love this song,” Hoover said. “I have a grandson named Danny.”

Hoover’s mother was also from Ireland — so when she found out harpist Allen Dec would be playing Irish tunes during his monthly visit to the nursing home, she was eager to attend.

According to Dec, listening to the music does much more for residents like Hoover than simply allowing them the opportunity to listen to their favorite songs.

“Music and sound are very big parts of life,” Dec said. “They can affect us in a visceral way.”

Dec is a certified therapeutic musician. He plays for various local nursing homes and hospitals, and has been doing so for more than 20 years.

Therapeutic music has been gaining popularity for several years, according to Dec. Some hospitals throughout the country have hired musicians full time to play for their patients.

“Medicine doesn’t heal us. Our body heals itself, and medicine helps,” Dec said. “Music can be used as a tool to relax the body, and help that healing.”

Dec said the process through which music helps the body can be described as psychoneuroimmunology.

“Music affects the mind, which is the ‘psycho,’ which then affects the nervous system, which then affects the immune system,” Dec explained.

The study of psychoneuroimmunology suggests that healing starts through the mind. If an individual feels at peace, the body will have an easier time healing itself.

Music can play a vital role in creating that peace, Dec said.

“If you listen to soothing music, you’ll feel soothed,” he said. “If you listen to agitated music, you’ll feel agitated.”

Playing in nursing homes, in hospitals, or through hospice organizations can be useful to the patients. Dec said people often come up to him and tell him his music has made them feel better.

Nurses will sometimes report seeing vitals change for the better in patients who cannot communicate, Dec said, such as those in comas.

Staff members approach him at times, as well, and tell him his music has relaxed them.

“We react to music on a daily basis,” he said. “Some say we are made of sound, and that we have a big reaction to the vibrations because we feel those vibrations every day.”

Dec was certified to become a therapeutic music through a national music for healing transition program. He was one of the first teachers in the national program after it started nearly 20 years ago.

The program teaches musicians what to do when in the medical environment, training them to play music at the bedsides of the sick and dying.

“Different types of people require different types of music,” Dec said. “You’d play something specific for the elderly, for children, the comatose and the actively dying.”

Dec started his music career as an organist, but always had a desire to pick up the harp.

He played it for the first time when he was able to borrow his cousin’s harp.

“I remember it just vibrating through my whole body,” he said.

Unable to afford his own harp, Dec said he was able to afford it through the graciousness of his family.

“They’d start sending me money, saying ‘this is for a harp,'” he said.

The harp, he said, is an especially therapeutic instrument. Through the vibrations of the strings, patients can have a real connection with the music.

“Music has the power to change our perspective on life,” Dec said. “It can help us heal ourselves. You can do more to help yourself than you realize.”

Contact staff writer Katie Demeria at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or kdemeria@nvdaily.com