Every Tuesday afternoon from two until four o’clock Martha Lawrance plays her harp for the patients at The Salvation Army Toronto Grace Health Centre (TGHC). Martha is a certified therapeutic harp practitioner (CTHP) and is accredited by the National Standards Board for Therapeutic Musicians. As a certified harp practitioner, she does not diagnose illnesses or prescribe a treatment plan for patients; in fact, she rarely has much knowledge of the specific illnesses of the patients for whom she plays. Instead, as a therapeutic musician, Martha uses the inherent healing elements of live music and the sound of the harp to enhance the environment for patients in healthcare settings, making it more conducive to the human healing process.

Harp therapy, whose benefits are now documented, is an art based on the science of sound. Live harp music effects positive changes in the emotional, physical, mental and spiritual functioning of individuals with health problems. The resonance and tone quality of the harp provides comfort and gently creates a “cradle of sound” as support, to address anxiety, breathing problems, fear, pain and depression. As a certified harp practitioner Martha strives to effect positive changes that meet the wants and needs of the patient by designing a musical experience to enhance their quality of life.

Martha has been a harpist for almost all her life. She began playing the piano at age six and began studying the harp at the age of eight. As a child, she studied with Marie Lorcini from the Montreal Symphony, and by the time she reached high school she was playing professionally. During high school, she also worked as a volunteer, both musically and as a caregiver. She furthered her studies at the Faculty of Music, University of Western Ontario, and has played the harp professionally with the London Symphony Orchestra, Theatre London, the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony, and the Blyth Festival Theatre.

Martha has always shared her music. After hearing about the benefits of therapeutic music, she became interested in learning more about playing her harp in a health care setting where she could promote health and wellness through music. Her research directed her to Christina Tourin the director of the International Harp Therapy Program and author of the harp therapy book, A Cradle of Sound. Martha enrolled in the two-year program and trained as a practitioner.

Central to the program is the recognition that each individual has their own resonant tone, style of musical preference, mood and their own rhythm. The practitioner, after learning these, is able to combine them to offer the patient their own personal musical journey, or “their own cradle of sound,” to help in emotional, mental, physical and spiritual healing.

When Martha begins a musical session with a patient, she plays in response to the present moment. She takes clues, observing such things as a patient’s facial expressions or the surroundings and “vibe” of the room. She will evaluate all of these and respond accordingly. She will typically play in one of the three strains: sleep, sorrow, or joy. She creates a sound oasis, matching tempo with breathing patterns. The selection of music can be improvised or familiar, but in most cases the key and mode and melodies are played in the patient’s own resonant tone.

The musical session can elicit a number of beneficial effects, such as increased relaxation, improvement in sleep, decreased pain and anxiety, stabilization of vital signs, and improvement in mood. On a palliative care unit, an end-of-life music vigil can also help a patient to achieve a peaceful transition.

Realizing that some are skeptical but believing that harp therapy is a much-needed service, Martha approached the TGHC to determine if there would be an interest in implementing a harp therapy program for their patients. “Although I had serious interviews and auditions,” Martha stated, “right from the beginning the TGHC totally embraced harp therapy.” The TGHC is recognized as the only hospital to have a Therapeutic Harp Program.

At TGHC, Martha works with patients in Complex Continuing Care, Post-Acute Care Rehabilitation, Palliative Care, and with patients with various mental health issues. Not all patients want harp therapy but most do; some patients even follow her around. Mostly though, Martha makes her rounds on her own. Having provided harp therapy at the TGHC for a while, she knows the patients that appreciate and need her services.

Martha wants to ensure that people understand that harp therapy is about the science of sound — resonance. “Everybody,” Martha says, “has their resonance tone. It can change daily, but when I’m with a patient I go to their tone. The patient will indicate their tone, and tell me this sounds soothing or this is beautiful or they may moan when they can’t communicate verbally. If the notes I play agitates them then I have it wrong. However, when I find that tone that is the ultimate cradle of sound.”