I play the Paraguayan Harp, which is an evocative instrument with a sound that speaks directly to people. I’ve created a style of simple, gentle relaxing music which is inspired by nature and is often interwoven with the best of hundreds of hours of birdsong recordings I’ve made locally. Cuckoos, blackbirds and nightingales are big favourites.
When I was first invited to play in Care Homes I was struck by how fascinated people were by the harp and the birdsong and how everyone was relating to their own experiences of sounds and nature (“Your tune about raindrops reminded me of the tin roof on my childhood home in Africa”, “I used to love listening to the birds when I was up at dawn nursing my young children”).
Aware of how cut off people who live in institutional settings are from nature and the outside world in general, I started to talk informally between playing about the woodland walks that inspired my music, often with anecdotes from a recent walk with references to seasons and the weather. This triggered many nature reminiscences which I encouraged people to share with the group or afterwards individually over a cup of tea.
At some point in each session I’d go round the room giving everyone a go on the harp. This was popular but was often made difficult by people’s limited range of arm and upper body movement, so two years ago I had the idea of making small harps that were light, could be held and played in any way that was comfortable, and had 8 strings tuned so that any sound played on them would fit with a simple repeating chord progression on my own harp.
I now have a set of 14 harps. I play a recording of a loop on my own harp so I’m free to move around the room encouraging and helping. The harps are easy to hold and play and are very tactile and approachable. People like the sensation of the sound being so close, feeling the vibrations, the feel of the wood and the craftsmanship that has gone into it.
Two people can explore a harp together, so a more confident or physically capable person can involve another who is less so. A harp placed flat on the lap of an unresponsive person and strummed a few times will also often lead to their involvement in playing and listening.
I don’t see my role as teaching music in any formal way or as working towards a performance. I’m aiming to give them people new experiences of sounds and emotions in the moment. Many will be happy stroking across all the strings (“It’s so relaxing, like stroking a cat”), some will explore each string individually (“I like the longest one best”). I might encourage them to breathe with the music, imagine they are birds singing in the dawn chorus, play as quietly or loudly as they can…..