The healing power of music

First Posted: 11/15/2014

Music heals. Every Tuesday, when Barbara Dexter finishes playing her harp for the severely disabled residents of St. Joseph’s Center, this much is certain.

Many of the children and young adults are non-verbal and cannot even tolerate human touch. When they hear the soothing tones of the harp, feet start tapping and joyful noises are heard. A loving caress from staff is finally accepted.

“One year I remember playing ‘Silent Night,’” Barbara explained. “At times before, one or two of the children would make noises, almost as if they were singing along. This time was different though. Before I was done, every patient in the room was humming along. It was so beautiful. I didn’t want it to ever end.”

Barbara moved to Clarks Summit 27 years ago with her civil engineer husband. They raised their two sons here and now have six grandchildren. A registered nurse in Emergency Rooms and Intensive Care Units by trade, music has always been important in her life. She began playing the piano at age six. Soon after, she listened in on her older sister’s organ lessons and picked up that instrument as well.

It was her husband who encouraged her to take up the harp.

“I had always loved the sound of the harp, but growing up, it was just too expensive an instrument. When I was 40 years old, my husband offered to buy one if I would learn how to play it,” she said. “I took some lessons at Marywood and haven’t stopped since.”

Barbara now owns eight or nine different harps, each one with its own purpose. Some are better for teaching, others easier to transport to performances and some are beautiful pieces of artistry, appropriate for church sanctuaries and other special venues.

Barbara has been teaching piano for nearly 50 years, since she was in eighth grade. She also teaches harp. She performs at weddings, funerals, cocktail parties and other events. Instead of her students performing in recitals for their parents, when they are ready, Barbara has them perform at local assisted living homes and other inpatient facilities. It is a performance and community service combined. Barbara understands the personal fulfillment that comes with giving back.

It’s been 15 years since she started her weekly schedule of visiting patients in need of the healing power of music. Back then, physicians were skeptical. After seeing its effects though, she became part of the healing process. Doctors began to lead her to their most vulnerable patients, pointing out who most needed her most.

“At CMC (Community Medical Center), I played for patients in the Intensive Care Unit, the Cardiac Care Unit, the Psychiatric ward and the Neo-Natal Intensive Care Unit,” Barbara explained. “The nurses told me that a very fragile, premature infant nursed for the very first time after I finished. Babies’ oxygen saturation levels would go up to 100 percent after I played. I would be led to an incubator and asked to start there. A baby who was flailing in discomfort would suddenly be calm.

“In the I.C.U., a nurse said that five minutes of listening to the harp was the equivalent of five milligrams of morphine. And there’s something about live music. They say that recorded music does not have the same effect.”

Barbara said she has seen the benefits of live music firsthand on several occasions.

“At St. Joe’s, there is a young man who has lived there for over 20 years. He is blind and non-verbal,” she said. “I was told that he never smiled until he heard the sound of the harp. Now, when he hears my voice and the sound of the Velcro on my harp case, he smiles every time.”

Barbara said sometimes the effect of music is more powerful than she could ever imagine.

“One boy really stuck with me,” she said. “It was 10 or 12 years ago. He was in a coma after a car accident. He was a musician and his mother propped his cello up in the corner of his hospital room. She was always at his side.

“I was playing for 10 to 15 minutes at each bedside, including his, but you could hear the music all throughout the ward. One day I arrived and I was told that he had woken up.” Barbara’s eyes glistened at the memory.

“He told his mother that he had heard harp music. He said, ‘I lived from one note to the next.’ It was all he remembered from his time in the coma.” Barbara continued.

“Three years later I was playing for a memorial service and a tall, strapping, handsome young man approached me. He told me that he had been that boy and he reiterated that he heard harp music in his coma. What a joy to hear this!”

Barbara said she does this work as a gift. She said the spiritual rewards are more fulfilling than any compensation.

Barbara will bring her gift of healing and peace to the public for the free community concert from 6 to 8 p.m. Dec. 8 at the Assembly of God Church, 204 S. Abington Road, Clarks Green. “A Mystical Moment,” her Christmas harp concert, is a free admission.

It is meant to provide tranquility, whether people stay for 15 minutes or two hours. Every year Barbara offers this concert as a gift to the community.

“Music brings out different reactions in different people: laughter, meditation, tears…,” said Barbara. “It feeds the soul.”

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