Harpists with Chronic Illness

Posted In: How To Play

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    Heather K Veitch on #190310

    Hi there,

    I’ve recently returned to learning the lever harp after an absence of several years for personal reasons; more recently, however, I’ve been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis with Transverse Myelitis. I have intermittent control over my left leg and quite a bit of sensory loss due to nerve damage in my lower back. My hands are fine (for the moment).

    I’m wondering whether anyone has any experience of learning/playing the harp whilst dealing with a chronic illness such as MS or similar? Can anyone share any advice, hints/tips, reading matter etc that may help me get the best out of my practice/lessons, please?

    At the moment I’m doing lots of body awareness and self-care, including resting and pacing myself before/after sessions at the harp, but I would like to try and make the most of my practice and lesson times as possible. I would be so grateful for any comments anyone has regarding this subject.


    Heather x

    susan-ash on #190311

    There is a wonderful lady & harpist, Robbin Gordon-Cartier. She will be giving workshops at the harp conference “Beginning in the Middle” that is scheduled for March 2016.
    I have no contact information for her otherwise.

    patricia-jaeger on #190322

    Heather, if you go to http://www.msfocus.org you will reach Multiple Sclerosis Foundation in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Going to http://www.nationalmssociety.org in Seattle, WA (Tel. 206 284 4236) might also be helpful. There are many such groups worldwide, including the U.K. Just this last weekend, many bicyclists and also motorcyclists (racing in different directions, naturally!) held annual races near Seattle to benefit MS and I believe thousands of dollars were raised for research into this disease by their efforts. A family member volunteered, not on a bicycle, but with his large Ford van retrofitted as a medical/rescue vehicle and with his EMT and ham radio skills, stationed along the route in case of any exhausted or injured riders, of which there are several each year. Hopefully a cure
    might come, to help you soon. Until then, bravely continue playing harp with all of us here rooting for you!

    Aaron Fernuik on #190338

    Oh, Heather, I’m so sorry. I know first-hand how impossible it feels sometimes to get up and get something to eat, let alone practice an instrument. I have had fibromyalgia syndrome for the past 13 years (since I was 19), and just like MS, I go through cycles. Some days/weeks/months are better than others, but your instrument NEVER stops calling to you. You want to play, but your body won’t cooperate.

    You are right to focus on body awareness and biofeedback. You have to relearn how to use your body during practice. I would suggest reading a bit about the Alexander Technique as it specifically applies to musicians; for every motion or movement, your body must provide a counter movement or opposite position in order to balance out muscle usage.

    Find out what temperatures do to your body. Is your condition aggravated by hot or cold? My body hates cold. It makes my pain flare horribly. So if your body responds similarly, draw a hot bath before a practice session and soak for about 15 or so minutes… long enough to raise your body’s basal temperature and improve circulation. Sometimes, I just use a large deep infrared heating pad. This is different than just a heating pad. The deep infrared penetrates about 1.5-2 inches into the surface of the body instead of just warming the skin.

    Seek out any weak parts of your body and strengthen them. I, like most harpists, sit with almost no harp weight on my shoulder. Yet still, irritation in my back was always cutting my practice short. Then I bought a lumbar brace, and now I can sit and practice for much longer than before. You may need one of those braces that pull your shoulders back straight. Just find a way to supplement your muscle strength in the areas that, for whatever reason, may be lacking.

    The hardest part of adjusting is going to be slowing down. When I was at my best at about age 24-25, I could jump on the harp and practice vigorously for 3 hours straight. I made SO much progress. Now, I have to practice very slowly, almost meditatively, for short bursts. Warming up with scales or arpeggios, play at half your normal speed to begin with. Feel how certain movements or arm positions affect your body. Then step away from your instrument and write down your observations. Go back to the harp and very slowly experiment with adjustments that alleviate unnecessary strain. A lot of musicians, including orchestra professionals, use so much tension in their bodies; it’s like subconsciously their muscles are trying to “squeeze” out good tone and speed. You want to take a few steps back in order to properly assess your playing habits and completely eradicate unnecessary strain, if you are to have any longevity as a harpist.

    I would also recommend picking up Gerald Klickstein’s “The Musician’s Way” to help you explore this further. He talks about how one of the world’s most renown classical guitarists, John Williams (not the composer), will practice in little 20 minute sessions, then step away for 10 or so minutes and just write his observations. It’s helped me as well to lower my pain levels when practicing. I went back to simple pieces that I hadn’t played in years, like Grandjany’s “Petite Suite,” played everything at half tempo, and really tried to pick apart and strengthen my technique. Doing the same, I’m sure, will help anyone, especially those of us with added burden from chronic illness.

    I hope this helps, and I sympathize with you completely. Remember that in the end, your love for playing is going to help carry you through, so do anything you can to keep your approach simple.

    Patricia Brassil on #190353

    Hello Heather , I am so sorry to read your story. For 6 ! Long yrs I had constant pain —- 2 yrs now pain free & slowly playing harp again. I’m in Ireland but can call you if you have a land line. Am not good with this on line , have finally managed to renew membership on line . If you can email me I will be happy to call you patharpist@icloud.com

    Saul Davis Zlatkovski on #190656

    My mother was an acupuncturist, and she had an electroacupuncture device, with which she could measure energy levels by fluctuation in resistance or something like that. She consistently found improvement in energy after I played the harp. I would encourage you to do whatever is comfortable, even if it is just playing one note over and over, to feel the vibrations.

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