Alberta Cancer Foundation

Harp & Soul

THE BEST TREATMENT: Radiation therapist Susan Mortensen, who works at the Edmonton Cross Cancer Institute, recently won an award for professional excellence and patient care.

Photos by Allan Budd

Since her teenage years, Bev Ross has been a professional musician. While she may be trained in piano and keyboard, she had always had a soft spot for the harp and Celtic music. Once she had crossed paths with harp music, she was completely drawn in.

Now she is using her talents to work with patients at the Cross Cancer Institute. Ross, a therapeutic harp practitioner, shares what brought her to the Cross, as well as her role and how it benefits patients.

Q: What inspired you to work with cancer patients?
I’m a certified therapeutic harp practitioner. Bedside music and certified therapeutic musicians are of an increasing interest in the United States and now in Canada. So I completed a program that was at the San Diego Hospice. It was a combination of distance learning and a residence program.

Q: How is the harp used as a tool for therapy?
We are rhythmic beings, so I can use things I notice about a patient to choose what music might be most supportive of them wherever they’re at. While toe-tapping music is certainly therapeutic in some situations, for someone who is dealing with chemotherapy or is in a palliative pain clinic, more than likely music that is matched to the tempo of their breath rate or their heart rate will be more sustaining to them than something that doesn’t reflect their experience.

Q: How do the patients respond?
It depends on the patient. I’ve had some strong visual reactions and very positive verbal feedback too. It differs for every patient. You can tell when someone is relaxing. If they’re clenching their jaw, you can see their jaw relax. If their breath has been rapid, you can see it deepen and slow when they fall asleep. For me, that’s a good outcome, because they’ve relaxed and they can let the music just support them into even deeper relaxation. I invite them to close their eyes and visualize whatever they want or just follow the music to wherever it takes them, and if they fall asleep, that’s a really good outcome too.

Q: What music do you play?
Some people will see a harp and immediately they’ll associate it with a song or a type of music a harp might play. Or they might say, “I like country music” or “I’m a fan of ’70s rock.” People have their favourites. Sometimes it is playing a song that’s comforting to a patient because they know the song and maybe it reminds them of something they have a positive connection to.

Q: How often do you play for the patients?
I work two hours a week at the Cross Cancer Institute and I work 15 hours a week at the University of Alberta Hospital in their Artists on the Ward program. At the Cross, I began volunteering in 1985 as part of my practicum for the program I was studying. When I completed it, I was attached to the Pain and Symptom Clinic and we began to look at ways that I could be supported to do the work. Eventually I was funded with a contract from the Alberta Cancer Foundation.

Q: What do you hope patients will take away from their experience with you?
I hope the music is another supportive tool to make people stronger and better to deal with the cancer journey.
It’s really wonderful that the Alberta Cancer Foundation supports the bedside time I can spend at the Cross and also through the Arts in Medicine program. It’s a wonderful way of providing patient comfort and I’m very grateful to the foundation for recognizing the benefit in having the harp music available for patients.

Note the Difference

Bev Ross and her peers want the distinction made clear. A therapeutic musician (like Ross) is different from a music therapist. Although the two roles overlap in that music is used therapeutically, it’s like comparing apples to oranges.

“One of the things I think would be fair to say is a music therapist is often working with a diagnostic goal,” says Ross. “He or she will be part of a diagnostic team and it will be like physiotherapy. There will be physicians, nurses and others who have identified a diagnostic goal. Then the music therapist will meet with the patient and use music as a tool and a support to meet that goal.”

A therapeutic musician works with the patient as a massage therapist would. After the patient discusses concerns, the musician will have gathered a sense of what physical and emotional state the patient is in and will begin playing music and adjusting it according to the patient’s experience.