Notes of comfort: Harpist brings peace at life’s close

Shutesbury ‘music practitioner’ plays healing role at hospice

  • CAROL LOLLIS<br/>Barbara Russell of Shutesbury plays the harp for left, Amy Carroll and her sister Nancy Hannen at the Fisher House in Amherst.

    CAROL LOLLIS
    Barbara Russell of Shutesbury plays the harp for left, Amy Carroll and her sister Nancy Hannen at the Fisher House in Amherst.

  • CAROL LOLLIS<br/> Barbara Russell of Shutesbury plays the harp during a visit to the Fisher house in Amherst.

    CAROL LOLLIS
    Barbara Russell of Shutesbury plays the harp during a visit to the Fisher house in Amherst.

  • CAROL LOLLIS<br/>Barbara Russell of Shutesbury plays the harp for left, Amy Carroll and her sister Nancy Hannen at the Fisher House in Amherst.
  • CAROL LOLLIS<br/> Barbara Russell of Shutesbury plays the harp during a visit to the Fisher house in Amherst.

AMHERST — Two days before she died, Aloo Driver looked up from her bed and saw a familiar face in her room at the Hospice of the Fisher Home, a cozy place of quilts and plants.

Barbara Russell was back and she carried something else familiar to Driver: a small Celtic-style harp made of cherry. She had admired it for months as her health ebbed.

Russell said hello.

“She opened her eyes a little and then shut her eyes,” Russell recalled this week of Driver’s response to her arrival Jan. 6. “And then she seemed to relax in a different way.”

Russell and her harp visited the hospice again this week and will be back Thursday, her visits now underwritten in part by a $6,500 gift from a grateful family.

The new Aloo Driver Music Fund honors this former University of Massachusetts professor who died at the hospice at the age of 86. Edwin Driver, her husband, said he created the fund because Russell’s visits meant so much to his wife. “She loved music,” he said. “She was surrounded by music her whole life. This is a way of keeping her memory alive.”

Priscilla White, the hospice’s social worker, watched the effect Russell’s playing had on Aloo Driver. “The harp was the main thing that Aloo was comforted by. It brought her such solace and enjoyment. Just feeling the vibrations from the live music — it makes such a difference to be close by.”

White said the hospice may use the new fund to broaden the types of live music available to its residents.

“Music is such a part of living,” said Maxine Stein, the hospice’s executive director. “It enhances a person’s days and brings a tremendous amount of beauty. If you can’t come to the beauty, we’re going to bring the beauty to you.”

On Wednesday, Russell brought her harp down the hill from her home in Shutesbury into two rooms at the hospice, starting with the one in which Alice Mertz likes to sit in a comfortable chair beside windows that let her look up the driveway to cars passing on North Pleasant Street. Closer, she monitors traffic at a bird feeder.

“Do you have new music for me today?” Mertz asked Russell. “Whatever it is, it will be nice.”

They speak a bit, catching up. Mertz, who is 88 and formerly lived at Applewood in South Amherst, mentions that her son in North Carolina, a violinist, recently performed a concert. Family photos sit propped on a dresser, beside a vase of pussy willows, and on the window sill. Russell tunes her harp and sets it on a small stool.

She then begins playing, looking up to see how her listener, her house concert audience of one, is responding to the music — classical pieces, a lullabye, Irish traditionals and even a playful Latin song, “Habanera Gris,” written for the harp.

Mertz sits with her legs crossed. When the Latin piece starts, one leg is suddenly in motion. As the last plucked notes fade, Mertz said: “I see dancers.”

A bedside table holds a stack of CDs, mainly classical. Yo-Yo Ma is there, next to a baby monitor, which means someone down the hall may be listening to Russell as well.

While recorded music sits within reach all day, Mertz says she gets something special when Russell comes through the door with her harp. “It’s a sound that I don’t get to hear the rest of the week and it’s very soothing,” Mertz said.

What is her favorite part of their time together?

“It’s seeing the joy on her face, when she plays,” Mertz said, looking up to where Russell sits a few feet away, cradling her harp.

“That’s very sweet,” Russell said. “I feel that too when I see people’s reactions. It’s so meaningful to me to see the reactions on people’s faces.”

Playing with a purpose

Russell got her start as a harpist two decades ago in Boston. She and a friend discovered how much they loved the instrument, then how much the harp can do for others. “As I was learning the instrument, I became aware of how it had this special quality to be soothing, relaxing and transporting — and have an ability to take you to another place.”

She began bringing her harp to a nursing home, then an AIDS hospice and even into soup kitchens, all places where people did not have access, normally, to the sounds only a harp can make.

Eventually, as her sense of the harp’s therapeutic qualities grew, Russell built her understanding of how the instrument can and should be used. She underwent training with the Music for Healing and Transition Program and in 1999 earned a credential as a certified music practitioner.

Among other things, the program taught her how to be an effective team member in a medical setting.

She took a break to be a mother — her daughter is now 12 — but returned to musical therapy work five years ago by signing up with the Holyoke Hospice Lifecare Program to play in homes and medical centers. She added work for the VNA & Hospice of Cooley Dickinson Inc. two years back and then the Fisher Home a year and a half ago.

“It has stretched me in a lot of directions,” she said of the work. “It’s probably the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done, aside from being a parent.”

When she sits with people who are dying, Russell is not there to perform in the traditional sense. She measures success by how the harp’s sounds help the listener, not please the player. She wants to counter the soundtrack of a medical setting — the beeps, alarms and clinical voices.

Music, she believes, holds the power to bring a new narrative to an emotionally wrought situation — dying — that defies description.

Every visit calls for a different approach. “It’s taking stock of the entire situation and feeling what would be the best music to play at that time,” she said. “Sort of moment-by-moment changing what you are doing to what is more right.”

When a listener seems agitated, Russell — who plays entirely from memory — chooses a piece that will slow things down. Her goal: “Trying to bring relaxation and the feeling of being transported. It takes you some place else.”

When someone is upset, and breathing quickly or with difficulty, Russell will try to lead that listener, through the rhythm of her music, to comfort.

Studies have shown that hospital patients, when asked to rate the intensity of pain, report relief after being exposed to music. According to the American Journal of Hospice and Palliative Medicine, the presence of music, by offering simple comfort, can improve communication between family members and a relative who is dying. Dr. Brian Seeney, of the National Naval Medical Center, has written that music “has been recognized through research as a safe, inexpensive and effective non-pharmaceutical way to relieve anxiety.”

Russell says she measures her work’s effectiveness by reading facial expressions, body language and the pace of breathing.

“Breathing is one of the most basic life functions, along with the heartbeat. It is very connected to one’s emotional state, so when someone is more tense, worried and excited, breathing tends to be more shallow and quicker,” she said. “Connecting music to the breath of a listener can help facilitate that movement from a tense state to a more calm state.”

In one session, she played quiet pieces as her listener, a woman in a medical center in Holyoke, moved toward death.

The woman’s breathing kept being interrupted by coughs. Russell sat playing, as the woman’s daughter held her mother’s hand. In time, her breathing began to slow. Russell adjusted her tempo, eventually mirroring the pauses between the woman’s breaths with lulls in her piece.

“As I played, the coughing started to subside. Her breathing started to slow down … this kept going until the spaces grew longer and she didn’t take another breath — and made her transition. … It can actually help them let go.”

Meeting Aloo Driver

Russell stepped for the first time into Aloo Driver’s room at the Fisher Home early last summer.

Empty, these spaces resemble spare bedrooms. Room 4 has a dresser, bed, a bedside table, a plush chair for visitors and a small oval table with two plants. Its walls are painted light blue. Windows look out on a bird feeder.

“I have such good feelings and associations with that room,” Russell said. “When I arrived, Aloo would brighten up. She would say, ‘Oh, the harp, come on in and play.’ She would close her eyes and take in the music. Sometimes she would hum along. She would say, ‘That was so beautiful, you bring such peace. Come visit me every time you are here.’ Every time I left that room, I felt so uplifted from my time with her. She had a radiant spirit.”

The obituary for Aloo Jhabvala Driver, who was born in Mumbai, India, noted that she lived by the motto “Good thoughts, good words, good deeds.” In that spirit, she willed her body to the UMass Medical School for research.

Music meant a lot to her. Edwin Driver, her husband, said his late wife played the mandolin. Her mother played the sitar and her uncle was an accomplished singer.

Christmas came in her last month alive, and Driver expressed a love of holiday music. “She was open to hearing anything, really, that I had to play.” She sometimes broke into song herself.

Russell recalls how Driver’s daughters were so often there as she set up her harp and played. They listened too —and the music seemed to free up feelings. “They were able to express it in some tears, and in quiet moments. It felt they could connect more with Aloo,” Russell said. “I feel so inspired by them, by how present they were for each other. ... And I’m so grateful they want to support having music continue at the Fisher Home.”

Russell is now coming every week to the hospice because of the Driver family’s gift.

Aloo Driver and Russell had spoken often in the six or seven months they visited in Room 4. But no words passed in their final meeting Jan. 6.

Driver opened her eyes just long enough to take Russell in.

One of her daughters told Russell later that her mother had seemed to relax at the moment — a change that lasted through her final days.

Larry Parnass can be reached at editor@gazettenet.com.

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