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Playing in Angel Mode

Harp therapy brings musical massage to Maui.

January 19, 2012
Cindy Schumacher , The Maui Weekly

Music moves us. Our favorite songs can rouse all kinds of emotions, from tears to dancing with joy. However, through current studies in psychology and counseling, we are more aware that music can be used as a vehicle to merge medicine and spirituality.

The harp, an instrument often associated with heavenly beings and melodious strumming from cloud tops, offers much in the way of healing therapy.

"I have been a musician and performer since early childhood, and took up the harp in 1998 after a series of surgeries to correct a congenital disorder in my spine," said Ha'iku resident Irene Ryding, currently a student in the International Harp Therapy Program.

Article Photos

Harpist Irene Ryding wants to share musical healing with others.
Photo: Cindy Schumacher

Hearing about harp therapy, Ryding was determined to learn more as a part of her rehabilitation.

"Now that I am older, my need for performing has waned and my love of music has become more spiritual in nature," she said. Awed by the personal benefits she received from the vibration of the harp, Ryding now feels called to share her discovery with others.

Ryding moved to Maui in 2003 and immediately began playing harp professionally for weddings and other events. Even though she continues to play publicly, her practice is more about music in its purest form--the vibrations, the sound--and about the awareness and sense of well-being that it brings.

The harp's effect on the body can be partly explained by a physics principle called "entrainment." This concept describes the influence of one oscillating system over another.

"Various modes and tempos are employed for different results," Ryding said.

Research has shown that harp music reduces blood pressure and heart rate. It can decrease pain by elevating endorphin levels and promoting relaxation.

"Harp music at the bedside is also shown to create considerable psychological and spiritual benefits," she said. "It is widely used to bring comfort to terminally ill patients and their families."

The International Harp Therapy Program seems to be making its way from the concert hall to the hospital bedside.

"A growing number of musicians are offering harp therapy, often described as a musical massage," said Ryding.

One of the leading lights in this relatively new treatment is harpist Christina Tourin, founder of the International Harp Therapy Program. Tourin, who is planning a workshop on Maui in 2012, has played in hospitals and hospices for many years. She began discovering the healing power of the harp while playing for patients at a hospital in Vermont. Doctors and nursing staff were amazed to find improvements in heart rates, blood pressure and oxygenation levels in patients for whom she played. She soon found that training was needed to meet the needs of patients and went on to receive her music therapy degree from Arizona State University.

"Playing music in hospitals and hospices is much more than entertainment and playing songs," said Tourin. "There are many subtleties with matching breathing tempos, moods and especially resonant tones."

Realizing it would be possible to have a harp played in every hospital and hospice in America by 2020, she began the International Harp Therapy Program in 1994.

Today, hospitals throughout the U.S. and around the world have Certified Therapeutic Harp Practitioners, who are recognized by the National Standards Board for Therapeutic Musicians.

"Providing calm and comfort for their patients, the International Harp Therapy Program trains students across Europe, Canada, Australia, Brazil, Japan and the U.S.," said Ryding.

"Therapeutic harpists use what they term 'inclusive attention,' in which they tune into a person and look for clues such as eye movement, changes in muscle tension, skin color or speech to find the 'resonant note' for the client," Ryding said. They then improvise around this resonant note to help them relax further.

"We tune into people's breathing, their mood and their surroundings to develop something that is really personal," she said.

By watching a patient's breathing pattern, the practitioner can match it with a rhythmic meter, 2/4, 4/4, or 6/8, for example. Playing along with the patient's breathing rhythm helps him to regulate it to a more desirable rate. Harpists often observe that each person responds better to a particular key because of the resonance with his body.

Ryding wants to study more about harp therapy, because she wants to bring good to the world while raising her own awareness.

"I believe that it is time to pay forward to others in need for all the wonderful opportunities and benefits that I have enjoyed through a lifetime of music," she said.

Irene Ryding is available to play harp in Maui County for bedside therapy. In return, she asks only that recipients donate what they can afford to Hospice Maui, which needs funding to build a new 12-bed facility in Wailuku. Ryding also plays for weddings, parties and other special events, and offers private harp lessons.

For more information, visit and To reach Ryding, call (808) 573-2188 or email



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