First appeared in The OT Magazine issue 20, January/February 2018 

Bringing together two of her loves, occupational therapist Alice McGarvie combines healing and sound to the benefit of her clients. The founder of music therapy company From the Harp spoke to us about the difference that this ancient stringed instrument can make to people’s lives.

Emotionally evocative, music has long been known to transform feelings and improve the lives of many. The ancient civilisations of Greece may be the first civilisation who recognised this link, with Apollo, the Greek god of medicine and music, rooted in the earliest mythologies. Head further south throughout the Iron Age and you would find the earliest incarnations of music therapy being practiced in the pyramids of Egypt.

No longer only a thing of Greek gods, a new generation of occupational therapy heroes have emerged to carry this musical torch, with one channelling the healing properties of the harp in her therapeutic work.

Alice McGarvie is a qualified OT dual trained in both physical and mental health. After completing a course in Harp Therapy she began From the Harp in Portsmouth, Hampshire, which combines her love of music and her expertise in occupational therapy.

“I’d played the harp for a few years and I thought I could use harps as the medium for therapeutic activity with people with a variety of health conditions – this is well established in the USA,” she said. “I wanted to be more creative in my occupational therapy practice and I also wanted to work with a variety of client groups.”

New to the world of business, Alice took the plunge and trusted her hard work and passion for healing and music to make the business work. After some teething problems, she is now thriving. “It’s been a very steep learning curve, and I’ve had to learn about legalities of business, finance, marketing, social media and more. It can be liberating making all the decision but it can become isolating too.

“From the Harp is a unique service in the UK, so it can be difficult to introduce the idea of harp therapy and its therapeutic benefits to potential clients, even though this therapy is well accepted in other parts of the world. I offer services for groups or individuals, the majority of my work is in care homes, health groups or with private clients.

“As an occupational therapist I have a broad training and am able to adapt my approach to work with all client groups including people living with dementia, brain injury, mental health difficulties, learning disability, visual impairment or physical health difficulties. Group work involves improvisation, games, familiar pieces and composition. I also provide one-to-one work at the bedside for people who are unable to get out of bed.”

Alice’s patient’s work with harps is informed by something called flow, a state where you become so immersed in an activity that you lose track of both time and everything around you. Inspired by the work of Professor Gaynor Sadlo at the University of Brighton, the flow state has been shown to bring about optimal human functioning. Alice said: “Flow allows us to divert ourselves from our concerns and forget ourselves, bringing relief from the worries of our everyday lives, giving us time to enhance our mental and physical experiences. During Flow we can feel more deeply connected to others and have feelings of expansion to the wider environment and universe. Flow is beneficial to health and well-being, and we feel the rewards through the ‘happy hormones’ dopamine endorphins and serotonin.

“Research suggests that therapeutic harp music can reduce pain and anxiety as well as stabilize breathing and heart rates.  In my own work, using the Arts Observation Scale, I have observed mood and happiness increase, while, additionally, clients are distracted from their treatment or environment. Due to the harp’s tuning, everyone is able to make a lovely sound immediately, while the resonance can be felt very strongly. Therefore, the harp can offer sensory, cognitive and physical benefits.”

Now an established practice in the area due to this work, developments and tailoring to particular clients has taken place, with Alice taking these experiences and using them to further From the Harp. In particular, her work with the elderly and those with dementia is always changing and adapting to suit individuals, some of whom may not have received stimulus like this for a long period of time.

Alice said: “I have spent a lot of time visiting care homes and I have become aware of how passive many of their activities are. My occupational therapy skills allow me to adapt my approach to each client, to enable participation. The harp therapy course taught me how to use the harp therapeutically and make the harp interaction totally client centred. This is especially important when working with clients living with dementia who may not remember the activity, although the feeling from playing can remain, so our work needs to be very much in the moment.

“I really wanted to get people doing the doing. I believe that human beings are built for creativity, so why should this stop following a diagnosis or old age?”

For more information visit fromtheharp.co.uk.