Some of us have been dreading the thought of how much harp music we’ll have to listen to in Heaven (better that, though, than all that country and western there’ll be in Hell). But if Heaven’s musicians play the harp as beautifully as Alison Ware was playing it at Calvary John James Hospital yesterday then Heaven is going to be better than bearable.

There is no one else in Australia quite like Ware. An accomplished harpist, she combines her musicianship with qualifications in Clinical Pastoral Education and in clinical uses of music to do paid work for the Calvary John James Hospital Pastoral Care Department one morning a week. She plays her harps at the bedsides of patients because some sorts of music, and especially the soothing sorts of it twanglingly crooned and cooed by a well-played harp, have proven therapeutic benefits, conducive to healing.

”It lowers blood pressure. It can lift a mood,” Ware told me yesterday as, with a little recital of what she meant, she lifted this columnist’s mood considerably. She appears to be the only person in Australia paid to do this kind of work, which, given music’s proven power to soothe the troubled breast, seems extraordinary. But she has more paid work looming, she hopes and expects, among brain tumour and hospice patients.

In recent times she’s spent 18 months at the Canberra Hospital as a volunteer where her venues even included the often tense, angst-ridden emergency area where she could tell, and where the staff confirmed, her playing made a significantly soothing difference.

Yesterday, and as she does every Wednesday at Calvary John James, Ware was trundling her harp of the day (yesterday it was a medium-sized and pretty 31-string instrument that’s made of cherrywood and that fits neatly on to a special little trolley) to wherever it would do some good.

In a conversation sweetly punctuated with the occasional piece of celestial playing she explained that ”I’ve got a background in health and my initial profession was as a nurse. I’d always wanted to learn the harp so I started having private lessons and then I found out there were people [almost all of them overseas] using harps in health care. I really loved that idea.”

You can’t, yet, train for this in Australia so she did her initial training with the International Healing Musician Program. It’s an online course and from your own home ”you turn up once a week” and with the deft use of Skype and other IT miracles you play for your teachers and do assorted assignments.
”I’ve really found quite a pastoral aspect to the harp. For the patients its a distraction. It’s relaxation. The focus is definitely on the patients. I don’t do a performance. That’s where I’m different. I’m a clinical musician. I’m not a music therapist.”

I’d imagined her playing each patient’s particular requests (with her at my hospital bedside I’d ask for a little ABBA, perhaps some bossa nova, a Gilbert and Sullivan medley) but she says that in fact ”99 per cent of the time” patients never ask for particular tunes. And in any case, because she’s not performing as such, she instead plays appropriately soothing riffs as they come to her. She is always adjusting to what’s required by the individual patient. ”For example if someone hasn’t been sleeping well I can go in and play to them, and they’ll go to sleep or I might play for 20 minutes just to allow them to rest.”

Ware arranged her harp on her trolley and we followed her as she went to play for Anna Strehar, a patient who has been at the hospital for five weeks. You could see what Ware meant about her work not being performances.

Sometimes she played, sometimes she chatted with the patient and sometimes she chatted and played at the same time. It was all very informal and with the harp singing away in the background, somehow present but somehow unobtrusive too, like some especially tuneful and mellow songbird out in one’s garden.

”The harp is quite a special instrument, a wonderful instrument for health care. Even its vibrations are quite wonderful. Put your hand here [indicating the cherrywood harp's smooth, honey-brown flanks] and feel it.”

And sure enough, as she played, the harp seemed to be eerily alive and breathing. She makes the point that even just the sight of a harp such as yesterday’s wooden object of loveliness being trundled to and fro along a hospital’s corridors is a therapeutic thing. Most of the contraptions seen around a hospital are sinister, steely, white-painted things but the harp is wooden, reassuring and humane and she finds few can resist the urge to run a hand along its strings.