I first met Patrice Haan through a songwriting critique group, and, well, if someone shows up with a harp, you take notice. And of course, there’s a lot more to Patrice than ‘simply’ her ability to compose and perform beautifully on one of the more hallowed of instruments. She also composes on piano, sings with Tony Marcus in Leftover Dreams and spends her days using music for healing. Patrice graciously answered my questions about her extensive performance cred and how she puts her harp in service at area hospitals, shelters and hospice with the non-profit organization Healing Muses.
Q: You write your own material, sing standards with your partner AND perform regularly as part of Healing Muses. Do these musical ‘hats’ flow together organically or do you find yourself having to consciously make time for each? What’s the ‘perfect’ mix of all three?
PH: It’s amazing isn’t it? Honestly I think I have the most fortunate life of anyone I know! Writing my own material is my medicine wheel, my way of making beauty, making sense and making healing. I meet with a superb songwriters’ circle, people who listen intently and with great love, so that offers me wisdom and a regular deadline. The hospital work with the Muses is a major part of my practice, stepping aside and letting the music work. I’m absolutely convinced that music heals patients, families, staff and me. I have regular gigs at the hospital so I have to stay on top of that music.
My partner, Tony, is a wonderful player, singer and arranger. In Leftover Dreams, our duo, I get to sing some of the smartest, most lyrical and wonderfully crafted songs of the last century. In a show, when I present a tune solo I feel totally supported by Tony; other singers will attest to his skill in accompaniment. Sometimes we sing complex harmonies and let’s just say that the intimacy of singing harmonies with someone you care about is better than .. chocolate! As far as making time, I make music with my sweetheart so the desire to rehearse speaks for itself. The flow comes from doing all these things I love to do. The perfect mix? Staying attuned to them all and having enough quiet time to listen.
Q: You seem made for harp and vice versa, but you came to it relatively late. Can you talk about your process playing, performing and composing for harp? Do you write on it more often than piano?
PH: Thank you. I am in love with my instrument; if it seems made for me, so much the better. I practice pretty much every day, though not always my own material. In the hospitals, I play a range of Renaissance, Medieval and world music, as well as original and improvised tunes – whatever seems to be needed. I wish I were a more skilled player and I think at this point only hours will do that.
Sometimes a melody will appear in my hands while I’m at the harp or piano; sometimes I find tunes by walking or swimming and singing to myself. Certain melodies and, even more so, certain accompaniments, better fit either the harp or the piano. Because the lever harp is diatonic I have to find ways of creating the sound I want by pre-tuning the strings or choreographing lever changes to give me certain notes. I love the voice of my harp – I play a Cithara Nova built by John Westling – and its sound, its resonance, is crucial to some songs. Others, especially ones which are more chromatic, must be played on piano. On the one hand there is the technical business of how to get the sound and on the other there is the listening intuitively for what the sound wants to be.
I’ve been experimenting with scordatura – tuning different octaves differently – and creative voicings. My song ‘Bluest Blue’ came about when I was challenged to write a blues harp song on lever harp rather than mouth harp! And then there are lyrics. Lately I’ve been writing poetry and then setting it. Often I find myself without regular rhyme schemes or the common forms of songwriting: AABA or verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus. Then it’s like swimming and trusting the water to hold you. It’s utterly fascinating.
Q: You’re starting a new recording project—what can listeners expect? How will it differ from “Headed Home”?
PH: It’s been 5 years since ‘Headed Home’ though I have been writing all along. Once again there will be harp and voice and piano and guitar, an a Capella song. But I’m stretching; there is at least one tone poem, a funny anthem to teatime, and my blues harp song. I hope I’m becoming more skilled. I think I’m not as sad. It’s still my medicine wheel.
Q: You work with Healing Muses, taking music into hospitals and hospices. This works sounds at once daunting and extremely deep and meaningful—what drew you to the work, what keeps you doing it and do you have a view on how to most effectively use sound and music for healing?
PH: I certainly do feel drawn; from early on there’s been a lot of death in my life but music has been part of that too. For example, as a young woman I was asked to be part of a care team for a friend dying of metastatic cancer. My job was to play piano and sing songs for her. She was very afraid of dying but her death in the end was gentle and gracious. Some years later, I sang my mother out. She was a wonderful singer and the music was a handhold between us. I know it helped her crossing, and it helped me.
When I was asked to join Healing Muses I was thrilled to continue the work. With the Muses, I rarely sing, but I always have my harp. Every time I am in a hospital, on a ward, in the lobby, at the lab, I see how music calms and lifts people. I mean patients, family, staff, security guards, volunteers at the information desk – the whole crew!
My goal is to let the music do its work. I try to create a space, a refuge, a little moment for whatever comes up. Sometimes the music gives the patient or the family permission to weep; as often it gives space to smile. Sometimes it lets people sleep. I was playing for a friend who had had radical surgery for cancer. She was nauseous and disheartened but she let me sit in the corner of her room and play softly. After two hours she said sleepily, that it was like a raft floated out to where she was struggling in stormy seas, giving her a safe place to crawl up and rest.
Do I have to explain further why I do this work?
Getting a broad repertoire of music so deeply in my hands that I can offer it unobtrusively takes a fair bit of time, but I’m continually fascinated to discover what might work in any given situation. I love the harp but I have to remind myself to be willing to let whatever is going to happen, happen. Occasionally someone will just need silence or I’ve had the weirdly funny moment of a patient feeling spooked by the harp, thinking it sounds too much like an invitation to go to heaven. In that case, I have to be willing to sing or move along.
More and more programs are being established which offer training in music for healing or music for transitions and dying. As to how to effectively use sound, I can only say I think we have to open our intention and our attention, call on the music and then step back. I believe the harp and the heart understand one another.