The Bowed Psaltery—perfect for Uncommon Musical Instruments Day (July 31)
I have been wanting to share my experience about a recent patient/friend, Robert, and the bowed psaltery.
Robert was in his nineties when he purchased a bowed psaltery from Song of the Wood, up the road from us in Black Mountain, NC. He learned to play “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and a couple other tunes, but his favorite was “Ashokan Farewell,” the haunting melody composed and played by Jay Unger on Ken Burns’ Civil War series on PBS. He struggled with this song, so when I was invited to his home I often played it on his psaltery or even hummed it along with my guitar playing. He melted into smiles and gratitude every time!
His heart began to fail at age 95, and Hospice was called in. My offers to play and sing for Robert were readily accepted. Using my music practitioner skills I carefully offered music at Robert’s bedside observing his reactions……unlike his healthy self, his unwell self was not able to listen too long to the music. I chose low-pitched and slow tempo music. I watched for agitation and labored breathing, indicators that the music was too much for a weak heart.
He asked me to tune his psaltery and he tried to play it but he could not hold it and the bow in place. He was disappointed. “That’s what I’m here for; I’ll play it for you.” So “Ashokan Farewell” rang out from his bedroom through the whole house. His dear wife joined us to witness Robert’s joy in the music.
On my last visit Robert asked me a question: “Will you play “Ashokan Farewell” at my memorial service?”
“I would be honored.” And so just a week later I received news that Robert had succumbed to his heart disease. The day of his service I held not my bowed psaltery in my hands, but his beautiful instrument, his bow. I was surprised to learn that “Ashokan Farewell” would be the first item in his service. I stood in front of a crowded room, breathed restfully, placed his bow on the strings, and began playing. The same haunting music saturated the room, bringing Robert and his favorite music into the hearts of all. It set the stage for the rest of his lovely service.
Farewell, dear friend, Robert. I will never play your song the same way again.
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