Music brings comfort to Hospice patients

November 23, 2001

Music brings comfort to Hospice patients


SMITHSBURG - Harpist Sally Lay's outlook on life changed when she was diagnosed with cancer 10 years ago.

Things that had seemed so important before she fell ill took a back seat to her faith, family and desire to help others when she was faced with death, Lay said.

Lay, of Smithsburg, won her battle with the disease. Now she plays her harp to help others.

She gently plucks the 27 strings on her smallest mahogany harp for clients of Hospice of Washington County in hopes of bringing comfort to those who are dying. Lay plays music suited to the patients' tastes - classical, hymns, holiday - "to create an atmosphere of peace and healing and soothing," she said.

"I know a little bit about suffering. Now I have something I can give," Lay said. "You have people who are deeply touched by the music."


Her Hospice service is part of Lay's work toward her certification as a certified music practitioner through the Music for Healing & Transition Program.

In recognition of music as a therapeutic enhancement to the healing process and the life/death transition, MHTP is a course of study that prepares musicians to serve the ill and/or dying by providing live music to create a healing environment, according to information from the organization.

Lay has completed 75 hours of MHTP classroom training, 10 book reports and 45 internship hours through Hospice for her certification. She is preparing to take her final test so she can help heal and bring peace as a certified music practitioner, she said.

"This is not to entertain," Lay said. "It's a personal thing. This is to reach the patient."

She began working with Hospice about three months ago and serves about six Hospice clients. She visits each client at home every other week. Lay spends time getting to know her listeners before she begins playing because tastes vary, and it's important to provide music that each patient will find soothing, she said.

She watches her clients as closely as her strings when she plays, noting their subtle reactions to her harp's harmonies.

"You play to the body's functions," Lay said.

Most of her Hospice listeners fall asleep as she plucks the strings of her instrument. And that's good. It means Lay has been successful in relaxing them, she said.

"I just play and soothe. It's amazing how the atmosphere changes when you go into a room and start playing," Lay said.

The Lord called upon her to help others with music, she said.

"I'm sort of in awe sometimes. This is not my doing," Lay said. "This is God's ministry. I don't know where it's going. I didn't invent the plan. I'm just fumbling along."

When she learned she had cancer, Lay resigned from her 23-year job as a music teacher in Washington County public schools. She now gives private harp lessons in addition to performing at churches, weddings and other gathering places. The holidays are an especially busy time for a harpist, she said.

Lay, a member of the American Harp Society and director of the Tri-State Harp Ensemble, continues to hone her own harp skills with lessons from Peabody Conservatory harp professor Jeanne Chalifoux.

She enjoys learning, teaching and performing but finds no greater reward than playing her harp to help heal and/or bring comfort to the sick and dying, Lay said.

Small gestures - smiles, relaxed breathing, sleep - tell the harpist she's doing God's work well, she said.

"After I play an hour or two for the patients I feel blessed," Lay said.

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