Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Harpist provides chords of comfort to the dying

TAMPA — Sharon Stoll steps down the hallway of the LifePath Hospice house with a portable harp pressed against her chest. She's petite, 5 feet tall. Her eyes are blue, and her hair is so blond it's almost white. But no one has ever told her she looks like an angel. • All around are the sounds of hospice: the muffled televisions, the chatter of nurses, the occasional loud cough. She walks up to a nurse's station and asks if anyone might benefit from hearing her play. The woman in Room 6, she is told, but don't expect a response. • "She still hears," Stoll says.

Stoll, 62, is a harp practitioner. She searches for a resonant tone, that precise note vibration that hits a patient in just the right way to make him or her relax. Sometimes it's what dying people need to finally let go.

She enters Room 6.

Claire McCarthy is 65 and has 18 hours to live. Once, she was a Carmelite nun who cared for the aged and infirm. She sang in a choir. She prayed with people as they died. But cancer invaded her breasts, then her liver, then her bones. Now her eyes are closed. Her mouth is open. She wears a scapular around her neck, inscribed with a promise of salvation.

Less is more when it comes to harp therapy. Music is soft. Combinations are simple. At this stage, the brain can process only so much. Stoll stands at her bedside and strokes the strings, playing no particular song, trying to mimic the rhythm of the woman's breaths.

The nun's muscles relax. Her right foot moves, then her left. This is what Stoll wants to see.

And for reasons her audiences will never know, this is what Stoll needs.

• • •

Sharon Stoll was 17 when the trembling began. She couldn't control it. Her arms shook. Sometimes her head did, too. Doctors told her she had essential tremors, a neurological disorder sometimes confused with Parkinson's disease, but one that doesn't progress as severely. To Stoll, it was more embarrassing than anything.

One day, she saw a report that said playing the harp was physically therapeutic. She made an appointment for a class. That first time she held the harp's sound board up to her chest and stroked the strings, it was as if the vibrations resonated through her.

She wanted to feel that again.

Eighteen months later, she enrolled in the International Harp Therapy Program and traveled to San Diego to train. She found herself in the room of a woman who was dying. Stoll searched her strings for that resonant tone, but the woman was unresponsive.

Until she hit a G.

The woman let out a big, loud moan.

Oh, my goodness, Stoll thought. I've killed her.

But then she saw the woman's bones settle into her bed. The moan, she realized, was a release. The nurses told her they'd been waiting for the woman to die. Two hours later, she let go.

• • •

A 2002 study: A group of 17 post-operative heart patients at Orlando Regional Hospital were monitored during a single 20-minute session of live harp music. Patients reported decreased pain and anxiety, and visual analog scales recorded physiological differences in blood pressure and oxygen saturation.

A 2008 study: Eight stable premature infants were divided into groups in a study approved by the Wake Forest University School of Medicine. Four received usual care. Two were placed in quiet rooms. Two listened to a live harpist. Those who listened gained weight.

A 2006 study: Scientists with the University of Utah observed and measured the vital signs of 65 patients in palliative care after harp sessions and determined that patients experienced decreased levels of agitation and wakefulness while breathing more slowly and deeply with less effort.

Stoll has her own stories.

Her grandson's birth was expected to be difficult, but she played, and the delivery went smoothly.

She entered an intensive care unit for premature babies, a place polluted by hospital noise like beeping machines and ringing phones. When she played, the baby monitors leveled off.

Then there was the man with Alzheimer's disease. He didn't recognize his wife, didn't even know who he was. But he recognized the song she played. Every time he heard Amazing Grace, he shouted, "Mercy, mercy, mercy!"

Some people don't understand what Stoll does. She'll walk into a nursing home with her harp, only to learn that staffers have filled a room with wheelchairs of people anticipating a show.

She's not an entertainer, she tells them.

She does this to get outside herself, to focus on another person's illness, to forget about her own.

• • •

Stoll peeks into Room 19, where an older man hooked up to an oxygen tank is watching TV. She walks in and asks if he'd like to hear her harp. No, he says — he'd like to set it on fire and throw it into the Hillsborough River.

The harpist makes a polite exit and continues down the hallway. Stoll has gotten that reception before. People see her coming and close their doors. One man refused to get on an elevator with her.

"It's okay," she says. "They associate the harp with death."

She considers hospice work her calling. She will play for people as they take their last breaths, and she won't stop after they die. Somehow, she feels that the sound still reaches them.

"I think everything is vibration and sound," she says, "and how that all works out, only God knows."

She finds a room at the very end of the hall and stands in the doorway. The woman inside is young. It doesn't appear she can speak. Stoll shows her the harp.

"You don't mind?" she asks.

The woman gives a slight nod, and the harpist enters the room. She starts her strokes and notices the woman's eyes wandering. The patient looks tired, as if she's struggling to stay awake.

"It's okay to sleep," Stoll tells her. "I won't mind."

The woman watches the harp for just a moment longer. Then she closes her eyes.

Alexandra Zayas can be reached at or (813) 226-3354.

To learn more about harp therapy, visit, a Web site created by Sharon Stoll for her organization, the Institute for Healing Through Sound and Music.

Harpist provides chords of comfort to the dying 11/26/09 [Last modified: Thursday, November 26, 2009 10:08pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. No touchdown, but fun lesson for Bucs' Adam Humphries


    It didn't end up being a touchdown, but one of the Bucs' biggest hustle plays in Thursday's win over Jacksonville saw receiver Adam Humphries scoop up a loose ball just before halftime, after what looked like an incompletion but was correctly ruled a Jameis Winston fumble.

    Bucs WR Adam Humphries runs to the end zone with QB Jameis Winston trailing -- his alert play wasn't a touchdown because teammates cannot advance a fumble in the final two minutes of a half.
  2. Bucs' Demar Dotson should be back from injury next week


    The Bucs got good news on starting right tackle Demar Dotson, whose MRI showed only a mild right groin sprain and should be back at practice next week.

    Bucs tackle Demar Dotson, shown last year when he signed a three-year contract extension, should only miss a week of practice with his groin injury and can return healthy for the Bucs' season opener at Miami in three weeks. [Octavio Jones | Times]
  3. Comedy legend Jerry Lewis dead at 91


    LOS ANGELES — Jerry Lewis, the manic, rubber-faced showman who jumped and hollered to fame in a lucrative partnership with Dean Martin, settled down to become a self-conscious screen auteur and found an even greater following as the tireless, teary host of the annual muscular dystrophy telethons, has died. He was …

    In this Sept. 2, 1990, file photo, entertainer Jerry Lewis makes his opening remarks at the 25th Anniversary of the Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon fundraiser in Los Angeles. Lewis, the comedian whose fundraising telethons became as famous as his hit movies, has died according to his publicist. [Associated Press]
  4. Mastermind of lottery rigging scam that netted millions faces 25 years


    DES MOINES, Iowa — For a decade, computer programmer Eddie Tipton reliably showed up for work at the central Iowa office of the Multi-State Lottery Association and earned the confidence of his co-workers, a team of technicians entrusted to build computers used to randomly pick numbers for some of the most popular …

    FILE - In this June 29, 2017, file photo, Eddie Tipton, the former Multi-State Lottery Association information security director who admitted to masterminding a scheme to rig lottery games that paid him and others $2 million from seven fixed jackpots in five states, is seen in court in Des Moines, Iowa. Tipton is scheduled to be sentenced Tuesday, Aug. 22. (Rodney White/The Des Moines Register via AP, File) IADES501
  5. Pasco County man killed in wrong-way crash on New Jersey Turnpike


    MOUNT LAUREL, N.J. — Authorities say a Florida man driving the wrong way on the New Jersey Turnpike was killed when his SUV crashed head-on into another vehicle.