Sanford Hospice social worker Kathy Fransen plays the harp for one of the clients at the Sunset Hospice Cottage in Worthington. (BRIAN KORTHALS/DAILY GLOBE)
Playing by harp: Fransen comforts, calmsWORTHINGTON — Sometimes it takes a moment of closure to open new doors of opportunity.
WORTHINGTON — Sometimes it takes a moment of closure to open new doors of opportunity.
Such was the case with Kathy Fransen, a Jackson-area resident who, as a social worker with Sanford Hospice, travels around Nobles, Jackson and Cottonwood counties for her job.
About six years ago, Fransen was attending the funeral of a cousin in Beresford, S.D., when she couldn’t stop thinking that 55 years old was just too young to die.
“It made me realize that if there was something I really wanted to do in life, I should do it and not wait,” expressed Fransen.
“I stood in the parking lot with my sisters after the funeral and said, ‘I feel like I want to play the harp. Do you think I could do it?’ They encouraged me, so I really went after it then.”
She’s not kidding. Fransen drove directly from Beresford to a music store in Sioux Falls, where she walked in and breathlessly inquired of the staff, “Do you have a harp?”
“They looked at me kind of funny, but they sent me in the right direction,” recalled Fransen, who within a couple of months had a harp in hand and had begun studying with skilled harpist Anna Vorhes of Sioux Falls.
“I consider myself a ‘baby musician’ yet musically,” Fransen said modestly, despite having previously sung in high school and church choirs and played the piano and guitar a bit.
“I mean, I could always carry a tune, and I love all kinds of music. Music has always been a part of our family, and my mother was a musician and organist who encouraged us to be involved in music.”
Partly because she was working in a hospice environment, Fransen became aware of a clinical music program based in Sedona, Ariz.
“I had studied the effects on patients of music and its importance in healing — though not necessarily curing,” noted Fransen. “Music helps people heal in many ways — spiritually, emotionally, physically — and I learned that the program of clinical music had explored the effect of live harp music played at the beds of patients in different health care situations, whether they were recovering, dying or in some other type of stressful health situation.”
Fransen stressed that clinical music is “a very new field” and not the same thing as music therapy.
“Music therapy is more interactive between the patient and the therapist,” she explained. “Clinical music is more about creating an atmosphere of healing and comfort in the room, about playing music that’s appropriate for the situation without having a specific interaction with the patient.
“The music can be a comfort for family members or other attendant caregivers and can encourage communication between them,” added Fransen. “It can act as a distraction from pain and can help in a situation where a patient may be afraid, in unfamiliar circumstances or in the midst of a very frightening diagnosis or prognosis.”
While clinical musicians are not always harpists, the harp is particularly well suited to a clinical role.
“A clinical musician could be a vocalist, a cellist, guitarist or flutist,” clarified Fransen. “You don’t have to learn to play the harp to be a clinical musician.”
But Fransen says, “The harp is really special. When the strings vibrate through the air, the sound travels to and through your body and vibrates the fluid in your body, creating a calming effect.
“So when people say they’re calmed by harp music, it’s actually true; there’s a physiological effect, and that’s one of the benefits of live harp music at the bedside.”
In a clinical setting, Fransen uses a 29-string folk or Celtic harp.
“Technically, it’s called a lever harp,” detailed Fransen. “It’s smaller than the type you might see being played with a symphony orchestra. It’s very lightweight.”
Fransen’s husband of 30 years, Craig, a farmer in rural Jackson, crafted a special harp carrier for her that easily converts into a small stool on which she sits to play in patients’ rooms.
“That way, I can manage everything in one trip and have my own seat so I don’t have to take up a chair that’s needed for a friend or family member,” shared Fransen.
Fransen tailors the type of music she plays to each situation she encounters.
“There are different categories of therapeutic music,” she observed. “If someone is in spiritual or emotional pain, or if someone is dying, I have different music to play.
“It can be as therapeutic for me as for the patients I’m playing for,” confided Fransen. “I’ve been through grief myself, and music is helpful to me at those times.”
Fransen lost her own mother a few years ago, and since then, she has felt her gentle guidance as she has pursued her harp and clinical music studies.
“At one bedside, a patient requested ‘Take My Hand, Precious Lord,’ a song I had often heard my mother play but had never played myself,” recounted Fransen. “It’s a song that was very precious to my parents. I took a deep breath, and it was there. I knew my mother was touching my shoulder at that time.”
A mother herself, Fransen and her husband have three grown children — Micah, Bethany and Hanna. Hanna, 21, is currently studying in Norway.
“My mother, who grew up as Lillian Bondhus in Iona, was 100 percent Norwegian, and we’ve always celebrated our Norwegian heritage,” smiled Fransen. “Lately, my father told Hanna about how the Vikings went to Ireland and brought Irish women back with them to Norway.
“My mother had red hair, so we’ve always had a suspicion they might be a little bit Irish. In Norway, my daughter has heard that story about four times, so we’re starting to think it might be true.”
In any case, Fransen finds her personal taste in harp music trending toward Celtic tunes and styles, and she says she is also learning a lot of lullabies of late as her son Micah and his wife are expecting the Fransens’ first grandchild in a few months.
Besides her job and harp therapy work, the very active Fransen is a member of PEO Chapter CB in Jackson, teaches belly dancing, loves gardening and is an integral member of the committee that puts on the “Rhythm of the River” music festival in Jackson.
“This year, our weekend of music is set for July 15 and 16,” offered Fransen. “We started the ‘Rhythm of the River’ festival for Jackson’s sesquicentennial in 2006 and brought it back in 2008, 2009 and 2010 because people really begged for it.”
Fransen is close to becoming a fully certified clinical musician; she is now in the process of taking her final testing and making a recorded CD of her music.
“I feel that the whole health care environment is changing and becoming more open to integrative therapies like this,” said Fransen. “I believe we will see more of this in the future in hospitals, nursing homes and other health care settings, whether it’s massage, music, aromatherapy, or yoga or other forms of movement.”
Fransen moves forward, confident she has found an appropriate way to give of herself and her own skills through harp music.
Related Fransen, “My mother would be happy to know I am pursuing this and using music to bring some comfort to people’s lives at difficult times.”
For more information about Kathy Fransen’s harp therapy services, contact her either at Sanford Hospice, 372-7770, or (507) 840-0973.