copyright the Chronicle February 5, 2014
by Bethany M. Dunbar
WESTMORE — Linda Schneck’s father died, in front of her, when she was nine years old. The family was on vacation in Florida and he died suddenly and unexpectedly, and she was there. That changed her life in all sorts of ways.
At first, she became withdrawn and uncommunicative. She had been extremely close to her father and was devastated at the loss.
Her family did all they could to console her.
“My uncle traded a woman a roof for a piano,” she said. Her uncle was a roofer, and he put a roof on the woman’s home in trade for a player piano. Young Linda had been begging for piano lessons for a long time. Her uncle made it happen.
“I think music is what really helped me,” she said.
Ms. Schneck does not remember much from quite some time after her father died. She was in some kind of shock. But gradually, music brought her back to caring about life again. From then on, her life would have music and death in it.
Others might have moved in a more negative direction, or if her remaining family had not been supportive, things would have surely been different. But years later, Ms. Schneck looks back and sees the pattern of her life beginning then.
From childhood, she felt drawn to quiet contemplation. When other kids were playing or watching television, she might be found outside, sitting by herself.
“I would just sit quietly and watch the twilight coming down,” she said.
On a few more occasions, she happened to be around people who were dying, and found that she was not uncomfortable with death the way most people are.
“I began to be comfortable, and kind of liked to be standing in that threshold,” she said.
Where most people would avoid death or thinking about it, at a young age she found herself taking a clear-eyed look at death, spirituality, and related philosophical and religious matters.
She followed a career path mostly in music, teaching piano and performing, until she arrived at a turning point when she was 42 years old and decided she was going to join a monastery.
The requirement for joining was to give up all possessions, so she put her Steinway grand piano in an ad in the newspaper. She got not one call.
Meanwhile she took a job in a bookstore while waiting to sell it. One day, working in the bookstore, she looked across the room and saw a book title: Music and the Art of Dying.
She read the book and learned about music thanatology, which is prescriptive music for people who are dying. She discovered how much music can help people in that time of life, by lowering blood pressure, relaxing anxiety, and in some cases people will need less medication if they can listen to the right music.
In other cases the music can stimulate someone if that is needed, and, as she says, “warm or cool” a patient.
She found out about a program in Missoula, Montana, to study music thanatology. The three-year graduate program gave instruction in anatomy and physiology, disease process, death and dying, anthropology, and the harp.
Ms. Schneck studied at Temple University. She was by then an extremely experienced musician but had never played the harp. She called the people in Montana and said, I want to take this course, and they said, oh, no, it takes a year of preparation to get into this.
“Somehow I talked them into it,” she said. She went out for an interview, having never played the harp, and sat down and played it.
“Maybe it’s my true instrument,” she said.
She came back to get ready to leave and put her piano in the paper again. She got all sorts of calls and took that as a good sign.
She took the course. It was all she had hoped. She had found her calling.
“Even before I finished it, they asked me if I would join the faculty,” she said.
Now she owns two harps and composes music on the harp, which she never did on the piano.
She graduated in 1998 and has been practicing since then.
“I came to Vermont in 2003. I always wanted to live in Vermont. Ever since I was a child I knew I would live here.”
At first she lived in Brattleboro, and her first contract for prescriptive music was there.
The harp is a perfect instrument for this kind of work because it can make such a wide range of sound tones and qualities. Also it can be played unmetered. What Ms. Schneck sometimes does is go into someone’s room and she begins playing in time with the patient’s breathing. If the patient is breathing too fast and the goal is to slow down the breathing, she starts playing in time with the patient’s breathing and gradually slows the pace of the music, which usually slows the patient’s breathing.
Ms. Schneck practices her art regularly at the Greensboro Nursing Home and the Union House in Glover. It is helpful not only for people who are at the very end of life, but also for those who are in their last few years.
“Basically I’m using the raw materials of sound in many different ways that are prescriptive,” she said.
She said many studies have shown the physical benefits of music, and she has seen it herself. Once she was playing with a woman who had late stage Alzheimer’s and had not spoken to anyone for a couple of years. The woman listened to the music for a while and then said, “I cannot forget.”
Ms. Schneck told the nurse about it, and the nurse was shocked.
She enjoys working with Alzheimer’s patients, especially if she knew them before they were sick, because she finds their personalities are often intact even when their memories are not.
The image of the angel with a harp is universal, and Ms. Schneck understands why that instrument might have been chosen for those paintings. It has the right qualities to soothe.
“David played the harp for Saul because he couldn’t sleep,” she said.
Ms. Schneck finds her work deeply rewarding. She has seen it bring families together at an important time.
“The music is like a container. It holds everybody,” she said.
Working with dying people has enriched her life dramatically, she said. She is glad to be able to help them, but she also finds, “they give as much, if not more, to me.”
Ms. Schneck’s harps are Gothic, the older of two styles. The other style is Celtic.
“The left-shouldered is the ancient way,” she said. It has a different sound, and she had to train her hands the opposite way from the piano. On the Gothic harp, the left hand plays the melody, while on the piano it’s the right hand. The type of wood the instrument is made of makes a big difference in the sound, she said. One of her harps is maple and cherry.
“If it was walnut, it would be a darker sound,” she said.
Ms. Schneck does prescriptive music and teaches what she calls “contemplative harp” as well. She has made a compact disc of her music with added sounds from nature, including bees and coyotes, bells and wind. She keeps honeybees and became fascinated with the sounds they make, which she began to realize change with the seasons and the weather.
“They are amazing creatures,” she said.
The CD is called Transforming Light; Harp and Honeybees, Spirit and Earth; A Contemplative Musician’s Journey. It is available online, along with more information about Ms. Schneck and her work, at www.ecothanatology.com.
contact Bethany M. Dunbar at email@example.com