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Updated 10:00 AM Sept. 18, 2006




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Spotlight: Bedside Music Program harpist
also travels back in time to Renaissance

The smooth sound of plucked harp strings tends to make U-M Health System patients "melt into their bed," says Bedside Music Program harpist Julie Hussar.
Photo by Melissa Dyer

But late summer-early fall isn't so relaxing for Hussar, who doubles as harpist every weekend through Oct. 1 at the Michigan Renaissance Festival. At the festival site in Holly, Hussar is village harpist Tilly Topples.

"I play near the castle," she says. "There is a lot going on in the area. The jail is nearby with a stage show going on. The castle has a festival twice a day with lots of music and dance. There are shops nearby with visitors going in and out. There is a juggling act just across the street from my position."

That is during weekends. Come Monday, she is back at her job as senior music practitioner with the University's Bedside Music Program. Hussar had played the hammered dulcimer starting in the late '80s, but switched to harp after attending a workshop. She joined the Bedside Music Program in 2001.

There are four music performers in the program run by U-M Gifts of Art, part of the U-M Health System. While they do not carry official titles as music therapists, their performances have beneficial impact. "We learn what it is about music that aids in pain control and aids in healing," she says.

A typical workday starts with Hussar getting a list of patients from the Acute Pain Service and from Pediatric and Elder Life. She then takes her 34-string harp to the patients' rooms. Once she starts to play, "usually there's a palpable difference in the tension in the room," Hussar says. "They become very relaxed and forget their troubles.

"They frequently ask lots of questions about the harp, and how they feel about the music. I ran into a patient in the elevator, he said: 'Four years ago I was in intensive care and you played for me. You'll never know what it meant to me.'"

It's also typical for family members to stop Hussar in hallways as she goes from patient to patient to ask her to play for loved ones. She gets compliments on her playing at the hospital, and from fairgoers at the Renaissance Festival.

Hussar, who for five years has played harp for patients, is in her third year performing on harp at the festival, which runs through Oct. 1. Keeping with the Renaissance theme, the one-time costumer for the U-M-Flint theater makes her own taupe and gold outfits.

"I initially started out with a quasi-Irish poor person's costume, but the more I thought about it, an Irish poor person would not be playing the harp," she says.

While Hussar now wears a costume evoking the upper middle class of the period, "you're not allowed to be dressed better than the queen," she cautions, adding that royal colors of blue and purple are off limits. "We do get visitors that are dressed better than the staff."

"People stop and watch and they love the harp" Hussar says. "I hear from returning visitors that they are glad I am there again and they love the music. I think it is interesting that many of those who express an interest in the harp are young men with multiple piercings and wild hair."

"I play mostly Celtic music, but it is not beyond possibility for me to throw in an occasional "House of the Rising Sun" just to see if anyone is listening."

Hussar admits it is tiring to play from 9 a.m.-6 p.m. weekends during the festival, but there are consolations.

"It's always fun to dress up in odd clothes and have an alternate personality," she says. "Plus the tips are great!"

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