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LISTEN: Volunteers bring Christmas music to Minnesota hospital

WILLMAR -- It's almost lunchtime and Maggie Harp is seated at the baby grand piano in the garden court at Rice Memorial Hospital. She's playing familiar Christmas songs -- "Silent Night," "Feliz Navidad."...

Marie Nelson and Maggie Harp
Maggie Harp plays the piano and Marie Nelson plays the cello Wednesday at the garden court outside the cafeteria at Rice Memorial Hospital. (GARY MILLER | TRIBUNE)

WILLMAR - It’s almost lunchtime and Maggie Harp is seated at the baby grand piano in the garden court at Rice Memorial Hospital. She’s playing familiar Christmas songs - “Silent Night,” “Feliz Navidad.”

A couple of hospital employees in scrubs pause to thank her as they head toward the cafeteria next to the garden court.

In the dialysis department nearby, someone has propped the door open so that the music can be heard inside.

For the past four years, Harp and 11 other volunteers have been bringing the gift of live music to the hospital.

Musicians often visit Rice, especially during the holidays. But for Harp’s group this is a year-round commitment.


She or another volunteer comes from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on the third Friday of every month to play the piano, sometimes accompanied by a second volunteer on the flute or violin.

“It’s low-key. It’s not fancy,” Harp said. “We just come and play.”

In a setting that’s often stressful for patients and visitors as well as staff, she hopes the music brings a few moments of peace.

“It’s a good place for it,” she said.

She says it’s good for her too, calling it “a joy day” when she can come and play the piano. “It’s therapeutic to me to play here,” she said.

Harp, a retired music teacher from New London, was diagnosed with cancer in 2010 and underwent a hysterectomy in Rochester, followed by radiation therapy at the Mayo Clinic. On her first day of radiation, she arrived with her sister to find a concert underway. In the audience she saw patients, families, Mayo staff and even a few surgeons.

It made such an impression on her that she decided to do the same thing at home.

“I’ve been given a gift - life. I wanted to give back,” she said.


Through her connections in the local music community, she rounded up a handful of volunteers, most of them retired like her, and organized a schedule. Someone from the group has been making music at the hospital each month ever since.

Joy Baker, marketing manager with outreach and community relations for Rice Hospital, said she’s amazed at the generosity of this group of volunteers who faithfully continue to show up.

“People love it,” she said. “It makes such a difference. It’s a mood lifter.”

In Rice’s hemodialysis department, the first few notes from the piano are usually the signal for the staff to prop open the door and turn off their own music, said Jan Wrase, administrative assistant.

The live music is calming for everyone, she said. “It’s very busy in here. It’s very stressful and fast-paced. Anything that helps the patients think of something else and takes their minds off their dialysis treatment is good.”

“We love it,” agreed Deb Buffington, operations coordinator for the dialysis unit.

As Harp played Christmas tunes during a recent noon hour, Fernando Romero stood nearby, listening.

Romero said he was there with his father-in-law, who is undergoing dialysis treatment, and came out into the garden court to hear the music.


“It’s very nice,” he said with a smile.

Music is always appreciated at the hospital, Baker said.

“Other people have asked me if they can come and play and I say ‘any time,’ ” she said. “It’s such a great stress relief mechanism for the patients and staff. I think people just really enjoy it.”

Harp said she wants to continue the once-a-month musical volunteering for as long as she can.

The musicians who volunteer to be on the schedule each month have been a dedicated group, she said. “There’s nobody that’s turned me down when I’ve asked them to play. This is all volunteer. It’s what they want to do,” she said.

She welcomes others to do the same thing.

“If the spirit moves you to come in and play, come in and play,” she said. “That would be the ultimate.”

This year Harp organized some extra appearances for the holidays, featuring the flute and cello along with the piano.

Even when people can’t stay and listen for more than a few minutes, “just a little music and a smile is a nice thing,” she said. “Maybe there’s just a moment. I figure if I can do that, I’m happy.

Related Topics: MUSIC
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