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Creating peace with music for the dying

Peter Roberts in his workshop. Picture: www.robertsmusic.net

Peter Roberts in his workshop. Picture: www.robertsmusic.net

Peter Roberts describes himself simply as a ‘bloke with a harp’ – but his music has soothed hundreds of people as they are dying and helped others find safe passage as they slip away.

He plays his music in bedside vigils for the sick at the St John of God Hospital in Geelong, creating a safe haven for patients who are in pain, or fearful to let go. Beautiful to listen to, this is no mere art, but music thanatology – thanatology being the science and understanding of dying, death and bereavement – which harnesses sound and silence to create a reassuring calm.

“Voice, harp…and silence are the tools of trade for this work,” says Peter, who does not play set pieces, but creates his music as he plays. “I take my cues from the ever-changing atmosphere in the room, from breathing patterns, and from other visual cues such as changing facial expressions. I must be comfortable in reassuring the person in front of me that all is well and that I am there fully with them, no matter what the circumstances.

“Over time I’m able to I create an atmosphere of calmness and peace that enfolds and “holds” the person I am playing for. This sacred space becomes a safe haven into which they can rest and let go.”

Brought up in a family business, Peter worked in retail for 30 years before searching for something more fulfilling at the age of 48. “The change came about not through the death of anyone close to me, but because I felt an inner dissatisfaction in my life,” he explains. “I sat with that deadening feeling for three years, until it couldn’t be denied any longer.”

Travelling to a hospital in the United States hospital, where music thanatology is a well-established professional field, he trained in the discipline for two and a half years.

“There are science books aplenty to describe the way music affects the body via the messages passed through the nervous system. Music-thanatology, though, is described as a contemplative practice with clinical outcomes. I like that,” he says.

peter Roberts with his harp Picture: www.robertsmusic.net

The first thing Peter had to do was learn to play the harp – although he’d played banjo and piano as a kid, he had never been a serious musician. He plays a small Celtic-style folk harp, which is easy for him to carry round the hospital.

“The harp is the instrument used in bedside vigils and it was compulsory to learn to play it,” he says.

“It’s as if it radiates sound. This gentleness is an important issue for people who are unwell and feeling very vulnerable. I feel a sense of flow that occurs between the instrument, my music, myself and the person in front of me. I have described it in the past as though I am dancing slowly and closely in the dark with a stranger. It is very beautiful.

“It’s not long before the playing isn’t really conscious, but comes from another place. It flows. The music, the patient and I flow in synch with each other.”

Peter’s services are offered within the private hospital’s pastoral services department where he has worked for 15 years and he is referred to patients by the team.

“The number of times I’ll play for patients varies, depending on circumstances. Sometimes I may play just once, but most often it is around three times. It has happened on several occasions that the person has slipped away as I play.”

Over the past 18 months, Victoria-based filmmaker Farshid Akhlaghipour has been following Peter’s work for a beautiful documentary, Music into Silence, which will open a door into his world.

“Farshid is on a mission to present what this offering of music-thanatology represents to him in terms of beauty and kindness,” says Peter.

“I hope it gets the attention it deserves. The small parts I have seen are very beautifully done.”

Peter hopes that as music thanatology becomes better understood and appreciated it will eventually be offered as an essential part of end of life care.

Outside of his workplace, he is the founder of the Institute of Music in Medicine (IMIM), which is funded by donations. “One of its aims was to enable me to play within public hospitals, private homes and hospices at no charge to the recipients,” he explains.

“Many places often do not have funding allocated for services such as mine.”

Peter Roberts and a smiling hospital patient playing music together Picture: www.robertsmusic.net

As well as people at the end of their lives, Peter brings music, reassurance and comfort to other patients, including in the emergency room, intensive care unit, chemotherapy ward and for people going to or returning from theatre. He also plays for tiny premature babies in St John’s special care nursery.

“The playing is all about helping these little ones thrive,” he says. “It’s a lovely balance in my day to my palliative care work.

“I have also played for my father, my nephew, my mother in law and my father in law as they approached their life’s end. It didn’t feel different. I was very pleased to have something of value to offer on behalf of our family members who were there.”

Peter, who is the proud grandfather of a two year-old, seems relaxed about his own mortality. “I’ve just turned 70 and that’s a bit confronting if you do the arithmetic on life expectancy,” he jokes.

“But actually, I feel content about the inevitability of my own life coming to an end one day. I feel that I am savouring life these days and all the simple beauty that surrounds us.”

Friends describe Peter as a calm and friendly, funny, cruisy and discerning kind of guy. “I’m quite happy they see me in that light,” he says.

“I like to describe myself as ‘just a bloke with a harp’ because it’s as if to say, this is an ordinary person here and I have come to offer gentleness and care and to create a loving, peaceful environment with this instrument.

"It’s a very human offering, from one person to another.”