During my time as a volunteer harpist with the VA Palo Alto Health Care System, I’ve grown immeasurably as a musician and as a person. When I first reached out about playing for the VA during my sophomore year, I was motivated mostly by some abstract ideal of service. Music had always been something very academic and solitary for me. It was to be picked apart and perfected alone in a practice room.
My first shift in perspective was in the hospice unit. As I played hymns, I felt a little uncomfortable witnessing the crying family members of a Veteran who had passed. It came as a surprise when they told me later how blessed they had been by the music. I then began to realize the extent of the impact I had on Veterans and their visiting families who would come out of patients’ rooms and sit by the harp to listen.
I understood the impact of illness
One day, an elderly Veteran in a wheelchair rolled up to the harp as I was playing and asked about the mechanics of the instrument. His question turned into a conversation about the buses he used to drive and then about the model trains he loved to build. He then talked about the showcase he had planned to attend that very day but couldn’t. It was then that his beaming face fell.
Through that conversation, I finally understood the devastating impact of debilitating illness on his life. I had been aware of the Veterans’ physical suffering. Until then, though, I had not fully comprehended the emotional and psychological ramifications of being debilitated—the frustration of being limited by physical health, which most people do not consider until it happens. I realized that Veterans need emotional support as much as medical, and that my music had an intense impact.
Since then, I’ve worked each week to put as much of myself into my music as possible, conveying a sense of care and compassion. I play each piece with the thought that it may be the last music a patient hears before passing away.
Received more than I have given
The response from both patients and staff is astounding. Despite the stress they are under—or perhaps because of it—they fully immerse themselves in the music. This idea of using music to provide listeners an escape has completely transformed the way I play. This showed at my last competition, where a judge said that my playing had “drawn her in.”
Ultimately, I have received more than I have given during volunteering at VA Palo Alto. I have learned how service is less about completing tasks and more about using my actions to show how much I care—that in music, one’s heart matters more than technical skills.
I have had so many wonderful experiences in the hospice unit. With the memory of those I touched with my music, I feel empowered to continue to reach out to impact more people around me as I head to college.
To everyone in the hospice unit: thank you for making me the person I am today.
Danielle Nam is a recent volunteer for the VA Palo Alto Health Care System.