January 1, 2012 in City

Harpist realizing dream of musical ministry

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While working full time for the Spokane County Auditor’s Office, Julia Smith also studied music thanatology for two years, including monthly trips to Portland and 20 hours of study a week on her own. She hopes to work with dying people, bringing music to them in their final days.
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On the Web: Listen to Julia Smith playing the harp at www.spokesman.com/audio

Back story: Smith has worked 11 years for the Spokane County Auditor’s Office. She works Monday through Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., in the licensing department in the county courthouse annex.

In 1994, when her father was dying at St. Patrick Hospital in Missoula, a woman walked in with a harp. She was a music thanatologist who eased – through music and song – the passage from life to death.

“As she played, the whole family gathered around his bed and held hands,” Smith said. “You could feel the dynamic of the room change. It transported us from raw emotion to beauty.”

Smith, who had been a hospice volunteer in the 1980s, heard the faint sounds of her future dream in the room that day.

The dream: Six years ago, Smith bought a lap harp from Philip Boulding at ArtFest, an annual arts celebration in Spokane. With a video, Smith taught herself how to play one song, and then she taught herself many others just playing them by ear.

The next year, Boulding added two sets of levers to Smith’s harp, so she could play in keys besides G.

The third year, she bought a midsize harp. While playing it at the Community Building in downtown Spokane, she met harpist Catharine Scherer, who was studying music thanatology.

Scherer told her about Lane Community College in Eugene, Ore., which has a training program for music thanatologists.

Smith said, “I’m working full time, can I do this?”

Scherer assured her she could.

Dream to reality: Smith was accepted into the Lane program in November 2009. She never attended classes there. Providence St. Vincent’s Hospital in Portland provides classroom space for the music thanatology students.

For two years, Smith traveled to Portland every month for weekend classes. She studied 20 hours a week at home in subjects that included anatomy and physiology.

“You are working with patients who are terminal, and you are using music to respond to the patient, so you need to understand the patient’s chart,” she said.

Smith took harp and voice lessons over the Internet, “Skyping” with music tutors in Portland each week and meeting with them in person once a month.

And she completed 324 hours of internship at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center in Spokane, while still working full time for the auditor’s office.

Cost of the dream: Between $15,000 and $20,000 for travel, tuition and harps. She was willing to go into debt but somehow paid for it all as she went along.

“It was a huge commitment, but I was so drawn to it,” she said.

Helpers: Her three grown daughters were major cheerleaders, as was Vicky Dalton, Spokane County auditor, who told Smith’s story to others with pride.

The only naysayer?

Smith said, “The one in my head that said, ‘You are 64 years old. Are you crazy starting a new career at your age?’ ”

Advice to others: “Follow your heart and trust your inner vision.”

On to 2012: Smith graduated from the music thanatology program in November. This week, she’ll start the certification process, which culminates in May.

After that?

“I’ll explore what’s out there,” she said. “It has opened me to possibilities. Too often, death is looked at as a medical failure, rather than an important passage. To bring music to the bedside creates a sacred space. It’s deepened me spiritually.”

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