Kipper Ackerman admits she was a little reluctant at first, pushing her 82-pound concert harp down a hospital hallway, worried how she would be received when she entered a patient’s room. But it didn’t take long to realize the mystical, nearly magical sounds that emanated from her harp were more than welcome on the floors of Sumter’s Tuomey Healthcare System. Soon, the classically trained musician and her harp were regulars there, playing nine to 12 hours each week in patients’ rooms, as well as recovery rooms, the intensive care unit and the neonatal intensive care unit.
“Silence in hospital rooms can be deafening to patients and their families,” says Kipper. “When music fills the quiet, it brings a peace over the heart, delivering a message that words sometimes can’t. The 47 strings and sounding board of a harp are almost like a musical massage for everyone in the room.”
Kipper has always been drawn to music. She began studying the harp 27 years ago with Nina Brooks in Columbia, as well as Joyce Frankhouser in Greenville. She studied music at Presbyterian College, majoring in piano and music education, and then began her work on a master’s in music education at Winthrop University. A career in middle and high school education and choir directing followed, and she has also played the harp for private functions.
But soon after she retired from teaching, she learned that sitting still can be a trial. Curt Ackerman, her husband, works at the Tuomey Healthcare System in Sumter, so she approached the hospital’s chaplaincy department to talk about the possibility of playing for patients.
“I started by visiting a floor and asking the nurses if they knew who would benefit from some live music. The nurses were very receptive, and it didn’t take long until the harp was welcome in patients’ rooms,” she says.
Beth Fordham, director of volunteer and customer services at Tuomey Healthcare System, has noticed the effect on the staff, too.
“In the rush of taking care of patients, we can get busy and stressed,” Beth says. “But when Kipper starts playing, everyone relaxes. Every employee and patient benefits from the music. It resonates in the spirit.”
After the positive response of Tuomey’s patients and staff to her music, Kipper knew she wanted to do even more. A conversation with Garrett Edens, her brother, planted the seed of a nonprofit organization that would spread music to locations around the state. In October 2012, The Sounds of Grace was formed. Since then, Kipper and the group of musicians she has recruited have visited hospitals, nursing homes, assisted living communities and special needs classrooms, as well as other locations, sharing the gift of music at no cost to the facility.
Kipper says that she sometimes takes the appeal of the harp for granted —until a patient says he or she has never seen one or heard one played in person.
“One woman wanted to touch it to be sure it was real. She had only seen a harp in pictures in books, always with angels playing it,” Kipper says.
Beth has seen up-close the difference Kipper and the music created on her harp make at the hospital. “When she plays for patients and their families, she makes a connection with them that’s on another level — a spiritual connection that really soothes the soul,” Beth says. “I’ve seen her playing the harp at the bedside of a patient who was dying and the family members were there. Everyone started crying, including me. But it went from sadness to joy because the families are so comforted by the music. When you see the reaction to it, it’s beautiful. But I told her I’d never go out with her again without Kleenex.”
Beth has seen Kipper bring her harp into the neonatal intensive care unit, playing for tiny infants who were born prematurely. “I’ve seen babies grow calm when she starts to play, and their heart rates drop,” she says. Recently, an infant born at Tuomey was being transported to the children’s hospital in Columbia for intensive care. “I said, ‘Where’s Kipper? That baby needs some harp music before the ride to Columbia.’”
Kipper is quick to point out she is not a music therapist, which is a professional who uses music interventions to develop care plans for patients, addressing their physical, emotional, cognitive and social needs. Instead, she and other members of the Sounds of Grace are volunteers, similar to those who visit patients to read or talk with them, or musical groups who visit hospitals for holidays. Luckily, as Kipper says, “You don’t have to wait for Christmas to have music on a hospital floor.”
The organization is starting out small. Kipper and other volunteers play regularly at Tuomey and at Covenant Place, an independent and assisted living center in Sumter. Kipper has also started playing at the Greenville Hospital System once a month, and she has recruited two Furman University students to play there, too. She is talking with hospitals in the Columbia area, hoping to expand the service. She also travels around the state, playing for civic and church groups and spreading the organization’s mission of peace and healing through music. “I perform and share stories about how music can benefit patients. It’s my pulpit, I guess.”
Kipper has noticed the music doesn’t benefit just the patients and their families; it also helps the musicians. “Musicians have a longing to share the gifts they have. It gives them such joy. Sometimes, it’s not all about the patients; it’s also the gift of being able to share the gift of music,” she says.
For now, she’s excited about the potential for The Sounds of Grace, a name she came up with while playing the harp, of course. “During my quiet times playing, I realized how much has been given to me through God’s grace. Being able to take a harp into a hospital room? That is my way to share grace.”
To learn more about The Sounds of Grace, visit www.thesoundsofgrace.com.