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Harp Therapy Reaches Hawaii

A retired nurse finds her true calling as a harp therapist in Honolulu

March 13, 2021

Ruth Freedman’s harp resonates through the corridors of Straub Hospital in Honolulu. For the past seven years she has played on every floor for every department, beginning in the emergency room and ending in the cafeteria.

Volunteering as a harp therapist is Freedman’s way of repaying the hospital that cared for her father, who suffered from a heart condition. But alleviating patients’ suffering through music wasn’t always her game plan: First and foremost she wanted to be a nurse.

In 1955, Freedman enrolled in the nursing program at Mount Saint Mary’s University. One day, she accompanied her roommate to a practice room to listen to her piano playing while she studied. It was there that she saw a six-foot gold harp in the corner of the room.

“I was smitten,” Freedman recalls of her first encounter with the instrument. Sister Timothy, a violin teacher at the Mount, gave Freedman free lessons, and she took it up as a hobby. Then, around Christmastime, Sister Timothy chose Freedman to turn pages for the harpist, Maryjane Barton, during a choir performance. Barton became her harp teacher and drove to the Mount twice a month to give Freedman lessons. 

Musicians often say that they are one with their instrument. Here, Ruth Freedman '59 is seen through the strings of her harp. She first learned to play the instrument while a student at Mount Saint Mary's.
Musicians often say that they are one with their instrument. Here, Ruth Freedman '59 is seen through the strings of her harp. She first learned to play the instrument while a student at Mount Saint Mary's.

After two years, Freedman switched her major to art and music. “I was spending too much time with the harp, and my homework was getting short shrift,” she explains.

Despite her artistic talent, Freedman felt unmoored—until her father convinced her to move back home and attend the University of Nevada’s newly opened nursing school free of charge. In 1961, Freedman graduated with a BSN and passed her RN exam. She worked as a nurse in Reno, Nevada, and in Israel before being recruited to work with Hansen’s disease patients at Kalaupapa Hospital in Molokai.

For a decade, Freedman worked at Kalaupapa, playing her harp for patients on Sundays and holidays. Before she arrived, many of the residents had never seen a harp. When Freedman retired, she moved to Honolulu where her harp playing transitioned from a hobby to a career. She played at venues and special events in addition to volunteering at Straub Hospital and, finally, the retirement home where her father spent the last month of his life.

When the pandemic hit, Freedman took advantage of the lockdown to create harp arrangements, “12 American Spirituals,” written by composer H.T. Burleigh, whom she discovered in a music shop more than 30 years ago. Burleigh preserved the spirituals after the singing of plantation songs fell out of favor following emancipation.

“I learned that this man was an American hero and felt that I had discovered gold,” Freedman says. Burleigh had studied at the New York Conservatory of Music on a work scholarship, singing in his deep baritone and mastering the double bass and tympani. He introduced Black American music to his mentor, Antonin Dvorak, whose world famous “New World Symphony” and “American” string quartet displayed influences from those plantation melodies and slave songs.

Freedman’s collection for harp solo was recently published by Lyon & Healy. She has since transcribed a second collection of Burleigh’s spirituals, which she also hopes to have published.

Freedman is a member of the Mount’s Heritage society and has bequeathed her harp to the Mount, if needed, in her will.

“Going to the Mount changed my life forever,” Freedman says. “I’m so grateful to Sister Timothy for starting me on my journey with the harp. If my music blessed someone, it is only because I was blessed with lessons.”


For more information:

-- An interview with Hawaii Public Radio (scroll down to second entry)

-- Additional background on Freedman and Burleigh with a sample from one of the spirituals, click here

-- Watch a TV feature on Ruth Freedman from KHON Honolulu

-- Ruth Freedman performing Christmas melodies

-- More Christmas tunes at a church service

-- A 2021 article in MidWeek