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Stanford Report, October 2, 2002

Harpist Barbra Telynor makes her own grand rounds, spreading music through Stanford Hospital


Barbra Telynor’s long blue skirt brushes the floor as her fingers move softly over the red, black and white strings of her wooden harp. She hums as she strums, the soft, sweet sounds she makes not quite drowning out the persistent beeping and whooshing of the medical technology all around her. Today, her audience consists of three people, one a dying cancer patient who is sedated and unresponsive. It’s hardly a concert hall, but tucked into a corner beside the patient’s bed, it’s the perfect place for Telynor to perform.

"In 1998 a little voice said to me that I will sing to people who are healing and in the process of dying," Telynor said. "In the hospital everyone is surrounded by stress — patients, doctors, nurses, even the people who push meal carts and gurneys. But music transcends all that. I have the opportunity to touch everyone and calm them for a moment or two."

Barbra Telynor makes her rounds through Stanford Hospital performing with a harp she named Shawna. As a kidney transplant recipient, she has a perspective that helps her identify with patients. PHOTO: LINLEY ERIN HALL

One of four staff musicians at Stanford Hospital, Telynor is also an ordained minister and spent eight years with the United Church of Christ. Her ministry has always been one of music. At Stanford she sings to help people cry when they need to cry, to reduce anxiety before surgery, to assist the dying in letting go — to provide whatever her audience needs. She also listens to stories of illness and grief, and shares her own experiences as appropriate.

Telynor’s first day of work at Stanford was Sept. 11. "I heard the news about the World Trade Center, and I knew I had a choice," she recalled. "I could get involved in my emotions at home, but if there was ever a time for music, this was it. So I came and played."

On Sept. 11, with everyone glued to television sets and the halls silent, Telynor was unsure if people appreciated her music. When she returned a couple days later, however, many staff members thanked her for calming them.

Telynor has sung as long as she can remember. She refers to herself as a self-accompanied vocalist and minister of music. She learned to play folk harp about 20 years ago after hearing a Christmas caroler play only a few notes. She knew right away she wanted one of her own. She has owned several harps since then; a friend crafted the latest, named Shawna, especially for her.

Telynor performs all over Stanford Hospital — in patient rooms, hallways, waiting rooms, wherever she senses a need for music or wherever people suggest she play. In addition, Telynor has accompanied qui gong and art therapy classes at the hospital and played at memorial services for staff members. Her repertoire consists mostly of folk music and American pop. She takes requests, and admits that she will sometimes fake a song if she doesn’t know it.

Being a hospital musician fits Telynor in part because she has experienced the other side. She spent most of her childhood in and out of hospitals, and received a kidney transplant 22 years ago. Her surgeon, Oscar Salvatierra, MD, is now a professor of surgery and pediatrics at Stanford. A few months ago Telynor called Salvatierra’s assistant and invited the doctor to a concert in the hospital atrium. Telynor expected Salvatierra to be too busy to come, but he arrived about halfway through the performance.

"Oscar has developed his medical and surgical abilities as a craft, an art. And he has the deep, compassionate presence important for understanding healing," Telynor said. "He offered his gifts then, so that now I can offer my gifts."

Her gifts go beyond her musical talents. After her song in the cancer patient’s room she asks the dying woman’s mother about her daughter. Telynor listens and responds as if she could stay forever. This part of her visit is as important to her as the singing.

"Sometimes it is about the music. Sometimes it is about open conversation. People express what they feel, I share a bit of my story, and we build a bridge. Sometimes it is about being with someone in silence," Telynor said. "In music the rests are as important as the notes."

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