DISTANT — What started out as a way to soothe an ailing parent turned into a cherished avocation for Phyllis Howard. Honored recently as the Redbank Valley Community Center’s volunteer of the month, her harp-playing ability takes her beyond the town limits as she shares her music at area nursing homes.
“I started playing the hammered dulcimer in 1995 and was traveling around to various festivals. At one fest, I heard about a beginner’s harp workshop and was intrigued,” Howard said. “I was enthralled but disappointed because I had missed the class.”
The following year, she returned, borrowed a harp from a vendor and was hooked. Renting a harp for a longer period, Howard enrolled in a one-week, once-a-day intensive class, building on her dulcimer-based music skills.
“When my father was getting elderly, I would drive to Brockway to visit him and take my harp along. He was familiar with my dulcimer tunes and asked if I could play them on the harp,” she said. “Later, when he was in the DuBois hospital with pneumonia, I took my harp and played for him to cheer him up.”
One of the nurses caring for him told Howard to keep doing what she was doing.
“She said that his vital signs always improved while I was playing,” she said. “That gave me an idea while reading the ads in the back of a few dulcimer magazines for ‘clinical musicians’ and ‘healthcare musicians,’ something I had never heard of before.”
At her father’s request, Howard began plucking out old musical standards on the harp, tunes that they were familiar with from her dulcimer days. With a bit of experimentation and a borrowing of mathematics-based probability theory, she took her harping skills to a higher level.
After her father’s passing, Howard undertook an online harp course and became a certified healthcare musician, a hobby which now takes her to Clarion Hospital and sometimes to hospice programs run by the Clarion-Forest Visiting Nurse Association.
“I retired and wanted to find something to do in 2015,” she said. “This was a stringent course and I completed it in nine months.”
Her harpist skills are simply another facet to a multi-skilled woman. Howard is also a regular at the knitters’ table held every Tuesday at the Redbank Valley Community Center, and is a devoted workout buddy to several area women who meet most mornings at a local gym.
During a 39-year career as a math teacher at Redbank Valley High School, Howard and her husband, Steve, also owned and operated the Bostonia Country Club in Distant, Armstrong County. Far from ready for a traditional retirement, she was on her way to a volunteer gig in Clarion after being interviewed for this article.
The Howards travel widely, having visited Ireland, Israel, Nova Scotia and New Zealand. A return visit to the latter is planned in the upcoming year.