The following interview is the first in a series to explore how people from various walks of life approach the handpan for healing purposes.
In our first interview, Saraz Founder Mark Garner spoke with Joseph Barnes Dorwart IV, a Charleston, SC-based RN, about his experience with handpans, hospitals, and healing.
How did you discover the handpan?
I ran into it randomly while browsing YouTube videos and immediately fell in love and became obsessed.
What was your initial approach to the handpan?
I played in a noise band for years so the handpan was a much more soothing undercurrent than what we were putting off, which was somewhere between Ennio Morricone-type soundtrack and metal and a lot of noise. We had nine people on stage and made it up every time so it seemed like the handpan would provide a more solid base to work off of because we looked at that music as meditative.
What kind of music do you play now with it?
I play predominantly for Contra dances. The handpan adds a very amazing low ring into the room in the soundscape of the tunes we play, which is traditionally old-time folk music. But we play klezmer and Pink Floyd-type stuff on top of it. It happens to meet the format so we only caught a lot of gruff up front. The dancers like it nonetheless.
You also work at a hospital?
What is your position there?
I’m an RN at a hospital in Charleston, SC. I’ve been there for 11 years as a nurse.
It’s nice to have other tools besides medicine to do my job.
Can you tell me about using your handpan in the hospital?
I started bringing the handpan in about three years ago to play on my lunch breaks. Then people started asking about it, and I’d pull it out and demonstrate. Then I had it on me because I didn’t want to leave it in my car. Ultimately I started playing it for patients.
I had a patient that really needed some sleep medicine but because of their diagnosis, they couldn’t have any more medicine that would sedate them. So I just started bringing in my handpan and I was able to calm them down enough to where they could let their anxieties go for a little while.
From there playing handpan for patients became a repetitious thing for those who were a little too anxious. I still run into people every few weeks that say things like, “you played for my grandma in the hospital.”
Can you share another story about playing handpan for patients?
My favorite handpan use, which would almost seem unsuccessful, is when we have a code yellow on the floor. A code yellow means somebody is freaking out and the nurses are going to basically call the hospital cops. The patient has done something where the nurse cannot control them. So there are two or three nurses in the room trying to fix all the problems the patient has caused, which is usually something broken….. they ripped out a line…… maybe their catheter…. The nurses will be in there trying to redirect the patient and if it doesn’t work, they call a code yellow. If I get there and I can see that the patient is not dangerous but hyper-agitated, I can bring the handpan in and change the focus of what the patient is looking at so he hears the music and gets distracted.
The patient’s whole focus is now on me and this instrument while the nurses fix everything else. That’s my favorite use of it, actually. It’s a very encompassing sound. You can’t do a whole lot else. It’s entrancing like a bagpipe sound. You can’t help but let all that distract you a little bit.
Besides that, I often play for patients that are obviously spiraling down. We’re not going to do anything more aggressive to treat them and it’s obvious they’re going to go. I’ll go and play handpan for them, probably mostly for their families, so that they can calm down while the transition happens. That’s the other good use for it at work. It’s a little intense, but after 11 years of hospital work, handpan music helps me process too. Folks back away from death but I’ve seen it so much that it’s now an honor to be around during that process. Playing handpan music is one way I know how to help.
What do you think it is about handpan sound that has an effect on people?
Besides being a completely new sound, it’s really all of the harmonics working together in such a way that it kind of feels to me like it stops thought.
Harmonics working together in such a way that it stops thought.
Maybe it helps you pay more attention? All of it working together in such a way is very entrancing. Usually, there is dead silence as soon as I play the first note in a room. It just immediately tunes them right out from whatever they were thinking before.
Being able to play handpan for contra dances is also a surprise. As a musician, playing for dancers is immediate feedback. You’re not in a crowded bar. You’re not in a place where people are sitting quietly analyzing what you’re doing. Their just feeling the music that you’re putting out and then their reactions are immediate physical responses to what you’re doing. That is very gratifying. A couple things ring out really well and one is the handpan.
Thank you to Joseph for his inspiring handpan sound healing work!