Even three decades into it, Anita Burroughs-Price views her musical career as an impossible dream come true – her work playing the harp for the N.C. Symphony drawing a sharp contrast with that of her grandparents, who quit school to pick tobacco and toil in factories.
It’s one of the reasons Burroughs-Price dedicates much of her time to her unusual form of charity – playing music for the sick and dying, the incarcerated, and others who might find solace in the strains of the instrument often thought to make heavenly music.
“I have an awareness of how lucky I am,” says Burroughs-Price, who also teaches music at Furman University in South Carolina. “I get to make a living making beautiful music for people. And this is what I have to give back to anyone who finds solace in it.”
In more 20 years of volunteer work, Burroughs-Price has played mainly in hospitals and nursing homes for those who are in their last days, and often at their funerals. But she’s also played for refugees of Hurricane Katrina and prison inmates, among others.
Most recently, she’s started playing for patients with memory problems, who often respond in surprising ways to hearing familiar strains of both orchestral and popular music rendered by her harp.
A CD she recorded a decade ago has raised more than $20,000 for charity, and her story was featured in its own special on the Hallmark Channel. She recently presented at a national conference for cancer survivors on the power of music in comforting and supporting cancer patients.
Louise Coggins, a social worker and longtime friend, says Burroughs-Price goes out of her way to connect with everyone she plays for, seeking out the right music and style for friends or strangers who can be rich or poor, prominent or unknown.
“She thinks about what’s going to bring comfort and peace to people,” says Coggins, who says Burroughs-Price helped her own mother-in-law in her last days suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. “She could spend her time playing around the world, but she spends it at the bedside of people who are dying.
“She plays all these fancy events and weddings ..., but she treats someone in the Medicaid nursing home with the same care and respect.”
Grew up with music
Burroughs-Price’s father was a pastor, so she grew up with the music of her South Carolina church. Her mother, now in her 80s, continues to teach piano and harp.
The family valued music, and went to great effort to continue her training. She started playing piano when she was 6, and changed to harp when she was 12 after seeing a harp in symphony concerts.
At 15, a harpist from the Philadelphia Orchestra took Burroughs-Price under her wing.
For a time, the family, and later her fiancé, would drive her 500 miles to Alabama for lessons every few weeks with her mentor – starting a habit of long drives that continues with her regular trips from her Raleigh home to teach in Greenville, S.C., and perform across the country.
As her career developed, Burroughs-Price says she was surprised she never had to pursue her “Plan B” career options.
“All these doors kept opening,” she says. “I thought I’d be a child psychologist or a French teacher and a musician on the side.”
She earned her master’s degree with a music scholarship to Yale University, and also studied in London. She also received grants to study a rare type of harp from the United Arts Council.
She started with the N.C. Symphony in the 1980s, when they needed a substitute harpist to play in The Nutcracker. She eventually took on a permanent role with the symphony – though it’s still not full-time, allowing her to teach and take on other projects.
Good memories for families
She has always played at weddings and funerals, and had started playing for friends in the hospital. About 20 years ago, she ran across the Chalice of Repose program, which sought to revive the ancient tradition of using music to ease the transition to death.
While she’s not affiliated with that group, its existence persuaded her to expand her work among the elderly and ill – along with an experience playing for a friend who was near death but survived, and went on to learn to play the harp.
She started talking with clergy, offering to accompany them on home visits; she’s since played at monasteries and synagogues as well. These groups, along with her friends, started referring more and more sick friends and relatives.
“I’m often there in the last moments,” she says. “The families get to make some memories together, and it helps with the pain and to sustain them on their journey.”
Later, she started playing for patients at the mental hospital at the Dorothea Dix site in Raleigh.
After Hurricane Floyd, she played for a group of survivors near Rocky Mount who wanted to hear “Lean on Me.” On that same day, during a rendition of “The Whole World in my Hand” when the crowd could add the words, a little girl sang that God was holding her baby dolls.
“She had lost her toys and she wanted to think they were OK and being cared for,” says Burroughs-Price. “It’s one of those beautiful moments that the music can bring.”
Because her schedule was so busy, she started recording cassette tapes to leave with people to listen to between her visits. Eventually, she made a CD with some of her more popular songs, including “Over the Rainbow” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”
Early on, proceeds from the CD went to projects to benefit musicians affected by Hurricane Katrina; later, she directed the money to local charities such as the Interfaith Food Shuttle.
The work is clearly emotional, sometimes draining. Playing for terminally ill young people can be particularly difficult. She once played three funerals in a 10-day span.
Sometimes, she’ll head to the maternity ward to gaze at the newborns after a difficult session.
She’s done research into how music can ease memory impairment, her latest focus. One acquaintance she played for couldn’t speak, but her face lit up when she heard the familiar strains of “You are my Sunshine.”
“The part of the brain that stores music is different than the one that stores language,” she says. “Bringing the music into people can get a part of their brain growing again.
She’s careful to note that she is not a music therapist – a more structured way to heal using music. Music is just her way of helping: “Some people might bring casserole and others can provide medical care. I bring music.”
Born: August 1960, South Carolina
Career: Principal Harpist, N.C. Symphony; music professor at Furman University
Awards: Raleigh Medal of Arts, 1999; Alumni Prize, Yale University
Education: Bachelor’s degree with dual major in French and harp performance, Furman University; master of music, Yale University; studied at London’s Royal College of Music
Notable: Perhaps the highest profile person to receive the gift of Burroughs-Price’s music was former Tar Heel basketball coach Dean Smith; she played for him in his final days and at his funeral, where she made a medley of Amazing Grace and the Carolina fight song.