UW News

April 4, 2002

Staff Profile: Khandro practices the art of transition

Linda Khandro is a scientist at work and an artist in her leisure time, but her science and her art have something in common: They are both celestial. Webster’s defines “celestial” on the one hand as “of or in the sky or universe, as planets or stars” and on the other as “of heaven; divine.” Khandro’s work — as the coordinator of Project Astro — brings the wonders of planets and stars to schoolchildren, while her avocation — playing the harp for the ill and dying — supports people as they make their transition from this world to the one sometimes called heaven.

Her job, Khandro says, represents her long-term intellectual interest, but her music is her “heart calling.” Her involvement in both dates back many years.

“I didn’t go to college when most people do. I was raising children instead,” Khandro explains. “But when my children were old enough I did go back, and eventually I got my master’s in geology.”

Though the degree was “down to earth,” Khandro’s jobs were more expansive. She taught earth and space sciences in community colleges, which meant teaching geology, astronomy, environmental science, oceanography and meteorology.

It also meant commuting constantly, teaching at different institutions — first in New York state and then around the Puget Sound region. Then, two years ago, her current job opened up and she went for it. Project Astro (http://www.astro.washington.edu/projastro) brings together grade 3-12 schoolteachers and scientists — both amateur and professional. After a summer workshop, the teams present hands-on astronomy projects to the teachers’ students. Khandro recruits the teachers and scientists, matches the teams and coordinates the workshop.

“Project Astro is a wonderful program,” she says. “Astronomy is just a great vehicle for kids to increase their interest in science and math.”

Khandro also plays a coordinating role in the Center for Astrobiology and Early Evolution, an interdisciplinary graduate program involving many different departments (http://www.depts.washington.edu/astrobio).

But in addition to her science career, Khandro has had a lifelong involvement with music, from choirs and piano through folksongs and guitars to the accidental acquisition of a harp. Back about 1977 she sold her VW van to a friend, she explains, and he gave her a lap harp instead of money. It was small and fragile — more an art piece than an instrument — but it piqued her interest in harps.

“So one day I was in a music store, saw a larger harp, and sat down to play it. I got up an hour and a half later, knowing I had to have that instrument.”

She ultimately pawned the small harp to buy the larger one, which she taught herself to play. Those two harps were only the first of five big Celtic-style harps and three small ones that Khandro has owned. But it’s only recently that she’s spent as much time on her art as she does on her science.

It was in 1999 that an unsolicited brochure came to her house describing the Music for Healing and Transition Program (http://www.mhtp.org). “I don’t know who put me on their mailing list,” Khandro says, “but I’m eternally grateful.”

Using weekend training modules, an extensive reading list and close mentoring, the program prepares musicians to play at the bedsides of ill and dying people. Khandro signed up immediately and began working her way through the program, which includes everything from learning about medical centers, injury prevention, and types of appropriate music, to preparing a demo tape. After about a year of training and a 40-hour internship, she was certified as a Music Practitioner. She now plays in the oncology ward at Swedish Hospital, for clients of Swedish Home Health Care and Hospice and by private referrals.

“The very first time I sat down by somebody’s bedside, I played for a while and the family member who was there gave me this enormous hug, completely enfolding me,” Khandro said. “She told me, ‘You don’t know how valuable this was.’ I’m not too much of a woo-woo person but I really felt like I had a fist-sized jewel in my solar plexus. I got home and walked in the door and I felt like I was glowing from the inside. It is an extraordinary honor to be present at someone’s dying.”

Given that start, it’s not surprising that Khandro has kept at it. She plays about 5 hours a month in the hospital and anywhere from 5 to 20 hours a month for individual clients. She also plays as entertainment for nursing homes and private parties.

“In the hospital I usually start out in the hallway and then I’ll go into a patient’s room if they ask me to,” she explains. “With an established client they’ll be expecting me and they’re usually very happy to see me. A lot of people feel very lonely in their dying.”

Khandro has a repertoire of Celtic and popular songs she can play, but often, especially with dying patients, she improvises. “If someone is actively dying, your work there as a musician is to kind of lubricate that process,” she says. “You don’t play something with a set melody or a set rhythm because that has the effect of anchoring the mind and the sensations in the body. You play very spaciously.”

Khandro has on occasion played for a hospice client over a period of months, and sometimes is asked to play at a memorial service after the client has died. “You do get attached to people,” she says. “I learned early on that I could cry and play at the same time. But of course it’s not the same as it is for the grieving relatives. You do have to move on.”

Since her initial training, Khandro has attended conferences and workshops to continue learning. She’s also just released a CD of her music. Called “Transition,” it is especially meant to reflect the tranquility needed by people in all kinds of transition. A second CD will be released in a few months, and will reflect a livelier but still contemplative energy. She says that playing music in these circumstances is an ideal niche for her.

“Having music at the bedside of someone who’s dying is actually a phenomenal thing,” she says. “The patient knows it, the family knows it, the caregivers know it. It’s more than solace and relaxation for the patient; the vibratory effect of the sound is actually nourishing to all. One of our MHTP directors said it perfectly: ‘I dream the day will come when you can order music for your ailing loved ones as easily as you can order flowers today.'”