What a Music Thanatologist Taught Me About Storytelling

I woke up the morning of my interview filled with this odd jitteriness. This would be my first official interview for a piece I hoped to use, for once. To actually include in a portfolio. To actually show friends and family, when they ask what exactly is it that I am trying to do with myself in this life. To send back to the individuals whose story it was meant to serve. If I messed this one up, another learning experience gained, but the harsh self-critic inside of me would feel the loss of an opportunity to tell a story properly. I wanted so badly to create something I could be proud of enough to send out and give a life beyond it. A life where it would invoke emotion. Or spark a new dialogue (or perhaps continue an ancient one, in this case). My project is meant to explore questions surrounding death. Specifically, it tackles a practice that aims to help us talk about it, cope with it, and even make it normal

I was scheduled to interview Kieran Schnabel, a harpist and music thanatologist for Portland’s very own harpist hospice non-profit organization called SacredFlight. Essentially, Kieran helps people die peacefully. I knew that just as important as my interview questions and the sound quality of my audio would be my ability to truly listen and process all that he would be sharing with me.

So, in preparation for the interview, before double checking my batteries in my Zoom H1 or even printing out my interview questions, I meditated. I wanted to be sure my own worries and insecurities as a novice media maker wouldn’t distract me from being the responsible storyteller I aspire to be, especially with this type of heavy and fragile material. I slowed down my thoughts and did enough breathing exercises until I felt ready. Then, all of sudden, I realized time was catching up to me. All the jitters I thought left my system, rushed back in a panic. I got myself all put together and hurried over the local church where his office was located.

There was no amount of meditation I could have done to match the calmness and focus of Kieran in this interview. He spoke softly but purposely. Every word he shared with me carried emotion and deep reflection. As someone who always seeks meaningful exchanges, it was a truly memorable experience.

In our conversation, I saw many similarities between his work as a music thanatologist and that of any storyteller, especially those in the field of documentary. The same way I had to emotionally prepare myself to be attuned to my interviewee and present in the moment, so would he before any vigil he would be a part of. It’s a balancing act we have to perform to follow our training, whether it be interviewing skills or harp chords, while also undergoing the humbling process of throwing out what you were taught for what you know is necessary in the moment. I like to think it’s in those moments that we embrace how human all of us are, no matter how hard we want to put that aside. Intuition doesn’t have to be in conflict with doing diligent, professional work. Rather it is what sets us apart from the next professional.

When I asked Kieran about a vigil experience that had stayed with him, it took him some time to respond (understandably—he serves about six patients per day). I made sure he felt comfortable in those moments of reflection and silence. I had to remind myself to be comfortable with silence as well. In those moments, I tried to imagine all the different scenes Kieran and his harp have touched. I found I couldn’t imagine what it must feel like to witness a person die in front of you once, let alone six times in one day. While his work specifically deals with serving terminally ill and dying patients and my work doesn't, I realized our paths have some things in common. I believe that the duty a documentary storyteller has in the world is this: to carry every story—every layer of joy and suffering, every face documented, every place captured—deep inside of their heart.

It’s a gift, but it’s also a curse. Sometimes. It means you may very well carry hundreds of people’s stories inside you after a lifetime of doing the work of a storyteller or music thanatologist. It means you entered someone else’s world temporarily as a witness, and no matter if you helped or could’ve done better or perhaps worsened things, you leave and you live always remembering that. You are an outsider with a benevolent mission, but you will always be the outsider.

I feel that both storytellers and harpist hospice workers, in spite of those existential challenges, are healers. Hospice workers help people die in peace and extend that peace to the grieving family. Storytellers help us make sure that even when we do die, our souls, our stories, memories, cultures, and ideas, exist beyond ourselves. They help us face ourselves. They help us learn ourselves and those around us.

But who helps us healers heal ourselves? Kieran told me how important it was for him to have conversations after vigils to simply process his experiences. He explained that if he doesn't properly do that, he has trouble serving the next patient. This is good advice for storytellers as well. If we want our work to spark hard conversations, we should have those conversations with each other. If we want to heal anyone around us, we must be sure we are healing ourselves.

We cannot simply come into people’s worlds to exploit their stories and emotions for our own gain, hoping it’ll simply make us seem like better storytellers. We have a responsibility as people who are keepers of memories and histories outside ourselves. We need to think deeply about why we want to do this work, and if we are willing to give it the emotional labor and self-reflection it requires.

–Amanda Peckler