A traumatic brain injury has left a Shannon woman with an unexplained ability to play the harp so well it could summon the angels.
Shellie Hanley's ability to play such an intricate instrument with limited training verges on the miraculous, and she is using her talents to help ease the suffering of others.
During her own recovery she found she had a natural aptitude for the harp, recognised as one of the hardest instruments in the world to learn and play.
"I can't explain it. It felt like I had been playing my whole life. It was like an old friend," she said.
Ever since that fateful day three years ago, she has played to new-born and premature babies in neo-natal units, at resthomes, psychiatric wards, dementia units, and hospices - anywhere she felt there might be a need to ease suffering.
She played for free.
"My heart is just open to share this gift," she said.
Playing at a psychiatric hospital one day, a patient that hadn't spoken in six months began talking, much to the surprise of nursing staff, who suggested to Hanley that she make recordings of her music.
"That started the journey for me to record these songs. I had been shown how it helped articulate the things she had been carrying around and I wanted to be able to do that for other people," she said.
Those heavenly melodies that fall from her fingertips and ripple around the room are now being made into a new album, and will be intertwined with whale song.
A marine scientist had sent Hanley recordings of humpback whales taken near Raoul Island in the Kermadec Islands, which will form the basis of a song in the new album - her first.
A chance meeting with fellow artist Jerome Kavanagh introduced her to the world of taonga pūoro – traditional Māori musical instruments, and hearing Kavanagh play a nguru (whale tooth flute) helped inspire the whale lullaby project, she said.
Hanley, 52, played to newborn babies at the Palmerston North Neonatal Unit fortnightly. She said she had great feedback from staff and parents.
She was also prompted to make an album by a mother she had met at a neo-natal unit. She had wept at the sound and wanted to take home a recording.
Hanley's dream was to give an album copy to every neo-natal unit in New Zealand.
"It's my dream to bring peace and calm to as many premature babies as possible, throughout the world," she said.
"It's an absolute honour to play to these babies. I'm so humbled."
- Early one morning three years ago, Shellie Hanley woke with severe abdominal pain. She went to get up, but fell unconscious and banged the back of her head on wooden plinth on the floor of her house truck.
Her daughter found her and rang 111. She was rushed to hospital by ambulance.
The fall had a dramatic effect on her life since. She suffered short term memory loss and access to her vocabulary was restricted. To this day she struggles to find some words, and is sometimes quick to tire mentally.
"I had to get used to the amount of energy it took to run a brain," she said, and in her first year of recovery she spent a lot of time "observing".
Her ability to multi-task had been greatly reduced. Initially, she was forced to write lists reminding her to perform what would ordinarily be basic tasks, like brush hair and eat breakfast.
Her diary was now her best friend, and notes attached to her cellphone to remind her of the most immediate tasks. She was in the habit of setting as many as three alert reminders on her phone so as not to miss engagements.
Hanley, who is of Nga Puhi and Tainui Maniapoto descent, said the secret to living with brain injury is not to fight it or be angry, but to accept it and learn to adapt.
"I wouldn't change it for the world. I take the injury as a blessing," she said.
"I can't get back to who I was. This is who I am going to be now - let's roll with this. If you can't surrender, you are just going to hit a wall."
Just days before her fall Hanley had contacted the New Zealand Harp Society and organised the delivery of a 34-string Paraguayan-type harp, and she was still recovering from her ordeal when the harp arrived on her doorstep a month later.
The harp was christened "Ohomairangi" and had been gifted to her by Rod Thomas from the New Zealand Harp Society.
But while Thomas taught her to play the notes she was hearing in her head, within weeks she was playing to an extremely high standard, playing by feel. Everything was intuitive.
Hanley said she almost felt compelled to play and began to take lessons as a way of channelling melodies she was suddenly hearing in her head at night.
"I lost my short-term memory but gained an extraordinary ability to hear and compose music," she said.
Acting on those early morning insights, without the ability to read or write music, she would record them on her cellphone before falling back to sleep.
"What tends to happen is unless you record it - it's gone. I have to write it down or record it," she said.
Hanley said playing the harp requires the use of all the fingers on both hands, thus exercising both the left and right side of the brain. It played an important role in her recovery.
Hanley believed her melodies stemmed from a near-death experience she had as a child. She was pulled from the Upper Hutt River as a six-year-old by a passing off-duty policeman.
While struggling underneath the water she remembered hearing music. It relaxed her and compelled her to thrust one hand high above the water.
"I heard this incredible celestial vocal sound like an angelic choir singing in infinite directions around me. I believe that sound saved my life and brought peace and calm to me," she said.
She had never forgotten the exact melody she heard that day and it forms the basis of much of her music, while also being inspired by her natural environment, like the sound of bees or cicadas or bellbirds.
"It's etched into the hard drive of my memory," she said.
"I can hear music in birdsong. It inspires me."
Composing the music was an emotional experience, and she wanted to use it to help others.
Hanley dressed in white with a tiara and angel wings to help create the perfect visual accompaniment when she played. The music demanded it.
"I see a lot of people suffering ... we all have something magical and unique in us that we can share with others, something beautiful that can not only impact on our lives, but on the lives of others."
The whalesong lullaby was also a loving lament to her late mother who died two years ago. It represented the story of a mother whale who is stranded with her baby, and uses the song to soothe her in their last moments together.
- Hanley will be at Te Takere in Levin from 12noon this Friday to debut a sample of the whale song lullaby.