Long Prairie woman learns to play harp in retirement

Susan Kroll, after a lifetime of providing health care around the world and delivering more babies than even she could count, has taken up playing the harp. Forget any connotations about harp playing and the pearly gates. For Susan, the harp is opening new doors during retirement.

A small wood-clad room in her home on the Kroll farm east of Long Prairie provides just the right acoustics, and inspiration, for heavenly sound. While the cherry Celtic harp with a birch sound box has taken up residence, it wasn’t acquired without careful thought and a little dreaming.

Susan Knoll plays the harp at her Long Prairie home. After retiring from a career in health care, Knoll decided to learn how to play the stringed instrument. She has been playing for a couple of years now and has recently started to perform at public venues. Photo by Nancy Leasman

“I thought about it for four or five years,” Susan said, “though I had no teacher and no harp.”

Much of Susan’s life included travel and living in far flung places. Harps don’t fit in suitcases, or even the average car. Having one’s roots firmly planted, as Susan does now, made the timing right for fulfilling her dream.

Susan’s father was in the Navy. She started school in the 1st grade at 4 ½ in Pago Pago, the capital city of American Samoa in the South Pacific. It was a small school with grades 1-6 all together. She was in the Aleutian Islands off the tip of Alaska for 7th and 8th grades. She attended 12 schools in all and graduated with a very large class from Lodi, Calif., when she was 17.

Susan’s mother was a gifted pianist who could play by ear. She arranged for Susan to take piano lessons (when she was in 3rd grade) from the next door neighbor, but when they moved to Alaska, there was no piano teacher. In her teen years she found a unique situation that would feed both her music education as well as her future career.

When she was 15 the family lived near a convent. The nuns provided a service similar to today’s home health care. Susan tagged along on home visits and did household tasks while the nuns dealt with the medical care. One of their visits was to the home of a refugee who had been a concert pianist. Before long Susan had arranged to barter house cleaning for piano lessons, an arrangement that lasted for two years. It nurtured her love for classical music.

With subtle influence from the nuns’ ministrations, even though math had been her favorite school subject, Susan started nursing school in 1961. She went on to work in pediatrics at Cornell in New York City. She worked with children suffering from blindness and heart deformities caused by the rubella (also known as German measles) epidemic of 1963-1965.

Pregnant women who contracted the virus during their first trimester were prone to delivering babies with rubella syndrome. In those years, there were 20,000 fetal deaths and about 30,000 babies born with congenital malformations and mental retardation.

“I was later the head nurse of the pediatric ICU at Washington D.C. children’s hospital where I saw the same thing. Once the vaccine was introduced, the congenital rubella syndrome basically disappeared.”

The rubella vaccine, now part of the MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccine was introduced in 1969.

Perhaps Susan’s early years of moving from place to place and the adaptability arising from it were primary motivations for other moves in her career. She worked in Honduras, Thailand, and Nigeria, often struggling to immunize populations living in areas with no electricity and fragile serums requiring refrigeration. Coolers of ice were important in preserving the efficacy of the serums, but if the ice melted, valuable life-saving opportunities could be lost.

Eventually, Susan focused her career on maternal and infant health. She became a certified midwife and delivered babies in crude remote situations as well as well-equipped modern facilities. She moved to Minnesota to work with a growing midwife practice in the Long Prairie Hospital in the late 1970s and married John Kroll in January 1990.

Preventive medicine in rural Todd County wasn’t so different from some of what she experienced in more distant locales. She remembers the effort to immunize Amish children with the tetanus vaccine.

“Horses are carriers of tetanus,” a serious bacterial infection, she explained. “It’s excreted in the urine of horses and is pretty much everywhere horses are. Amish children often run barefoot, and if they get a puncture wound, they are exposed to the bacteria.” Families know that tetanus is serious, and if there’s suspected exposure, they need treatment and that treatment is viewed as “the expensive shot.” Prevention by way of receiving a vaccine was much less expensive as well as an option that offered peace of mind. Working with a public health team, Susan arranged for Amish families to come together in one place to get their children immunized.

Susan retired as a clinic midwife by 1999 but then went back to work for CentraCare Health as the infection control nurse, easing into a second retirement only a few years ago.

Susan and John live on an active organic dairy farm operated by John’s son, Hans, his wife, Lynn, and the next generation. Spring means maple sugar making in the “zucherwald.” It also means setting aside a day for the annual spring bird count since the Krolls are avid birdwatchers.

The bird watching brings us back to Susan’s emerging interest in playing the harp. Two years ago she had gone so far as to locate a harp on Craigslist. She had found a harp teacher through a recommendation by her granddaughter, Jessica, who teaches piano and violin. She had things lined up to pursue a new passion but was reluctant to take the plunge since harps are expensive and the lessons would involve putting on a fair bit of miles.

“We were going to go on a bird watching trip. If the harp was still listed on Craigslist when we got back, I’d do it.”

It was, and it came with a carrying case, tuner and many books of harp music.

Susan measured the van to be sure the 4-foot instrument would fit. Then she and John headed to North Branch to bring the 27 pound, 34-string, lever harp to its new home. It was made by folk instrument builders “Music Makers” in Stillwater.

As it turned out, the trips to Lowry for lessons with harpist Judi Dahlseng have served double duty. John’s sister lives within sight of Judy’s house so he gets a visit in while Susan refines her technique.

It’s been two years since Susan took up the harp, and in recent months, she’s made a few public appearances at her church, a coffee shop and at the local hospital and nursing home. It truly has become a passion for her, and she calls it her Alzheimer’s prevention program. She seeks out new music and watches YouTube videos for inspiration. She especially likes renaissance, baroque and Irish music. The compositions of Turlough O’Carolan, a blind Irish harpist who died in 1738, are favorites and frequently played by today’s harpists. (An interesting side note is that O’Carolan was blind because of smallpox, a disease eradicated by vaccines.)

Moon Over a Ruined Castle is a beautiful song I’d love to learn to play,” she said of a traditional Japanese piece.

Susan said learning to pluck the combination of wire and nylon strings properly is key to getting a good sound and that can be hard on thumbs, initially. More so, the position required to hold the harp and not rest the arms on the soundboard can be hard on the shoulders. But that eases as the muscles get conditioned for playing. She plays for a minimum of 1 to 1 ½ hours every day.

“I play through a cup of coffee, do some chores and then play for another half hour. Then I play again in the evening.”

The passion Susan feels for the harp and the way the interest has woven itself into her life shows in the light in her eyes and the twinkle in her smile. With her medical background she knows that the potential loss of dexterity and the normal course of aging will be a factor in how well she plays and how long she’ll be able to do it. She doesn’t try to memorize music. But the eye/hand coordination, reading the music, and playing melody and chords with either hand as the music dictates is an extraordinary brain exercise. The delight in finding new music and setting goals within her music repertoire makes each new day exciting. She subscribes to the Folk Harp Journal and keeps her iPad close at hand to search online.

In a subtle way Susan’s love for math still fuels her passion. As Greek philosopher Pythagoras said, “There is geometry in the humming of the strings, there is music in the spacing of the spheres.”