Traditionally, harp aficionados have included angels, Greek gods and goddesses, medieval kings, and ladies in black formal gowns seated in orchestra pits a pretty exclusive bunch. But for the past 10 years, the harp has been changing its image. And Richmond, a harp town for three decades, is on the forefront of the change. More than 250 people from around the world are arriving in Richmond this week to attend the Second International Harp Therapy Conference being held at the Omni in downtown Richmond. It starts Thursday evening and runs through Saturday night. Pat Moffitt Cook, a nationally recognized ethnomusicologist and researcher, and Dr. Amy Kanner, a researcher and harpist, will kick off the event as keynote speakers. For the second time, Lynnelle Ediger-Kordzaia, director of the Richmond Harp Ensemble, is the hostess and coordinator of the event. She single-handedly organized the first International Harp Therapy Conference here in 1999. Being a one-woman show hasn't dampened her excitement, though. She says the increasing use of the harp in therapy has led to more study of its effectiveness by researchers and scientists over the past couple of years. "It is truly extraordinary that we are having this conference here in Richmond," Ediger-Kordzaia says. "People will be presenting medical studies for the first time at this conference and it could change medicine." No longer an instrument for symphony musicians and the heavenly host alone, the harp is considered by some to be a medical instrument as well as a musical one. A harp-therapy movement is taking hold in this country and in Canada, Europe and Australia. Harp therapy uses the instrument in an attempt to treat patients suffering from a wide variety of ills from Alzheimer's disease and senile dementia to depression; it's also used in stress relief and to speed healing after surgeries. Harp therapy can be passive - picture a volunteer playing the harp for the enjoyment of patients and visitors in a nursing home. On the other end of the continuum, patients may learn to play the harp to overcome emotional issues or to control chronic pain. Ediger-Kordzaia became involved in harp therapy in 1994, not long after she arrived in Richmond to lead the venerable Richmond Harp Ensemble. Nearly 30 years ago, Richmond was one of the first cities in the country to start a harp-music program for students. The Richmond ensemble, now composed of students from the city and around the region, has become nationally known. The group has performed at the Kennedy Center and all over Europe. It's raising funds now to play at Carnegie Hall in New York on April 2. One day in late 1994, a student brought to ensemble class an article her grandmother had given her about harp therapy. The students in the ensemble asked Ediger-Kordzaia if they could start some kind of volunteer effort using their harps for music therapy. Not long after, Ediger-Kordzaia and a special-education teacher organized what became the first harp-therapy outreach program based in a public school. The program, in conjunction with the Central Virginia Independent Living Center, was designed for the harp students to work with other students with mental, physical and emotional challenges. In 1995, Ediger-Kordzaia was invited to Allentown, Pa., to the first organized conference on harp therapy, to speak about the student program. Ediger-Kordzaia later joined with the organizer of that event, Sarajane Williams, a licensed psychologist using harp therapy in her practice, and they began the national Harp Therapy Journal. Williams, an author and researcher who will speak at this weekend's event, had urged Ediger-Kordzaia to hold a national conference in Richmond. But once word spread among harp advocates around the world, the conference was re-dubbed "international." More than 150 harpists came to Richmond for that initial conference. "The burgeoning interest in this is just from people telling other people what they're doing. Word of mouth has a lot to do with it," Williams says. The movement is growing, she adds, as an inevitable outgrowth of many people's interest in holistic healing and "natural" and alternative medicine. Patients have had such striking results that hospitals, hospices and clinics in different areas nationwide are now hiring harp therapists to work with patients full time, Ediger-Kordzaia says. "As a teacher, I can't ignore that career option for my students," she adds. Since harpists have only begun to seek each other out in the past few years, the harp-therapy movement has always been fairly loose-knit, Williams says. Professional therapeutic harpists are looking to a future that might include a structured organization and a method to earn professional certification. "In the past 10 years we've seen huge growth," Ediger-Kordzaia says. "I think that what will come out of this conference is that a national organization will be formed." You can find out more information about the conference and evening harp performances by calling 353-7001 or on the Internet at http://harpsunlimited.com/geninfo. Registration at the door is welcome. Evening concerts are open to the public and cost $12 for adults and $6 for students. Participants can attend the whole conference for $315 or can choose specific workshops or performances and pay individual fees.