Before my father died, he was in the grip of a profound dementia. He was in a hospital in Florida and my brother and I were still here in Michigan. We phoned daily, but he was confused, anxious, and incoherent.
Then one day my brother was inspired to sing, in Hebrew, a song my father had sung almost every Friday night of his life, a song about angels of peace. As soon as Laz began singing, my father fell silent and became calm. When the song was done, he said “Yes” and hung up the phone. In his last few days, my ninety-six-year-old father also frequently cried out to his mother, though she’d been gone for more than sixty years.
California choir director Kate Munger had a similar experience when she sang for a friend dying of AIDS. Recognizing the power of music to soothe those who are close to death—especially women’s voices, recalling as they do the comforting sounds of mothers and lullabies—Munger founded the first Threshold Choir in 2000.
There are now more than fifty Threshold Choirs all over the United States—including, for the past year and a half, one in Ann Arbor. Tammy Corwin-Renner, director of the Ann Arbor choir, was inspired by her own experience when her mother lay dying three and a half years ago. “She was always saying ‘Tammy, play me a song,'” Corwin-Renner remembers. “I played music on the piano and the harp, and I sang to her. When she died, I knew that I would become some kind of musician in hospice, but it didn’t feel right to play instrumental music. So when I heard about the Threshold Choir last April, I knew immediately.”
Corwin-Renner, who gives private piano and recorder lessons, was already leading a group of women who met regularly to sing rounds. In May 2007 she asked whether they would be willing to train to sing for dying people. The timing, as it turned out, was perfect for some of the women in the group.
Gabriella vanGeloven was helping to care for a close friend who was dying: “You know how you usually just stand around helpless and don’t know what to do in those situations? [By] singing for someone who is passing, you can do something for that person, and also for the people who stay behind.”
Susan Schilperoort had a friend whose seventeen-year-old daughter had been killed in a car accident earlier in 2007: “I’d done some hospice work and been a hospital chaplain, but to be a part of that home funeral—I just feel like it changed me forever. And so it felt like a natural thing for this group to flow into doing that.” According to Munger, “The shiver down the back when a singer has heard about our work has been the best and most accurate audition” for the groups.
Threshold Choirs throughout the United States all operate similarly. If invited, and always for free, a small group, typically two or three women, will sing by a dying person’s bedside for a brief period, usually about a half hour. Because familiar songs tend to make it harder for people to let go, Corwin-Renner says, the choirs deliberately choose unfamiliar ones, many of them composed by other choir members. The songs have few words—sometimes quotations from spiritual figures such as Mother Teresa and Thich Nhat Hanh—sung to chantlike repeated melodies.
I was very moved when I heard Ann Arbor’s Threshold Choir recently at one of their rare public performances. Feeling it wouldn’t be right to go with them to a dying person’s bedside, I asked whether I could attend one of their weekly rehearsals.
Ten women, ranging in age from thirties to fifties, are sitting in a circle in Corwin-Renner’s living room, sipping herbal tea and singing. As Corwin-Renner welcomes me, one of the women “jumps the chair,” lying down on the white mesh recliner that simulates a bed. She closes her eyes, the two women on either side of her in the circle hold her hands, and the group begins to sing, “We walk not into the night, we walk but towards the stars.”
Many of the songs are rounds, and in rehearsal the women sing them in parts, beginning at normal volume and singing more softly with each repetition. If this were a real patient, they tell me, they would typically sing in unison and very, very softly.
After a couple of songs and some silence, the now visibly relaxed choir member is ready to relinquish the chair to me. I sit in the recliner, tilt back, and close my eyes.
“When you were born, you cried, and the world rejoiced,” the women sing. “Live your life so that when you die, the world cries and you rejoice.” The words come from a Navajo prayer.
After the first time through, Corwin-Renner says softly to the other singers, “Direct your attention to San.” I immediately, and physically, feel the effect of the shifting, intensified focus. It’s like a warm light shining on me.
“Blessings on your journey home.”
By the end of the third song I no longer notice the words and cannot distinguish individual voices. I hear only a unified sound that seems to be coming from everywhere.
“When I started this,” Corwin-Renner tells me later, “I imagined that healing work would be mostly for the person we were singing to. But then I realized how much we were being healed. And there is a third layer: the family and caregivers. We’ve gone into the most tense situations, or where people were grieving so deeply, and when we’re finished, the room is so much lighter—everyone seems transformed.”
“You’re not really trying to change something about where the person is,” adds choir member Lindsay Passmore. “We just want to try to get with them in that place, and at the same time hold the possibility that this is a beautiful place and all is well.”
I ask how the women can keep from crying. “I’m a really emotional person,” Karen Chalmer replies. “I often cry for all sorts of happy, sad, whatever reasons. And I found, the one time that I sang, that that was nowhere in my mind. I was so focused on the sound and on the person, emotions never entered into it. But afterward I felt elated in a way, like I’d been in such a holy place.”
The Threshold Choir always asks permission to sing a specific song at a bedside. Often family members and caregivers join them in singing it: “It’s all right. You can go. Your memories are safe with us.”
Brian (not his real name) remembers when the choir sang that song: “It was the night before my father died. He had Alzheimer’s, his body was shutting down, and the hospice people had already come over. His breathing was really, really labored.
“They were tremendously respectful when they came into the room. The reverence and peacefulness they brought into my family’s home was just awesome. They were only there an hour. After they left, I said to my wife, ‘It’s okay with me now if he goes.’ It was a magical gift they gave us.”