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Advice & More June 2014

Health, Wellness & the Good Life

Threshold Choir: A Legacy of Healing and Peace

By Lynn Pribus

"It's just amazing to watch a non-responsive patient's breathing and body change as we sing," says Harris, the Pittsburgh singer. "We know they're hearing us and deriving great benefit from what we do.  We also know the families are certain that because we sang, their loved one passed on in a completely peaceful way."

"We're witnessing and celebrating the end of life," declares Kate Munger, the California woman who founded the first Threshold Choir in 2000 after sitting helplessly with a comatose friend before his death. Not knowing what else to do, she began singing and recalls that it just felt right. "I did what I always did when I was afraid," she writes. "I sang for 2-1/2 hours. I felt as if I had given generously of my essence to my dear friend while I sang to him. I also found that I felt deeply comforted myself."

Since that beginning, more than 100 Threshold Choirs have formed worldwide. Singers are mostly women, but some groups include men, and people join for various reasons. Often they learn about the choir by word of mouth.

"I first heard about Threshold Choir from Sue Ribaudo, who had just started the New York City Threshold Choir," recalls Cindy Harris, founder of the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, choir. "I had some ideas I wanted to work out regarding the impact of the voice on the listener. Threshold Choir seemed like just the thing."

Some singers, like Kathy Troyer, a member of the Threshold Choir in Charlottesville, Virginia, have particular insight. Troyer's tee shirt proclaims ONE TOUGH CHICK: Breast Cancer Survivor, and her experience gives her new understanding. "I realize – not in an immediate sense – that I am closer to death than before," she says carefully.  "I can put myself in that situation now more than I used to and I see how music is a comfort. It's a beautiful gift, as much for the family as for the dying person."

In some cases, it's a right time/right place thing. Deborah Ferreira, also of the Charlottesville choir, was grieving after the death of her partner. "I had sung to Ruth and I'd seen how it uplifted her," Ferreira says, "so when a friend told me about Threshold, it just clicked." She snaps her fingers for emphasis. "I'm very moved by the effect our singing has on people. I feel such love between the person we sing to and the other choir members. It's a gift you give, but you are receiving a gift, too."

"Threshold singing has created a safe and enduring space where all of us can come when we're tired and leave completely refreshed," continues Harris about the Pittsburgh group's rehearsals. "I see women who were certain their voices were 'not good' learn that singing was a learnable skill, not a talent. I've watched their lives change significantly because they've learned how to use their voices for this."

Threshold songs are not significantly different from other choral pieces, although many are only a line or two, repeated like a peaceful mantra, leading to rest and comfort. Two examples are, "There you are in the splendor of this moment. Here I am, with you." and "We are all just walking each other home."

While each singing visit is planned individually, a common pattern is three or four members singing for 20-30 minutes, the song leader choosing songs in the moment while observing the client's response. 

"We often start with songs about rest and breathing and end with songs of love and peace," explains Ellen Rose, a singer with the Peninsula Threshold Choir in Palo Alto, California. "Our music is so soothing in its universal simplicity and gentle harmony that the client, caregivers, and singers all share the experience of its calming effects."

Delores "Susie" Pascarella understands those calming effects in a special way since she is both a member of the Charlottesville group and a resident at the nursing home where they rehearse "I love contributing and singing with the choir," she says. "To hear the voices blend together is wonderful and the people we sing to – they love it, too."

Sometimes, however, Pascarella's own health issues confine her to bed. On those occasions the choir sings in her room. "There's a lot of comfort," she says. "Listening to them makes me feel so much better and serene. I feel so calm when they sing."

"It's really quite amazing what we hear from clients," agrees Sudie Pollock, director of the Napa Valley Threshold Choir. "They tell us they feel a vibration inside their body, a warmth that relaxes, envelopes, and stays with them for a couple of hours, allowing them to sleep. I often see a face that goes from wrinkled from pain or anxiety to smoothness, a relaxed jaw, shoulder tension eased, a settling. Our special lullabies can sing people into a loving space."

The emotional and vocal blending of the Choir embodies pure love and tenderness. Listeners and singers alike are often moved to tears. "It's just amazing to watch a non-responsive patient's breathing and body change as we sing," says Harris, the Pittsburgh singer. "We know they're hearing us and deriving great benefit from what we do.  We also know the families are certain that because we sang, their loved one passed on in a completely peaceful way."

 

Find a Choir

There are more than 100 Threshold Choirs worldwide, honoring the ancient tradition of singing at the bedsides of those who are ill, dying, grieving or otherwise in need of musical healing. When invited, they visit in a small group at hospices, hospitals, nursing facilities, and private homes to offer comfort through song. Their singing is a gift to members of their community and there is never a charge although the group accepts donations for their ongoing expenses.

For more information or to locate a specific choir, visit ThresholdChoir.org. Many choirs have their own websites.

 

Lynn Pribus is a member of a Threshold Choir in Charlottesville, Virginia.

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