Monday, February 26, 2007

A Theraputic Choir for the Suffering and Dying

Compassion fills a choir's repertoire

Bedside singers soothe the sick and the dying
By Steve Schmidt

February 26, 2007

SANTA CRUZ – An ardent band of women in the seaside city of Santa Cruz is on a heavenly mission – they sing for the dying.

They call themselves the Threshold Choir, and they perform at the bedsides of the terminally ill, singing in intimate tones, like a mother soothing a newborn.

“We think of these as lullabies for ... on the way out,” said choir founder Kate Munger.

Munger, a minister's daughter, started the singing group several years ago. Today, the Marin County woman oversees 35 Threshold Choirs in a dozen states.

They sing a cappella in homes, hospitals and hospices, at the request of the dying and their families.

The choir members believe singing calms the fear and pain at the end of life.

“I've been in a lot of choirs and I've done a lot of singing over the years, but there's nothing like the power of this,” said Amrita Cottrell, with the Santa Cruz choir. “It brings people back to a place of tranquillity and healing.”

To avoid overwhelming the dying or their family, no more than two or three choir members sing at a bedside at a time. Each choir has a roster of 60 to 80 members.

The choirs draw on a 300-song repertoire of hymns, gospel tunes and other pieces assembled by Munger – from “Ave Maria” to “I'll Fly Away” to “Calling All Angels” by Canadian songwriter Jane Siberry.

At a recent rehearsal of the Santa Cruz group, staged in a chapel at the city's Dominican Hospital, a dozen singers practiced a brief melody penned by a friend of the choir.

Sitting in a circle within the dimly lit chapel, they sounded a muted, contemplative tone:

“I'm sending you light

To heal you, to hold you.

I'm sending you light

To hold you in love.”

A hospital patient entered, gripping a walker and wearing a thin gown.

Hearing the song, Brent Ellis, 48, swayed his frail head.

“I was just going to find a silent place to pray and instead I found this chapel full of wonderful angel choir music,” Ellis said later. “I cried at one point. I cried because it was so beautiful.”

He is dealing with pneumonia and chronic pancreatitis, a disease that he said will claim his life someday.

Song, like prayer, can act as a balm, said John Fanestil of La Mesa. A Methodist clergyman, Fanestil wrote the 2006 book “Mrs. Hunter's Happy Death: Lessons on Living from People Preparing to Die.”

“Music helps people go back in their memories, to favorite times in their lives, to particular people and particular events,” he said. “The idea of music at the death bed is consistent with everything I know about good practices of dying.”

Fanestil brings a hymnal when he visits the terminally ill.

Sometimes, he quietly sings in their ear. Other times, he encourages family and friends to try a favorite song.

Not just to help the person, but to comfort themselves, he said.

At San Diego Hospice in Hillcrest, volunteer harpists play for patients, with their permission. A hospice official said community choirs have also performed in the facility.

She had spent a day with him, doing his laundry and other household chores. He was comatose and in bed.

She wound up singing to him for two hours.

“What was really profound was how serene I got. I knew that as I calmed ... my inner calm was contagious to him,” she said. “At the end of the afternoon, I felt like I had really stumbled onto something extraordinary.”

There are a dozen Threshold Choirs today in the Bay Area, including in Oakland, Concord and San Anselmo. Munger directs nearly all of the groups.

She has also overseen the formation of choirs in Chico and Davis, along with groups in Oregon, Washington, Illinois, Michigan, Alaska and other states.

Munger said a San Diego group may form this spring.

The Threshold singers are all women. Some arrive with years of choir experience. Others come without training, inspired by the group's unusual mission.

“Most of them are people who have had really amazing things happen to them – miraculous and tragic,” Munger said. “And sometimes a combination of those two.”

Khalila Alldis joined the Santa Cruz group three years ago. She is a 60-year-old massage therapist. She struggles with back problems and chronic headaches.

Singing, she said, provides a kind of tonic.

Her choir practices in the Dominican Hospital chapel. It also sings in the hospital's sun-lit lobby two mornings a month.

“I can be having a terrible day and come in and sing for 10 or 15 minutes and my whole perspective changes,” Alldis said. “It's just the best, quickest, most transformative high.”

It also helps ease the pain of her husband's death. She said he was murdered 14 years ago. Even talking about it today, she tears up.

“Twenty-two years we were together,” she said. “I don't think I would have made it beyond that at all without being able to sing.”

Joanne Lamb, 56, sings with the Palo Alto chapter. At a recent rehearsal, she volunteered to sit in a reclining chair surrounded by the singers.

It gave the choir a chance to practice in a setting resembling a bedroom. It also proved therapeutic to Lamb.

Pained by the breakup of her marriage, Lamb lay in the chair and quietly wept.

“I've never felt so surrounded and protected and safe,” she said later. “We're all healed by doing this. We're all healed by singing.”

Laura Devine joined the Santa Cruz choir in June, when her mother was in the hospital. Learning that doctors didn't expect her mother to live, Devine rushed to her mother's bedside, badly shaken. She sang a slow gospel-inspired song she had just learned in the choir:

“I'm gonna lift my mother up

She is not heavy

If I don't lift her up

I will fall down.”

Devine, 50, believes her singing played a role in her mother's unexpected recovery – she was home within a week – saying the incident taught her “the power of the voice.”

Munger said it takes courage to stand over a dying stranger's bed and sing. It's so intimate, and some choir members take months or years before trying it.

Most requests for a choir visit come from the elderly who are spending their final days at home.

Once the first note sounds, Munger said, the singers often witness a series of changes.

The ailing person's heartbeat frequently steadies. The face softens. Relatives in the room breathe more deeply, or join in and sing.

It's a comforting moment, Munger said, as when a mother softly croons a lullaby at the end of the day.

Or, in this case, “at the end of a lovely, long life.”

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