Singing on the Threshold

by Layla Ananda

Easy, rest easy, let every trouble drift away;
Easy, rest easy, love enfolds you and holds you safe.

(words and music by Marilyn Power Scott)

In the twilight hours of early evening, three women gather around a bedside. Their voices are gentle and soothing; their lyrics and harmonies weave a spell. The lines on the face of the man in the bed smooth out a bit; the family members in the room visibly relax.

This is the magic created by Threshold Singers of Ann Arbor, and Threshold Choirs in more than two hundred locations around the world. The Threshold Choirs sing to people in the midst of a transformative life event: most often dying, but also recovering from illness or surgery, going through difficult emotional times, or being in chronic pain. They sing in hospitals and hospices, at nursing homes, in private homes, and once in a while, for the general public.

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The first Threshold Choir was started in 2000 in California by Kate Munger, who describes the experience that led her to gather a group of women together to sing to people “on a threshold”:

The seed for the Threshold Choir was planted in June of 1990 when I sang for my friend Larry as he lay in a coma, dying of HIV/AIDS. I did housework all morning and was terrified when the time came to sit by his bedside. I did what I always did when I was afraid; I sang the song that gave me courage. I sang it for 2 ½ hours. It comforted me, which comforted him. The contrast between the morning and the afternoon was profound. 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, which in turn was comforting to him.

Threshold Singers of Ann Arbor (TSAA) began in 2007 when local musician and music educator, Tammy Renner, invited a few friends to her home. Two years before, she had sung to her mother as she lay dying of cancer. Of that time, Tammy says, “The music calmed her and helped my family express feelings for which we had no words.” Then, Tammy explains,

A dear friend in Yellow Springs, Ohio told me about Kate Munger and the Threshold Choir. As soon as I heard the simple, yet powerful songs, I knew I wanted to gather women in Ann Arbor to sing together and bring these songs to the bedsides of those who were struggling to live and/or to die.

Currently, about two dozen women meet weekly to learn and practice some of the ever-growing number of songs in the official Threshold Choir repertoire, now up to nearly four hundred. About a dozen of the women are “bedside singers,” having memorized the songs most frequently sung, and learned beneficial ways to interact with people on a threshold.

                  Calming, resting, breathing, I lay my burdens down.

(words and music by Patricia Hallam)

Karen Chalmer, who joined TSAA at the suggestion of a friend more than ten years ago, describes a bedside singing experience:

We walked into a large room in a nursing home. An older person lay dying on the bed. There were maybe ten relatives and friends in the room. Some were watching television. Others were near the bed, in different corners, in the hall. There was a sadness and uneasiness in the air. No one seemed to know what to do or say. Our “song mother” greeted everyone quietly and took us right to the bedside. She spoke directly to the person in the bed, even though he seemed unconscious. She called him gently by name and told him we were there to sing for him. As we settled around the bed the room grew quiet and everyone was suddenly focused on the person in the bed. As we sang, a few of the relatives moved close and one of them took the dying person’s hand. The mood changed so noticeably—it became much more relaxed and very much focused on what had actually brought them all to that room. Some tears flowed. When we finished many of the people in the room followed us out into the hall to tell us how grateful they were.

Women are drawn to the long process (usually one-two years) of becoming a TSAA bedside singer for many reasons. TSAA member Pat Shalis says, “I love the beauty and simplicity of the songs we sing from the heart to ourselves and our song recipients.”  Another TSAA member, Karen Mori, explains: “My decision to join was based on feeling that ‘shiver down my spine’ when I heard about the choir. And it has been a commitment of the heart ever since.”

A reclining chair sits in the middle of the rehearsal room, and often a member will feel moved to lie back in the chair, letting the lovely harmonies and soothing words wash over her. “The choir draws women who are loving, open-hearted, and committed to helping their fellow beings during difficult transitions of life,” says Shalis. That includes the singers themselves. Even as they work on learning the notes and blending their voices, the women of TSAA experience the calm and peacefulness of the short, chant-like songs. They will sing for each other, upon request: “I asked for singing the morning before I went to divorce court, and again after I had a fall and broke a bone,” says one TSAA member.

                  Let love wash over you, let love wash over you, let love wash over you, gently.
                  Let life wash over you, let life wash over you, let life wash over you, gently.
                  Let peace fill you, let peace fill you, let peace fill you, completely.

(words and music by Agnieszka Helena Wolska)

TSAA periodically offers opportunities for members of the general public to experience the “song-bath” of Threshold Choir songs. “A Gift of Song” is held once or twice a year, usually in a local place of worship. For an hour-plus, attendees can relax into the harmonies and rounds sung by twenty or so TSAA members. Several reclining chairs are available to attendees throughout the room to enhance the experience. On a number of songs, attendees are invited to sing along. It’s “our gift to our community,” says TSAA founder Tammy Renner. “It is an opportunity to receive our songs in a meditative, gentle, loving circle.”

TSAA has also created “Singing for Comfort,” now an independent event sponsored by the Interfaith Center for Spiritual Growth in Ann Arbor. Once a month, anyone can come spend an hour singing songs from the Threshold repertoire, and other similar songs.

We are all just walking each other home. (words by Ram Dass, music by Kate Munger)

“The ability to share that experience of homegoing with people in the process of dying gives me hope that I am paving the way for others to share the same with me when it is my turn,” says Edie Lewis, a TSAA member. “This singing is a way to embrace that common normal experience, and help each other make the transition, no matter who we are or who they are,” says TSAA’s Pat Shalis.

Threshold Singers of Ann Arbor welcomes requests for singing at bedsides and for other times of transition. Contact information can be found at http://thresholdofannarbor.org. Information about Threshold Choir International is at https://thresholdchoir.org. There is no charge for Threshold Singers’ services. Information about Singing for Comfort can be found on Facebook and in the Crazy Wisdom calendar.

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