Soft Strains of Heavenly Music

The Threshold Choir sings to those who need comfort, caring, and spiritual support

by Deirdre Reilly | Updated 27 Jul 2016 at 10:18 AM

If you are visiting a loved one in the hospital or hospice and suddenly hear sweet and peaceful singing, chances are you’ve happened upon a performance of a Threshold Choir.

Comprised primarily of women’s voices, Threshold Choir is a network of 150 a cappella choirs around the world. Their mission is to sing for — and with — those at the “thresholds” of life. They will softly serenade a patient during a hospital stay who is receiving treatment or after surgery, or during a person’s last days or hours on earth. Some chapters of the choir will even sing after a baby is born.

“When we practice, we pretend we’re holding a baby — it’s that tender,” one member said.

Kate Munger, who began Threshold Choir in 1990 in California, shared the impetus for her mission.

“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,” she wrote on the organization’s website. “I 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 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.”

Most often, the singing of a Threshold Choir graces those in the tenuous, precious hours between this life and the next, at the family’s request. The choir does not charge anything for a performance — the women gathered at the bedside consider singing a great honor and a privilege.

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A choir practices with a member who acts as a patient. The choirs bring their own chairs so that no patient feels the burden of hospitality (photo courtesy The Threshold Choir).

April Boyden, 50, a hospital and hospice chaplain, has been singing with a Threshold Choir in Bellingham, Washington, for over seven years. Her strongest emotion when singing is simple gratitude.

“We’re so immensely grateful when people — who had been strangers just moments before — welcome us into this intimate, precious time,” she told LifeZette. “There’s a beautiful lack of pretense when life and death is right there in front of you. To honor the love the family has for the sick or dying person — and the journey the whole family has gone through — is really so special.”

Although Threshold Choirs spend time with many people who are dying or very ill, to them it’s all about the gift of perspective. “When you see death, life becomes very precious — our time here is limited and our relationships so precious,” Boyden said.

Threshold Choirs support any faith. They exist to lend peace and encouragement, never judgment. Singers come from all walks of life, all professions, all faith backgrounds. “Whatever path a person is on, that person is deserving of love and gracious honoring,” said Boyden.

Related: Standing Up for Faith in Our Culture

Sometimes unexpected emotions hit the choir members as they harmonize. “It hits closer to home when the person you are singing to is the same age as you are, or maybe the patient’s fingernail polish is the same shade your mom used to wear when she was in hospice. You try to be ready for those personal connections,” said Boyden. “You have to be gentle with yourself and your own emotions, too. It’s a really genuine encounter.”

Boyden, who is a Christian, said there have been moments of true heavenly connection for her as she sings.

“That grace that allows us to sing honestly to people and to let them know, ‘You’ve been loved since your first moment of being,’ definitely occurs,” she said. “We all make mistakes and have brokenness. But in that moment, we can genuinely say to patients that they are loved beyond measure, and are deserving of peace and support.”

Threshold Choirs do not take center stage in the experience — although they do like to get physically close to patients. “Everything we do is about ‘blend’ — we blend our voices, we blend into the atmosphere,” Boyden said. “We sit close to patients, and we welcome the family into that if they want to gather with us. We bring our own stools, so it’s not about the family offering hospitality to us. We also sing close to the height of patients, so that they can have a physical sense of the vibrations of our voices close to them.”

“There’s a beautiful lack of pretense when life and death is right there in front of you.”

It is not volume, but gentleness that conveys peace to the hurting, the recovering, the dying. “We sing quietly — when we practice, we pretend we’re holding a baby. It’s that tender,” Boyden noted.

She also said that between the songs there is silence, and the singers invite families to sit within that silence. “In our culture we aren’t used to silence, we don’t know what to do with it,” she said. “So we warn those gathered that silence is coming. When a song triggers emotion, we want you to linger in it.”

Threshold Choirs sing not to the family, but on behalf of them. “We were singing for a patient who died while we were singing, and one of the adult children later said, ‘Mom died while we were singing to her.’ The family felt as if they had been singing, too. That really touched me,” recalled Boyden.

Familiar hymns will most likely not be heard from a Threshold Choir. “We sing music that isn’t known to the patient because songs can often trigger memory.”

Related: If You Feel Adrift, Take Heart

Threshold Choirs depend on donations to continue their good works. They feel they’ve really succeeded when a patient totally relaxes in the moment.

“We sing for alert people as well as those who are not alert, and we say, ‘You don’t have to clap.’ We want to honor the silence between the songs. If the person we are singing to falls asleep — we consider that a standing ovation.”

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