Music has a special power that we all recognize. It can make us dance or sing along. It can make us happy, sad, reflective, agitated or calm. We can hear it live, or recorded. But seldom do we have a small choir serenade us - only us - at our bedsides.
That’s what The Threshold Choir does-- but not everyone can request these services. They only sing to a specific group of people: the infirm or dying.
Nineteen women are at evening practice at All Saints Episcopal Church in San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury district. They’ve been described as “a largely gray-haired group,” but members say that’s changing somewhat. Several neighborhoods are represented tonight: The Richmond, Haight Ashbury, the Mission, Cow Hollow, Excelsior, Glen Park. Most members hear of the choir through word of mouth. Few have prior experience singing in a group.
Charmaine Emery, co-director of this chapter, says requirements for membership are few. Being able to carry a tune is one, along with “being able to blend with the other singers. And really communicating kindness with your voice is one of the key things that we strive for.”
The special nature of this choir brings with it a unique requirement.
“What you need,” Emery says, “is to be comfortable with being at a bedside where someone could be – or is – actively dying.”
It’s often difficult knowing what to say when visiting a dying person. And that, says Emery, is why the Threshold Choir is important: “You come into a room and ask in a cheery voice, ‘Oh, how are you?’ And you know that person isn’t doing that well. And so to be able to sing is a great thing.”
Sometimes families join in, and sometimes they start crying. “And that is not a bad thing,” she adds.
The idea for the choir came to founder Kate Munger in 1990. She was visiting a friend who was in a coma, and ran out of things to say. She didn’t know what to do. So she sang-- for two hours. Soon after that experience, Munger started Threshold Choirs both in Marin County and the East Bay. Today there are over 100 chapters worldwide.
“I think Kate’s idea was that women birth the babies,” says Emery. “And so, to sing people out, on the other end of life, seems natural.”
Remember when you were little and needed to get a shot? The nurse might ask you to count backwards from ten to zero. This was a simple, effective way to distract you from the pain of the moment. The same idea applies here.
It’s like a mother singing a lullaby to a baby. The infant doesn’t understand the words, but it does understand the intention: to “communicate kindness,” through the power of music.