You might think you stepped into a small choir of angels, but the women in Martha’s Vineyard’s Threshold Choir are very real and of this world. What they have in common is a love of singing and devotion to lending their voices of tranquility to those who are on the threshold between living and dying. In small groups of two or three, in order not to be an overwhelming presence, the women visit the bedsides of anyone who requests them. Their a cappella interludes of some 20 minutes are equally as soothing to the caregivers and family members as to those who are passing.
I was honored to attend one of the rehearsals, where the women shared what they do as well as their history. Cheryl Burns, the choir director, told me that they sing to provide ease and comfort, and feel it’s a high compliment when loved ones fall asleep. In a room at the Oak Bluffs Council on Aging, they practiced in lullaby voices as they do bedside, whether in rounds or compelling three-part harmony. Soon, sitting next to them with my eyes closed, their voices resonated throughout my very being. Anyone who is considering their services is welcome to attend one of their bimonthly rehearsals, which I highly recommend for a firsthand uplifting experience.
Burns says that they choose music in accordance with the person’s musical taste and spiritual inclination, although the music is not religious. The choir is a form of blessing rather than entertainment.
During the hourlong practice the group sang a variety of songs, many of which Threshold Choir members had composed. The lyrics often come from renowned spiritual leaders. For instance, explained Burns afterward, “The first ‘Breath’ song we practiced, ‘In breath, out breath, deep breath, slow breath, calm breath, ease breath, smile breath, release breath,’ is repeated daily by the monks at Thich Nhat Hanh’s retreat in the south of France. ‘Breathing in, cherish yourself, breathing out, cherish the world’ is an affirmation the Dalai Lama teaches his followers. ‘We are all just walking each other home’ is a quotation by Ram Dass, and the words of one song we didn’t sing, ‘We cannot do great things on the earth, only small things with great love” is a well-known quotation from Mother Teresa.”
But not all the songs are tranquil. When the Threshold Choir is visiting someone who is recuperating, they sing something a little livelier, such as one I heard, “We Have Only This Moment.”
Today there are approximately 200 Threshold Choirs internationally, and they all stem from one remarkable woman, Kate Munger. Living in California in 1990, she sang for her friend who lay in a coma dying from HIV/AIDS. She wrote on the Threshold Choir website, “I did what I always did when I was afraid; I sang the song that gave me courage. It comforted me, which comforted him.” Munger established the first choir in 2000, and Burns was introduced to it through a roommate. Together they started the North County San Diego choir in 2007. Returning to the Island where she had lived since 1990, with the exception of her four years on the West Coast, Burns started the Threshold Choir of Martha’s Vineyard in 2009.
Choir member Paula Martin, living here for 18 years, first heard the Threshold Choir when she was filling in as an on-call staff person for the Supportive Day Program at the Martha’s Vineyard Center for Living. When they got to the song, “I’m Sending the Angel,” Martin said, “I found myself right up out of the seat and went over to Cheryl and said, ‘Can I join your group? That song moved me so much.’ And that’s how I joined, and I’ve been singing with them for six or seven years.”
Ann Schwenk, who has lived on the Island for 40 years, shared that she met Cheryl when she would come into her store, Laughing Bear in Oak Bluffs. “I realized we had something we shared in common. We both loved to folk-sing, and I was astonished at how amazingly good she was,” said Schwenk.
Before I left, I asked about their brochure’s mention of bedside singing being an ancient tradition. “Women have always sung lullabies to children; singing people into the world,” said Burns. “And the ancient tribes actually did this kind of singing around the beds of people who were ailing. We sing people into this world and we sing them out.”
The Threshold Choir service is a gift for which there is no charge. If you would like to request a visit or more information, contact them through email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by phone at 508-560-1875. To learn more about the Threshold Choir, visit thresholdchoir.org.