Quietly and purposefully, Triad Threshold Choir sings, “We are all just walking each other home.”
The choir members start by humming, then sing together, divide into parts, and end the tune humming, rehearsing a song that they someday will sing at a dying person’s bedside.
“It’s not a performance-based choir,” said Beth Bean, director of Triad Threshold Singers. “We’re trying to communicate kindness softly.”
The newly formed Triad Threshold Choir offers a service, not a performance, Bean said. Their goal is “to bring a calm and focused presence at the bedside, with gentle voices and simple songs to soothe and reassure clients and their family and caregivers.”
Songs include “Rest easy,” “Bless you for being,” “You are not alone,” “I am here now,” “Ocean breath,” “Sending you light” and many others.
As they sing just above a whisper, their compassion is tangible in the room.
At the threshold
Triad Threshold Choir, which began organizing last September, is a chapter of the national Threshold Choir, which according to its website is “a network of a cappella choirs of primarily women’s voices: a community whose mission is to sing for and with those at the thresholds of life.”
Kate Munger founded Threshold Choir, and the first gathering was in California in March 2000; the international non-profit has grown to sing in 150 communities around the world.
“It spoke to me so deeply as something I wanted to do, bring the healing power of music to people as they cross the threshold between life and death,” Bean said. “I have sung my whole life, and so many people fear death and are anxious or worrisome over the process, and it just feels natural to me to serve in this way.”
Triad Threshold Choir’s music director is Shawn Greer Bartoo, a vocal coach who has taught voice for more than 25 years.
“It appeals to me because of what it does, who specifically it’s for, and the nature of it — it’s loving someone through this tiny act of music, but it’s a very specific kind of calming, peaceful, loving message,” Bartoo said.
A unique calling
Though their experiences are varied, choir members share a calmness toward death, and each felt drawn to sing in this choir.
Hospice had helped Bean’s family in 1994 when her father died; her mother died in 2014.
“When I lost my mom in 2014, I didn’t get a phone call until after the fact, until she was gone,” Bean said. “When I learned she died alone, it just changed something in me. It was incredibly painful to not be there with her, because I would have been there had I known I needed to be there.
“I think there’s something really beautiful, sitting with someone that’s going through this transition and being able to provide comfort to them, whether it is reading a poem, holding a hand, just silent presence. To me, music has always been a really big part of my life. I’ve sung my whole life. I think the arts are more curative than I knew they were in my 20s. I want to use them holistically if I can.”
Bartoo’s mother was vice president of hospice in Rochester, N.Y.
“When I was in high school, I would see her in the middle of the night talking to a family member very matter-of-factly about death,” Bartoo said. “Hospice has always been in the forefront of my mind.”
Bartoo played guitar and sang for her dear friend who was in hospice with pancreatic cancer.
“Singing was always a part of everything in my upbringing in my house — if you were happy if you were sad — always music at difficult times,” Bartoo said. “It makes sense: Why wouldn’t it also be in one of the most intimate times of your existence?”
Triad Threshold Choir combined two passions of Laverne Hibbett, who had been a hospice volunteer for several years in the past.
“I love to sing,” she said. “It seemed like a good combination.”
Liz Matthews, a retired Winston-Salem/Forsyth County schools teacher, said that as a gifted-education teacher, she would start and end her days with music. She had been looking for a threshold choir to join.
For some people, death is scary, she said, and members of this choir want to provide comfort.
“It’s a God-given gift that we’re able to do that with ease and see the beauty and balance in all of it,” Matthews said. “It’s authentic a cappella singing to the soul — from one soul to the other. It’s not just singing the notes. It’s to the soul. It touches their soul in a way that only the music can.”
M.J. Alger experienced the power of singing when her stepmother, a stoic German woman who “you didn’t hug,” was dying.
“She kept saying she wanted to die,” Alger said. “I said, ‘I’ll pray for you.’ I sat with her, and I hummed and sang little bits of song. It amazed me. Her face was suddenly so soft. Within 20 minutes or so, she had died. It was almost like she was able to just relax. The two of us, we were connecting in a way we had never connected. There’s such a feeling of tenderness that I didn’t know was in me. It’s such a gift to myself. It touches my very core.”
The choir is eager to share their gift of singing and hopes to soon connect with nursing homes, clergy and hospice, as well as friends and families of individuals who would appreciate their singing. They sing when they are invited, Bean said, and there is no charge.
Katie Cyre, the complementary therapies program manager and music therapist for Hospice & Palliative CareCenter, said that threshold choirs offer a special type of supportive music, which is different from clinical music therapy. She’s learned the benefits of threshold choirs from Hospice of Cabarrus County, which has the Interlude Choir Program.
“We know that the thoughtful, intentional use of music at the end-of-life can often be a source of comfort and connection,” Cyre said in an email. “Voice in particular has the potential to evoke tender responses and may convey lyrics that offer a deeper sense of peace, meaning and support.”
Though the choir membership is growing, only three members will sing at a bedside each time.
“You wouldn’t want it any other way,” Bartoo said. “It would lose its message and its purpose.”
The choir rehearses at their twice-a-month practices. Members have been fine-tuning their harmonies and logistics, and they are ready to sing when someone invites them. During rehearsals, one member volunteers to be in the middle in a reclining chair, so the choir can practice what it’s like to sing at a bedside.
“We have to practice what it feels like to carry the message through song,” Bean said. “It’s a blessing.”
They use subtle hand gestures to communicate with each other so they know when to split into parts or when to leave the room — without talking.
“We want to enter the room quietly, we want to sing, and we want to leave,” Bean said. “It’s not so much about relationship as it is the comfort of the music. We let the music do the talking.”
Learning to sing quietly is both a challenge and a necessity.
“It is hard to sing that quiet,” Bartoo said. “A quiet voice is one of the hardest to control. You find yourself very exposed. You want yourself to be vulnerable, so you can fulfill the purpose of the music at that time. You’re there to be in the moment, to be with someone who is struggling with death.”