Arts & Life
9:56 am
Sun August 17, 2014

At Life's Last Threshold, Choir Brings Comfort

Originally published on Sun August 17, 2014 10:39 am

The Threshold Choir brings music to those on the threshold of life — people who are dying. The first group started about a decade and a half ago. Now there are choirs in 120 cities, and even a few countries.

One of the newer chapters is in Nashville. On a recent day, Tammy Heinsohn and two other choir members were going room to room at a hospice there, introducing themselves and offering to sing some lullabies.

They waited at one doorway until 86-year-old Avis Moni told them to come in, then walked to her bedside and began singing.

Moni had terminal colon cancer. She had been in hospice for about a week. The choir members sang "Amazing Grace," which Moni said was one of her favorites.

As the hymn began, Moni tried to sing along.

Heinsohn, a 53-year-old event planner, started the Nashville Threshold Choir last year. She wanted to help hospice patients relax in the final moments of their lives, just as she did with her own mother, who died of kidney cancer 20 years ago.

"I ended up singing to her at the bedside as she was dying," Heinsohn said. "And then when I heard about Threshold Choir, that's when I got the chill up my spine, and I knew that, yes, singing was a critical component of the dying process for some people."

Laura Beth Jewell is a music therapist at Alive Hospice in Nashville, where the Threshold Choir sings every week. "Music has the power to reach people on a deeper level than any type of verbalization or even sometimes touch can," she said.

Jewell also said music can bring back memories, just like a smell can.

"Whether the patient has dementia and can't remember his or her own name or their daughter's name, they may remember the song their mother used to sing to them as a child," Jewell said. "Taking memories from your past life and being able to experience them as you're dying is a wonderful thing."

Carolyn Wilson, another member of the choir, is 43 and works in a daycare. She had already been singing to hospice patients on her own for several years before she discovered the Threshold Choir.

"I started coming in and just bringing my piano keyboard that I had," she said. "I'd pop it on one of their carts and just drag it around to the different rooms and plug it in and say, 'Do you want music? Do you want to hear any songs? ' "

She describes singing to people at the end of their lives as standing on holy ground.

"As I was growing up, I went through foster care, through adoption, different just ups and downs in life, and music was just always such a healing for me," she said, "and just has a way of breaking through whatever's going on, whatever the struggle is — the end of life or any other time of life, too."

Wilson said it's more fulfilling to sing with a group. But the work can also be emotionally challenging, and some singers who try out the choir have left.

"You kind of have to sort of step out of yourself a little bit," Wilson said. "Because as a human, as a person, you see what these people are going through, and you definitely feel that."

When the choir visited Avis Moni earlier this year at Alive Hospice, she had about a month left to live. She died in July.

The Nashville group now has three or four regular members; some of the larger chapters have 20 or 30. When the choir was first founded, only women were allowed. The idea was that women had a special role at death, just as they do at birth.

The choir is still mostly women, according to Francesca Wright, who is on the national board of the Threshold Choir. The number of choirs is growing, Wright said, because there is a shift in the way people view death.

"We are not turning away from things that may have been scary or we may have been protected from," Wright said. "And we're recognizing, just like birth is so magical and wonderful, that death is also magical and wonderful in its own way, and I think we're reclaiming our humanity."

Copyright 2014 Nashville Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.wpln.org/.

Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

The Threshold Choir is unique. Its members sing only to people on the threshold of life, the dying. The first group started almost 15 years ago. Now there are Threshold Choirs all across the country. A new chapter in Nashville is recently begun recruiting singers. Emily Siner of member station WPLN sent us this report.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALIVE HOSPICE)

TAMMY HEINSOHN: Knock knock. Hi. We are with the Threshold Choir. Would you like us to sing you some lullabies this evening?

EMILY SINER, BYLINE: Tammy Heinsohn and two other women are going room to room at a hospice in Nashville. They wait at one doorway until 86-year-old Avis Moni tells them to come in. They walk to her bedside and start singing.

THRESHOLD CHOIR: (Singing) You've been loved.

SINER: Moni has terminal colon cancer. She has been in hospice for about a week.

AVIS MONI: Lovely. So nice.

HEINSOHN: Would you like a hymn this evening?

SINER: Moni tries to sing-along.

THRESHOLD CHOIR: (Singing) How sweet the sound, that saved the wretch like me.

SINER: Heinsohn is a 53-year-old event planner. She wanted to help hospice patients relax in the final moments of their lives just as she did with her own mother who died of kidney cancer 20 years ago.

HEINSOHN: I ended up singing to her at the bedside as she was dying. And then when I heard about Threshold Choir, that's when I got the chill up my spine. And I knew that, yes, singing was a critical component of the dying process.

LAURA BETH JEWELL: Music has the power to reach people on a deeper level than any type of verbalization or even sometimes touch can.

SINER: Laura Beth Jewell is a music therapist at Alive Hospice. That's where the Threshold Choir sings every week. She says music can bring back memories just like a smell can.

JEWELL: Whether the patient has dementia and can't remember his or her name or their daughter's name, they may remember the song that their mother used to sing to them as a child. Taking memories from your passed life and being able to experience them as you're dying is a wonderful thing.

SINER: Another member of the choir is Carolyn Wilson. Wilson is 43 and works in a day care. She'd already been singing to hospice patients on her own for several years before she discovered the Threshold Choir.

CAROLYN WILSON: As I was growing up, I went through foster care, through adoption, different just ups and downs in life. And music was just always such a healing for me and just has a way of breaking through whatever is going on, whatever the struggle is - the end of life or, you know, any other time of life too.

SINER: Wilson says it's more for fulfilling to sing with the group. But the work can also be emotionally challenging, and some people who've tried out the choir have left.

WILSON: You kind of have to sort of step out of yourself a little bit 'cause as a human, as a person, you see what these people are going through. And you definitely feel that.

THRESHOLD CHOIR: (Singing) Like a ship in the harbor, like a mother and child.

SINER: The Nashville group now has three or four regular members. Some of the larger chapters have 20 or 30. When the choir was first founded, only women were allowed. The idea was that women had a special roll at death just as they did at birth. Francesca Wright is on the board of the National Threshold Choir, and she says even now, it's mostly women. And she says the reason the number of choirs is growing is because there's a shift in the way people view death.

FRANCESCA WRIGHT: We are not turning away from things that may have been scary or we may have been protected from. And we're recognizing, just like birth is so magical and wonderful, that death is also magical and wonderful in its own way.

THRESHOLD CHOIR: (Singing) Ooh...

SINER: At Alive Hospice, Avis Moni has about a month left to live. For now, she is relaxed. She closes her eyes. Her breathing deepens. And by the third round of "Amazing Grace," she's asleep. For NPR news in Nashville, I'm Emily Siner. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Related Program