When Phyllis Boyson first heard about the Threshold Choir of Napa Valley, she thought it sounded “a little morbid.”
The Threshold Choir is a group of about 16 women who sing to the ill and dying. The women, who are all volunteers, sing in pairs or small groups in private homes, care facilities and hospitals when invited by family or caregivers.
Boyson admitted she cried through the first several songs before she fell in love with the choir and its music, which she now calls “heart-opening.”
She joined the choir three years ago, and one of the first clients Boyson sung to was a woman who was in a lot of pain but was still articulate and aware of her surroundings.
“She told us what she was experiencing, and that (our singing) took away her pain,” Boyson said. “She could talk about how our songs were helping prepare her for her own death.”
During each visit, the women typically sing 10 songs that are two minutes apiece. The songs are non-denominational and written for a different stage of dying.
Choir member Victoria Wolf shared examples of some of the choir’s lyrics: “It’s all right, you can go, your memory is safe with us,” and “May you find peace, may you find unending joy, unending love, unending mercy.”
“They’re like little prayers, musical prayers — that’s how I see them,” Musical Director Sudie Pollock said. “When a person is dying, they need peace and simplicity and permission to go.”
The choir in Napa Valley is one of several Threshold Choirs throughout the United States — the highest concentration is in the Bay Area, where it was founded in 2000 by a woman named Kate Munger.
Members rehearse twice a month for two hours. Before choir members are allowed to sing at a bedside, they must attend rehearsals for at least six months, and they need to memorize 30 to 50 songs.
Wolf said part of their training includes learning how to listen to each other’s voices.
“It is important to stay connected to sound and be connected with each other,” she said.
This connection of sound is called “blending,” Pollock said. When considering new members, the Threshold Choir looks specifically for women who can sing softly. Pollock calls it a “lullaby voice.”
During visits, the choir typically sits or stands at the end of a client’s bed, forming a half-circle to which they sing into the center — Pollock describes the resulting sound as “celestial.”
“People say we sound just like angels,” Pollock said. “There’s something that happens when voices blend beautifully.”
Singing for the Threshold Choir is different from most musical performances because it’s not about projecting or putting on a show. Choir member Therese Fisher describes it as an act of love and compassion.
Fisher said she joined the choir because she wanted to bring people comfort and to honor, what she calls, a “sacred time in a person’s life.”
“I love to sing, and this community of women is like none I've ever experienced,” Fisher said. “There is a presence and authenticity in who we are and what we do. I think of us as midwives, guiding people, in song, through struggle and end of life.”
Cheri Bailly-Jacobs’ husband, Bob, was visited by the Threshold Choir every Friday afternoon for several months before he died at age 83. Bob had suffered from Alzheimer’s disease for eight years.
“When the choir came to sing to him, he was confined to a hospital bed in our home and unable to do any of the daily living tasks that we all take for granted,” Bailly-Jacobs said. “He also was unable to speak by that time. But, he loved music!”
Bailly-Jacobs said the soft singing of the choir helped her husband relax and enjoy what he was listening to.
“Sometimes, after they sang, he would smile as they were leaving,” she said. “I knew that meant a big ‘Thank you’ to them.”
While people tend to be surprised by death — and often cope by becoming withdrawn — choir member Anne Jungerman said she’s learned that suffering can be a time of learning and reflection.
Jungerman’s husband died unexpectedly about a year before she joined the choir. She said the pain she experienced helped teach her about compassion, and the Threshold Choir offered an opportunity to help others who were suffering.
“If you keep your heart open to all of life and death’s sorrows — as well as the joys — yours and others' pain can become your greatest ally in your life's search for love and wisdom,” she said.
Jungerman said she feels honored to sing for clients during such an “extraordinary” time in their lives.
“There is such an authenticity, grace and openness you feel from these clients, that it is a privilege to be invited into their world to sing.”