They are not stars and seek no fame. Their audience usually is one – often one person in the last weeks, or days, of life.
Theirs are the most private and intimate of performances, a handful of women – all volunteers – with only their blended voices for instruments – quiet, songful, with words as placid as images of the beyond:
Angel wings sweep the night,
With healing warmth, healing light …
They are the Napa Valley Threshold Choir, part of a nationwide movement of performers who have sung to the terminally ill and the infirm for more than 15 years. And for the ensemble’s director, Sudie Pollock, the celestial beauty of the singers’ melodies are a tool of comfort to those ravaged by illness, or running out of time.
“We sing to people who are dying, who are very ill, in chronic pain,” she said last month before one of the ensemble’s thrice-monthly rehearsals with eight other vocalists in her Napa living room. “We are not an entertainment choir; we are focused on helping people to find peace and comfort at the end of their lives, or along their journey.”
Before taking the helm of the Threshold Choir, Pollock had been singing since the mid-1990s with Rounds, an informal circle of a cappella singers in Napa. But her hobby took a far more meaningful term in June 2007, when she joined about 15 fellow Rounds singers in comforting a member’s mother at her deathbed.
A year later, the vocalists formed a Napa chapter of the nonprofit Threshold Choir, a movement founded in 1999. The ensemble guided by Pollock is one of more than 125 choirs visiting patients in the U.S., Canada, Great Britain and Australia.
Women of the Napa choir sing, normally in groups of three to five, to those in hospitals, care centers or private homes at the invitation of family, friends or care providers, organizers said. Usually standing or sitting bedside, choir members perform a cappella a slate of non-denominational songs, each typically less than two minutes long, spending about 20 to 30 minutes with the patient.
Simplicity and gentleness are the choir’s watchwords not only for their custom-written repertoire but for the singers themselves, in whom Pollock especially prizes the ability to sing softly. A newcomer’s apprenticeship lasts for several months and involves not only committing about 100 songs to heart, but learning the proper etiquette for visiting the sick, including entering and exiting a room as noiselessly as possible.
Choir members sing as often as nine times a week, according to Pollock. While some listeners are near death, other elderly or ill patients become listeners for months or years – and may be honored by the singers even after death, when vocalists return for their memorials.
“It’s such an intimate, sacred time,” said Anne Jungerman. “I think it reaches people on a level that’s hard to find otherwise.”
“There was one man we sang to for six weeks, and then he went downhill,” said Sue Dee Shenk, one of about 15 singers of the Napa group. “At the nursing home, he was unresponsive – but after we left he wiggled his foot. I think it was his way of saying ‘Thank you’ to us.”
To a listener in the throes of illness, the gentleness of song may be one of the last ways to reach the mind and heart – and, to Pollock, an opportunity that makes the art worthwhile.
“Every time we sing and it makes a difference in someone’s life, it gives me a chill,” she said. “Because it works.”