It's easy to forget - and sometimes difficult to admit - that the human animal is still very much an animal, with basic, core, even primal needs. We might argue that music is one of them; not as essential as water or air, perhaps, but certainly a necessary component for many a life. Especially at the end of a life.
The Threshold Singers, a network of a cappella choirs consisting primarily of women, is devoted to bringing music to those, as the organization's mission statement puts it, at "the threshold of life." The pre-history of the organization dates from 1990, when Kate Munger, the group's Bay Area-based co-founder, sang for a friend who was dying of HIV/AIDS and in a coma. According to the Threshold Choir website, Munger sang for two and a half hours, an experience she thought "comforting" for both her and her friend.
After the idea of singing for those near to death (or just beyond it) gestated for some time in Munger's head, the first Threshold Choir gathering was held in 2000 in El Cerito, Calif.
The local chapter of the Threshold Choir began to take shape after Donna Pittman lost three family members during 2008. "Music sustained me," Pittman says of that difficult year, recalling how she sang for her husband as he passed away in their home. She's now working on a Ph.D. at Indiana University's School of Social Work, focusing on end of life issues.
"The choir becomes sort of a bridge for people who are dying and for people who are losing someone: it's really special and wonderful," Pittman says, recalling several firsthand experiences when she's seen "such a shift from fear to relief."
Pittman recalls a time when she was making a bedside visit at a nursing home. There were two patients in one room, and, she says, "the woman I was singing for was actively dying, but couldn't quite let go." Pittman could tell that the dying woman still felt too aware of herself to have relief in the music, so Pittman sang for her roommate. It was at that point that the dying woman finally let go.
Many of the songs the Threshold Choir sings are poems adapted to music, often to a very simple melody. The national choir book includes poems by Wendell Barry, Mary Oliver, and others. Munger put the choir book together with her girl scouting days in mind, thinking of the idea of singing songs in rounds or quoting mantras (camp chants in another form). Like a camp sing-a-long, a typical Threshold Choir rarely uses instrumentation beyond the voice, though a drum or flute occasionally find their way into the mix.
Like Munger, the co-founder of the first Threshold Choir, Pittman has had plenty of help in realizing her vision, notably from Deborah Carrithers, who shares with NUVO that the Choir recently received permission to sing for IU Health Methodist Palliative Care patients.
The group's "performances" are not in any way public, but Carrithers says it's important for people to know that this choir exists. There's no charge and very few of the chapters do fundraising. They accept donations, of course, but more than anything, it's a ministry that will appeal to those who want to volunteer in an intimate way, and who have the gift of a good voice but are tired of using it just in a choir in a church, for example. According to Carrithers, "The only real requirement to join is that a shiver goes down your spine when you hear about the choir."
The choir chapters have tended to appeal to people who have lost a loved one, as well as those who have retired from medical and ministry fields. The Indianapolis chapter has existed for just over a year.
Pittman emphasizes that the choir will sing for anyone, regardless of creed or lack thereof. "If possible, and it's not always possible, we like to know a little about the persons we sing for in order to individualize our choice of music," Pittman says. "If the person is a Catholic, we'll sing chants, songs to the Blessed Mother or 'altar songs,' as one woman put it. If we know a person is agnostic, we'll do more general music about peace and breathing easy."
"So many people are ditching the religious trappings but still have a need for ritual, and I think poetry and music and ritual are all tied up together," Carrithers adds on a non-denominational note.
The ideal, according to Carrithers, would be for mothers to teach this sort of ritual to their daughters, for songs to be passed down the way they used to be. Another goal for the choir is to encourage more chapters to get started in Indiana and around the world.
And it's not only people that need healing. The Indy chapter of the Threshold Choir agreed, after a little deliberation, to sing in the City Market's catacombs at the March 2012 re-launch party for Indiana Living Green, which was recently acquired by NUVO. It was an unusual setting for the choir, but Pittman amply justified her decision through an email to NUVO and Indiana Living Green managing editor Jim Poyser.
"At first I couldn't see how our mission intersects with your mission," Pittman wrote. "Then it occurred to me that the Indiana Living Green launch party is a 'macro-mourning' event - anticipatory grief, so to speak - mourning the decimation of Mother Earth caused by greed, carelessness and global disconnect from Nature."
And so the Threshold Choir sang in the hushed, dim dampness of the dirt-floored basement, accompanied only by bells and candles, at the planet's bedside, so to speak.