Threshold Choir Sings to Soothe

Women’s Singing Group Visits Those Who Struggle with Living and Dying

Threshold Choir (L to R) Penelope Salinger, Tessa Flanagan, Marilyn Scott, Hathor Hammett, Luciana Cramer, and Carol Sharpe share a song with a Sarah House resident.
Paul Wellman

For the dozen or so women vocalists of Santa Barbara’s Threshold Choir, singing isn’t about performing. It’s not even about entertainment. It’s about sharing music with those who could use some help.

Now in its sixth year, the small but tight-knit group of women has sung at the bedsides of countless locals, from hospice residents at Sarah House to members of their own choir who are injured or ill.

Here’s how it works: The women meet twice a month to rehearse a capella songs from their lengthy repertoire, which they share with Threshold Choirs in other regions. Then, free of charge, they visit the bedsides of those who are struggling, singing for as long as they are needed.

Sometimes, the calls to visit come from loved ones, but often they come from caregivers and staff who notice someone who is particularly anxious or in pain. Once they arrive at the bedside, a member of the group takes on the position of “Song Mother” and decides what songs to sing as well as whether to sing in unison or harmony, in words or in “oohs.”

Members of the Threshold Choir share a song with a Sarah House resident.
Paul Wellman

The first Threshold Choir was started a decade ago in Northern California by Kate Munger. Since then, more than 120 of the all-woman, a capella choirs have been founded worldwide. Santa Barbara co-founder Marilyn Powers Scott was a friend of Munger’s, and it was through Munger that she caught the inspiration and momentum to start a local Threshold Choir.

“The idea of being fully present at this, such tender time—to be present in a really loving way for a time we’ll all go through—fills a spot in my heart,” she said in a recent interview at Sarah House, where the group sings once a month. Joined by more than half the Santa Barbara choir, Scott recounted stories from their visits. She told of one woman whose arms were frozen rigidly as a result of her illness; as the choir sang, her arms slowly lowered and released. And the transformation doesn’t stop with the patient. The singers themselves said they feel the same healing power of the music, and they said it can be equally healing for the family, friends, and other caregivers who share in the experience.

Not always does the choir sing to those near death; several times, they have sung over the bodies of those who have recently passed, and they often sing at memorial services of people they both had and hadn’t previously sung for. One member of the choir, Liliana Cramer, was inspired to join after first hearing the choir perform at a retreat for those who work with Alzheimer’s patients.

The choir spreads the message about their free-of-charge work through word of mouth and informational bookmarks, but have organized two upcoming performances. Women interested in joining the choir can participate in a session (led by Threshold Choir founder Kate Munger) of the Southern California Threshold Choirs retreat, which will be held Saturday, February 19 at 7 p.m. in Jefferson Hall of the Unitarian Society, 1525 Santa Barbara Street. The public can attend the community demonstration of bedside singing on Sunday, February 20 at 2 p.m., also in Jefferson Hall.


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