Do you find comfort in music? The Threshold Choir sings for people on the cusp of death, hoping to alleviate some of their anxieties around dying.
The concept of a Threshold Choir first began in America in 2000; a book of ‘comfort’ songs were written and local chapters formed.
Now there are more than 130 choirs worldwide.
The choirs sing for patients in palliative care facilities and intensive care units, filling hospital corridors or patients’ rooms with their voices.
The Melbourne chapter
On a Wednesday night in March, the Melbourne Threshold Choir met at Sunshine Hospital in the city’s north-west; they do this every month.
The choir rehearses before singing for patients at the Sunshine Hospital. (ABC Radio Melbourne: Fiona Pepper)
Warming up in a hospital function room, the choir of seven or so members, made up of mainly middle-aged men and women, rehearse their sombre repertoire of choral songs which they will later sing for patients.
Jenny Baton, the music director of the Melbourne Threshold Choir, has led the group for the last three years and said it was a privilege to offer comfort in the form of song to very sick patients.
“This choir is not about performance, it’s not about ego, it’s not about us as individuals; it’s about us as a group coming together with the sole purpose and the one intention of providing a soft, gentle, soothing sound in our singing to patients,” Ms Baton said.
The choir visits in the evening before visiting hours close.
Ms Baton said she believed the sounds of the choir allowed patients to rest and relax following a busy day of treatment.
“I think we are able to hold a space for them, to help them rest into the evening,” she said.
And it is not just the patients that find comfort in the singing, Ms Baton said.
As the choir members made their way to ICU, they explained that they never know what they’re walking in to. (ABC Radio Melbourne: Fiona Pepper)
“We’ve had lots of positive feedback from family members — because it’s of comfort not just to the patients, it’s also the family that we sing to,” she said.
Singing for a patient on the threshold
Ms Baton recalled one evening while singing at Sunshine’s ICU when a patient passed away.
“We were singing near a closed curtain and we were unaware of what was going on behind the curtain and we were about to stop and a staff member came out and said to us, ‘please don’t stop, keep doing what you are doing, the patient behind this curtain is actually dying’,” she said.
“And we kept singing and holding the space and being totally present to that moment and then we heard the cries of lament from the relatives and we knew then that that person had passed away.”
The spiritual connection
Mark Bradford works as a physiotherapist and is a member of the Threshold Choir.
He said he was drawn to the spiritual side of the choir.
“This is the real core of people’s life and death, so it’s being present to that aspect,” he said.
“And it might be uncomfortable and ugly and there might be pain and difficulty, so being able to be present and to see if I can share with the rest of the choir, it’s a real connecting experience.”
Kapila Devi is 50 years old, and was recently diagnosed with liver cancer.
As a patient of the Sunshine Hospital palliative care unit, she warmly invited the choir into her room.
50-year-old Kapila Devi was diagnosed with liver cancer last September. She enjoys listening to the choir from her bed. (ABC Radio Melbourne: Fiona Pepper)
Laying back in her bed as the choir sung in the background, Ms Devi explained that she used to work as a chef but had to give it up after falling ill.
“I’m here because I have cancer and it’s in my liver and this is the fourth stage I’m going through, but I’m happy with it because I’ve got all the happiness in my life,” Ms Devi said.
She spoke very fondly of her family; she is a new grandmother who hopes to head home and spend time with her seven-month-old grandchild.
She said of her husband at her side, “without him, I can’t go through this journey”.
And while Ms Devi said she was never a good singer, she said she has always loved music.
“It relaxes you, after all day and whatever you’ve gone through, the pain and stuff, it makes you forget all that,” she said.
As the choir makes it way to ICU, Lisa Martin — who is in her 20s and is easily the youngest choir member — explained why she joined the group.
Lisa and Will are by far the youngest members of the Threshold Choir. Lisa said she was drawn to the group after the death of her mother. (ABC Radio Melbourne: Fiona Pepper)
“My mother actually passed away from cancer last April and we spent the last two months in a palliative care unit,” she said.
“Whilst we were there I felt there was a real need for music and singing and for a choir and so I started looking around on the internet to find a choir … and I found the Threshold Choir.”