Island choir has songs for threshold between life and death

Since 2005, the Vashon Threshold Choir has met islanders as they face the end of their lives, entering the rooms of the dying to sing at bedsides and to help alleviate the suffering of those who are passing on.

“I’ve felt like it’s an important service to provide for the community,” said Barb Adams, co-leader of the choir. “There are churches that have deacons and choirs that sing hymns, which is wonderful, but there are other people that don’t have that kind of community connection, and we want to provide something for everyone who would like to have this kind of end of life service.”

Adams still has the composure of an executive, belied by an effusive smile and warm laugh, left over from her job as vice president of a corporation that manages workers’ compensation claims.

“I was in charge of the West Coast, from Alaska to Arizona,” she said.

Adams joined the choir after her retirement and soon emerged as leader when that position was vacated. She said that singing with the Threshold Choir is entirely different than her other ensemble commitments.

“I sing with the Vashon Chorale and the opera, but that’s performance. Not only did I really jump in and keep the Threshold Choir on Vashon going, but I got hospice training and am working with Providence Hospice as a harpist,” she explained. “So I play the harp for people here on Vashon but also in south King County, and so I’m a music therapist now — and that’s all because of Threshold Choir.”

There are only six current members of the choir, comprised predominantly of women throughout the years. Adams shares her leadership role today with Mela Bredouw, a longtime Vashon Chorale member who learned about Threshold through word of mouth in the island vocalist circuit nearly a decade before she inquired about joining.

“I had been focusing on the beauty of the death community nationwide and here on Vashon, and really appreciated the islanders who were raising this issue to the public and tending to it with such nurturing understanding,” said Bredouw, who finds singing with the Threshold Choir to be personally fulfilling. “I haven’t looked back. I love the people that I sing with and the people that I sing for, and singing three-part harmonies has been a dream and a joy of mine my whole life. So I get a lot out of it, and I get a lot of joy bringing respite and ease to the people that we sing for.”

A three-part harmony requires a first soprano, second soprano and alto according to Bredouw, who said that the Threshold ensemble has rehearsed extensively so members learn to blend the notes with precision. “When it shifts from unison to harmony, there’s something visceral that happens to the body. People really feel it deeply the moment it breaks into harmony,” she said.

Recently, Adams and Bredouw announced that the choir will begin to encourage and invite the participation of men in an effort to boost membership.

“A lot of men really resonate with providing this kind of nurturing service and bringing joy to people who may have lonely or challenging lives,” Bredouw said. “And we didn’t want to exclude them.”

Adams said that having more than four choir members at a bedside at once can be problematic because it will mean too much energy present in the room, but that the choir would benefit from new talent.

“Because we only have six members, it really requires that pretty much everybody’s on the rotation,” she said, adding that the choir has regular gigs at Vashon Community Care and Island Elder Care. On occasion, circumstances have necessitated that the choir diverge from its usual routine.

“We’ve had a number of people who are on hospice in their homes ask for us to come and sing for them,” said Adams, recalling a woman who the choir visited frequently. “We sang for her every Tuesday, probably for 10 weeks as she dwindled and became less and less able to control who she was and how she was connected to this world. Her caregiver got to the point where she was singing with us.”

“We would love to help more people,” said Bredouw. “I think ideally it would be great if we had 10 or 12 (additional members).”

The Vashon choir is one chapter of more than 150 Threshold ensembles throughout the world, with others in places such as Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, the Netherlands and the U.K. Their music repertoire is collected and circulated by the national choir organization which has 501(c)(3) status, but individual choirs have the autonomy to select their own music.

“We take requests from family and the person in the bed very seriously. In fact, if they ask for Elvis, we learn an Elvis song, or the Beatles; whatever they wish,” said Adams. “The other way of looking at it depends on where (the client is) in the process of dying. If they’re actively dying, there’s some thought that if you sing something that’s familiar, they’ll kind of hold on, wanting to hear more. If the idea is for them to let go, to release their spirit, then we sing something that isn’t familiar.”

Adams recognizes that it is possible for fatigue to set in after enough time in the company of the dying.

“As a group we talk about our experience and if there’s something that went well, or if there’s something we’re not sure about or we were uncomfortable with, we talk about that,” she said. “When I go individually as a harp player, I have to pay attention to my own self care because it can be a load of stress, especially when I see three or four patients in a row off the island. It’s something that you have to pay attention to.”

Rebecca Graves, an experienced vocalist and veteran member of the Threshold Choir, said she respects why the choir may not be for everyone.

“I know certainly we’ve had lots of members who have dropped out and decided, ‘Well I’m tired of doing this,’ or ‘This isn’t what I want to do right now,’” she said. “I don’t know the reasons or grill anyone.”

Graves’ husband Phil Volker has had stage IV colon cancer for five years and is the subject of the short film, “Phil’s Camino,” which documents his effort to walk the distance of the El Camino de Santiago pilgrimage in Spain. The film has premiered at the SXSW International Film Festival and won major awards at dozens more.

Having belonged to the choir since it was founded on Vashon has helped her process her own grief, Graves said.

“When we practice, we sometimes practice being the one sung to. That is a very special experience, just lying there and being sung to by angelic voices,” she said, recounting one trip to a past national choir gathering that coincided with her mother’s death.

“When I was with my dying mother for three weeks, I never knew exactly when the moment was going to come, but I came back home because we were having the Threshold Choir retreat that I had signed up for and wanted to go to,” she said. “I didn’t know how affecting it was going to be for me, because I kind of tend to be strong and carry on, and be one of those people who can take a lot, you know? And then I just got in the chair and they sang to me, and I mean, I was able to just weep and have real relief. And then I had to go right back because my mother had died while I was there. But it was good, it was really good. It was a great release and a great feeling of being surrounded by love. I can’t really put it into words.”

Bredouw would not have it any other way.

“I think the effect on the singers is one of deep honor and reverence, and the satisfaction of being in service in a time of need,” she said. “I’m almost 72, and I have a real peaceful awareness that I am in the late autumn of my life, and there’s a peace about whenever that time comes, I’ll be able to welcome it rather than be fearful or fight with it. (Belonging to the choir) has allowed me to have conversations about it with my friends and family as well.”

The choir holds rehearsals at 7 p.m. on the first Thursday of the month at the Vashon Cohousing common house. More information about the choir is available online at thresholdchoir.org/vashon.

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