Threshold Choir navigates death through song

·6 min read

Offering compassion, kindness and comfort, Threshold Choir sings bedside vigils for those approaching their final moments of life.

“The intention is, of course, to sing by the bedside of people who are dying,” said choir administrator Johanna Leseho, who launched the Brandon chapter with Audrey Thiessen last spring.

“There is more involved than just going and singing.

“You have to have an awareness [of] the sensitivity to people in the room … you are there to sing.”

Leseho believes it is the first choir of its kind in Manitoba and one of the few in Canada.

“It’s a wonderful organization.”

Choir members will sing in what is described as “lullaby voices” that are tailored to the stage a person is in during their dying process — this includes if they are singing to a person who may be in the active dying stage or singing more for family in the room.

The choir has a selection of different songs to choose from, so each performance can be tailored appropriately based on who they are singing to.

The idea for the Brandon Threshold Choir bloomed when Leseho undertook training to become an end-of-life doula in January.

“I took that because I wanted to be able to support people in the end-times of their lives.

She learned about Threshold Choir through a friend from Vancouver.

Leseho had never heard of the organization before and was immediately enamoured with the concept. She soon went online to research, learn more about and listen to the choir.

After doing a deep dive into Threshold Choir online, Leseho said, she was compelled to start a chapter in Brandon.

The first Threshold Choir launched in the U.S. in 1990 when choir founder Kate Munger sang to her friend who lay in a coma, dying of HIV/AIDS. She sang to her friend and watched how her song seemed to provide comfort, despite her friend being in a coma.

To be a part of the international Threshold Choir, groups are required to go through the organization’s bedside curriculum. It typically takes around nine months before a choir is prepared to sing at a dying person’s bedside.

The first step was applying to become a Threshold Choir chapter — part of this includes completing a curriculum created by the organization.

Once a group receives approval to launch a choir, Threshold Choir provides a coach that helps members sing in harmony and learn to navigate the end-of-life process.

“We have somebody that we can talk to and find out how to do things,” Leseho said.

Threshold provides songs for choirs, each written by members, and has a total of about 340 songs in their repertoire.

Leseho described the tunes as short and easy-to-remember chants. Users can visit the Threshold Choir website to hear music, which is especially important since not all choir members can read music.

The Brandon Threshold chapter has been slowly growing, Leseho said, and it has been amazing to see members connect and sing in harmony.

The group currently has about nine members but is hoping to see more come on board.

The choir meets every second Tuesday night and has chosen a selection of songs they are currently learning.

“We laugh. We care for each other. It’s lovely,” Leseho said.

To become a member of the Brandon chapter, members must be able to harmonize, hold their part, use lullaby voices and sing with kindness. She added it is preferred if people can learn the songs by heart, but the group can adapt if this is not possible.

Leseho described the songs as heartfelt and focused on providing comfort and kindness.

During practice, members will take turns lying in an anti-gravity chair, surrounded in a circle by other choir members, and are sung to.

“That way everybody gets to experience what it’s like, and they get to experience singing to somebody lying down,” Leseho said. “From my own experience and what I’ve heard from others, it is amazing. I just sunk, as soon as they started singing, I just relaxed into such a deeper state of calm and peace. It was phenomenal.”

Members sing with kindness and the intention is to put themselves in a state of caring when making bedside visits. These feelings are in turn passed on to the people who are being sung to.

“We care about you. You are not here alone,” Leseho said.

Someone does not need to be near death to have the choir sing, and the members can visit at any stage during the end-of-life process.

“There are songs that may not even be for the person who is dying, but before the family to help them feel a little more at ease,” Leseho said. “The people who have joined the choir are just wonderful. They have great voices and the idea is to sing in harmony.”

The group recently had the opprtunity to sing at a graveside and were able to participate and share their skills with the family.

When they are ready to sing at the bedside, they will go out and make contacts with different organizations in town to connect with any interested parties.

She added that while all members come together for practice, it will only be between two and four people who will sit bedside to sing to those who are dying.

It is a remarkable experience, she said, and the majority of people in the choir have had the experience of providing comfort when someone is dying prior to joining the group — in many cases, this has included singing.

“Personally, somebody that they have loved was dying and they naturally sang for them,” Leseho said.

When her husband was dying, he wanted to have poetry read and listen to music, especially the music of Leonard Cohen.

“For me, it’s really important to know what the person wants. That is why I did the doula course. To do advance care planning, it lets someone say what they want in their last stages and certainly as their actively dying,” Leseho said.

“Music is something that definitely, I think, comes in for so many people. Whatever kind of music they happen to like.”

Depending on COVID-19 public health measures when they are ready and able as a group, Threshold Choir members are excited to begin providing bedside visits.

The choir is always welcoming new members and the next meeting will take place Jan. 4. Email Leseho at johanna.leseho@gmail.com for more information.

She also recommends visiting the Threshold Choir official website for additional insights on the group.

“You’ll not only be able to hear them singing, but you will also hear some of the choir members share their experience.”

» ckemp@brandonsun.com

» Twitter: @The_ChelseaKemp

Chelsea Kemp, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Brandon Sun

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