Threshold Choirs throughout the United States all operate similarly. If invited, and always for free, a small group, typically two or three women, will sing by a dying person’s bedside for a brief period, usually about a half hour. Because familiar songs tend to make it harder for people to let go, Corwin-Renner says, the choirs deliberately choose unfamiliar ones, many of them composed by other choir members. The songs have few words—sometimes quotations from spiritual figures such as Mother Teresa and Thich Nhat Hanh—sung to chantlike repeated melodies.
I was very moved when I heard Ann Arbor’s Threshold Choir recently at one of their rare public performances. Feeling it wouldn’t be right to go with them to a dying person’s bedside, I asked whether I could attend one of their weekly rehearsals.
Ten women, ranging in age from thirties to fifties, are sitting in a circle in Corwin-Renner’s living room, sipping herbal tea and singing. As Corwin-Renner welcomes me, one of the women “jumps the chair,” lying down on the white mesh recliner that simulates a bed. She closes her eyes, the two women on either side of her in the circle hold her hands, and the group begins to sing, “We walk not into the night, we walk but towards the stars.”
Many of the songs are rounds, and in rehearsal the women sing them in parts, beginning at normal volume and singing more softly with each repetition. If this were a real patient, they tell me, they would typically sing in unison and very, very softly.