For someone in hospice, a song might not cure them, but it could help brighten their final days.
“It’s not about healing, it’s not about making people feel better,” said Cindy Harris. “I often say that what we do is traveling music. We are all walking the same path in life… the only difference is that the person we’re singing to, they’re much closer to the end of the path.”
Harris is the director of the Pittsburgh Threshold Choir, which sends small groups of singers to Pittsburgh-area hospice facilities. The roughly 20 members offer bedside songs to those who are ill.
“There is a very old human custom of sitting at the bedside of someone who is very ill or dying and that custom includes singing,” Harris said.
Harris launched the choir in 2007, but it really started to take off a year later when members began regularly singing at Family House in Pittsburgh. From that relationship grew relationships with a few hospice groups, including Forbes Hospice, Family Hospice and Heartland Hospice Care.
Members of the choir, many of whom had no formal singing experience before joining the choir, gather in small groups for practice as they work to memorize all three parts of several songs. That makes it possible for just about any set of three to perform at least a handful of songs.
“I have never ever, ever seen all of the members of the Pittsburgh Threshold Choir at the same time,” said Harris, who is always looking for more members. “My scarce resource actually is not… people with voices, it’s actually people who have that heart to sing at bedside … You have to come to terms with your own feeling of death to do the work.”
Harris said singers will often catch a small reaction as they sing, such as a person opening their eyes or reaching out their hands. But not everyone can react to the song.
“We have sung at the bed sides of someone who died while we were singing,” Harris said. “I can’t even tell you what an amazing experience that is. Sad yes, but definitely not wrenchingly sad, because you know that the last thing that person heard, they thought they were hearing angles sing – at least you hope you were singing that well.”
The Pittsburgh Threshold Choir has recently released a CD that Harris said is not meant to replace visits from the singers, but is another option for someone seeking a little comfort.
Hear one of the choir’s songs:
Listen as Harris takes a small group of veteran and first-time singers through a practice session.