To Comfort The Dying, The Nashville Threshold Choir Sings Lullabies

Tammy Heinsohn, left, and Carolyn Wilson both had experiences with singing to terminally ill before they found out about the Threshold Choir. Credit: Emily Siner / WPLN

Tammy Heinsohn, left, and Carolyn Wilson both had experiences with singing to terminally ill before they found out about the Threshold Choir. Credit: Emily Siner / WPLN

The chair in the middle of the Nashville Threshold Choir rehearsal room is a placeholder for the people they sing to. And their audience is what makes them unique: They sing only to people on the threshold of life — people who are dying.

“Would you like to sit in the chair so you can experience it?” Tammy Heinsohn, who founded the Nashville group a few months ago, asks me. It reclines back, like a bed.

Like a ship in the harbor, like a mother and child, like a light in the darkness, I’ll hold you a while…

Two women sit on one side of me, one on the other. They sing short, simple melodies, in unison. I kind of expected something grander to send people to the other side, like a Mozart requiem with soaring voices.

But Heinsohn says they don’t want to rouse people. They just want to calm them. So they sing lullabies, often written by other Threshold Choirs. Sometimes they’ll sing a Christian hymn, if a patient requests it.

Lynn Warrick, right, and the rest of the choir rehearses before singing to hospice patients. Often, one of the choir members will recline in the middle chair so they choir can practice singing at a bedside. Credit: Emily Siner / WPLN

Lynn Warrick, right, and two other choir members rehearse before singing to hospice patients. Often, someone will recline in the middle chair so the choir can practice singing by a bed. Credit: Emily Siner / WPLN

“We can see them sometimes singing along with us if they know the song,” she says. “We’ve actually had a couple of patients fall asleep on us, and we consider that the highest form of compliment.”

Processing Grief

The concept of a choir that sings for people at death’s door started in California a decade and a half ago. There are now Threshold Choirs in nearly 30 states and four countries, including Australia and the UK. Heinsohn joined one of the earliest groups after a personal experience with music.

“Twenty years ago, when my mother died, I ended up singing to her at the bedside as she was dying,” she says. “I spent three hours in the hospital room singing to her.”

To Heinsohn, singing is a critical part of the dying process. But not everyone has the same perspective, and because of that, recruiting can be difficult. Nashville’s choir is pretty new, but there are only a handful of regular members so far.

“A lot of singers that we’ve had come and join us find that it’s not the right fit,” she says. “The singers that are here have worked through their own psychosocial issues around death and dying, have processed their own grief, so that they can be fully present at the bedside.”

There are no “get well soon” wishes at the end of a performance — and that can be hard even for someone who’s used to it, like Carolyn Wilson. She sang for hospice patients on her own for several years before joining threshold choir.

“You kind of have to sort of step out of yourself a little and not letting it affect it right at the moment, because as a human, as a person, you see what these people are going through and you definitely feel that.”

Singing At The Bedside

The women perform in Alive Hospice Residence in West Nashville, going from one room to the next. Patients here usually have six months or less to live. Heinsohn knocks on a door of a woman named Avis, and they file in around her bed.

“We’re with the Threshold Choir,” she says. “Would you like us to sing you some lullabies this evening?”

May the air be washed with sunlight, we call this place into peace. The light and shadow of life rest here, and breathe with the breath of the Earth. 

Heinsohn smiles while she’s singing, and Avis locks eyes with her. “Lovely,” Avis says.

“Would you like a hymn this evening?” Heinsohn asks. “We can sing ‘Amazing Grace’ if you’d like.”

“Oh yes,” Avis says, “that’s one of my favorites.”

They go through three round of ‘Amazing Grace.’ Avis tries to sing along for a verse and then closes her eyes. By the end, Avis is asleep — the Threshold Choir’s standing ovation.

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