Sisterhood sings for those in transition

By Robin Dudley of the Leader
Posted 12/2/14

Songs from the heart are dispensed regularly at Jefferson Healthcare hospital in Port Townsend, courtesy of the Threshold Choir.

Twice a month, three or four members of the volunteer Threshold …

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Sisterhood sings for those in transition

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Songs from the heart are dispensed regularly at Jefferson Healthcare hospital in Port Townsend, courtesy of the Threshold Choir.

Twice a month, three or four members of the volunteer Threshold Choir walk the halls of the hospital’s surgery unit and sing songs of peace and comfort.

They also visit the short-stay unit, where patients receive intravenous medications, as well as the nursery.

“We sing to comfort people,” said choir member Oma Landstra.

Since 2009, the Port Townsend Threshold Choir has been singing for people in times of transition. The choir has about 12 members, all of whom are women and all designated volunteers with the Hospice Foundation for Jefferson Healthcare.

“We don’t generally go in the rooms” unless invited, Landstra noted.

In addition to singing at the hospital, Threshold Choir sings once a month for the residents at the San Juan Villa memory care facility. They also go to peoples’ homes to sing bedside.

There are more than 100 Threshold Choirs across the country and internationally, Landstra said. Threshold Choirs were started in 2000 by Kate Munger, an acquaintance of Landstra’s in Inverness, California. “She just had an inspiration.”

“Because of the hospice movement, death is more talked about and more understood,” Landstra said. It’s important “to recognize one’s feelings about losing someone, or your own demise ... we’re all going to check out at some point.”

Most Threshold Choirs, including Port Townsend’s, are made up entirely of women. “Traditionally, it’s been a woman’s place to bring life into the world and also to help usher life out,” said Helen Lauritzen, the choir’s musical director.

“In a sense, it’s like midwifery to the dying,” said Landstra. “It’s sharing our loving kindness and our attention.”

“Our principal reason for being is to sing to people that are in transition,” said Lauritzen. “People that are ill, people that are dying.... It can be powerful for the family. It gives them a chance to sit quietly with their loved one and just be together.”

They are available to sing in a home or hospital setting, and they are a volunteer group; there is no charge for their services.

“Music has a way of connecting people,” said Landstra. “There’s a gentle force that occurs between all of us, a gentle wisdom ... it’s a quiet sort of singing.”

“Sometimes it really seems to fill an emotional need for someone,” said Lauritzen. “Sometimes, if we go into a home, people will ask why these people are coming in to entertain. Well, that’s not what we’re there to do. It’s a comforting thing. The songs are geared for this. They’re not songs people generally know.”

Many of the songs were written just for Threshold Choirs by members, and offer comforting, undemanding imagery.

“My Grateful Heart” is “filled with a lot of sweet imagery that might take someone in their head somewhere,” Landstra said. One line is “Memories flow by like petals on a stream.”

The songs’ lyrics are not intended to inspire memories or stimulate too much thought. “You don’t necessarily want to bring them back – you want to let them float,” Landstra said.

Death is a difficult process, and dying people are at times “pulled back” by their relatives or loved ones.

“We don’t want to initiate a big change for them,” Landstra said. “We want to be there to comfort them.”

Lauritzen said, “We sing about the power of love, the power of light. I’d say our songs are spiritual but not religious.... But if a family requests a hymn, we’ll do that.”

They sing “Saint Francis’ Prayer,” which includes the line “Make me an instrument of thy peace.” Another song repeats “shalom,” a Hebrew word for “peace.”

One family requested that the choir sing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” Landstra said, but “mostly we stick to our own repertoire.”

“All of our songs are short, so we can do them like a chant; we can do them in two or three parts,” said Lauritzen.

Lauritzen, who also sings with the RainShadow Chorale, holds a master’s degree in music education from Stanford University. She founded the Seattle Peace Chorus in 1983 and directed it for 14 years.

Of Threshold Choir, she said, “It’s kind of a sisterhood ... we really resonate with one another. Singing together in this way is fairly intimate. We’re trying to be on the same wavelength ... we work a lot on that.”

Threshold Choir welcomes new members, people who are “willing to work to blend their voice, to learn the songs and communicate a sense of caring with the voice,” Lauritzen said. “To sing with us, you have to be open to it.”

Because they rehearse and sing during daytime working hours, the choir tends to draw older, retired people, but all ages are welcome. The choir rehearses twice a month. Its members sing as a whole group together at San Juan Villa once a month, and in small groups of about three singers when they visit the hospital or sing at people’s bedsides.

“Of course, we’re all volunteer. There’s no charge for our service,” Lauritzen said.

The group has also broadened its practice. The whole choir sings each year for the Jefferson Hospice Memorial Service, and it sings occasionally at other events for which members feel their songs will make a contribution.

To join the choir or request a visit by the Threshold Choir singers, call Oma Landstra at 385-6684 or Helen Lauritzen at 379-2987.

“Anyone can call us,” Lauritzen said, “anyone who wants us to come and sing.”

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