The Threshold Singers of the Washington, DC area bring comfort through song to those at the thresholds of living and dying. The Threshold Singers volunteer at Capital Caring’s Halquist Memorial Inpatient Center in Arlington.

Threshold Choir is a network of a cappella choirs throughout the US, and their mission is to sing for and with those at the thresholds of life. A calm and focused presence, with gentle voices, simple songs, and sincere kindness, can be soothing and reassuring to patients, family, and caregivers alike.

Threshold Singers, pictured here at a retreat in California, are welcome guests for the patients and families at the Halquist Memorial Inpatient Center.
Threshold Singers, pictured here at a retreat in California, are welcome guests for the patients and families at the Halquist Memorial Inpatient Center.

“When we are invited to a bedside, we visit in groups of two to four singers. We invite families and caregivers to join us in song or to participate by listening. We choose songs to respond to the client’s musical taste, spiritual direction, and current receptivity,” said Janet, a Threshold Singers spokesperson, “Many of the songs we offer are composed by Threshold Choir members specifically to communicate ease, comfort, and presence. Because our songs are not religiously oriented, our singing is appropriate for everyone, whether religious or not.”

A session typically lasts about 10-15 minutes; if there appears to be interest, we might sing longer.  Using soft, lullaby voices, we blend in harmony or sometimes in unison, if that provides the most comfort. We offer our singing as gentle blessings, not as entertainment, and we are honored when a client falls asleep as we are singing.  Most of our songs are very short, so their repetition is conducive to rest and comfort.

From the Huffington Post, May 2013:

“Always face the person in the chair. Sense their breath, the rising and falling of the lungs, the blood’s flush on the cheeks. Watch the loosening and tightening of the muscles, the movement of the eyelids, how the hair on their arms straightens up. Don’t stand out. Speak softly. Blend in with the voices.

This was the advice of Ellen Synakowski to members of the Washington, D.C., Threshold Choir, only a few months into its existence. Their job: to use song to comfort the dying through the end of life.

As if repeating a mantra, they sang in unison as they rehearsed: “It’s alright, you can go/ Your memories are safe with us/ It’s alright, you can go/ Your memories are safe with us.”

“Words are good for many things, but they don’t seem sufficient when it comes to death. The feelings are just too deeply intense and words are too inadequate,” said Synakowski, a 55-year-old former academic journal editor who has always had a hobby of singing, whether it’s to the car radio or in a community chorus. “But music … music can reach those places where words alone can’t go.”

Death used to happen solely at home or in a hospital, with company limited to family, close friends and clergy. Solemn music would be reserved, perhaps, for the funeral. But as the options for the end of life have grown to include hospice, palliative care and other avenues that recognize not only physical but also emotional and spiritual well-being, Synakowski and like-minded volunteers are offering another service to the dying: soothing through a cappella song.”

The Threshold Singers currently are working with Capital Caring’s Washington, DC neighborhood office and the Halquist Memorial Inpatient Center in Arlington, VA. If you are interested in these services for your family member or patient, please contact the Volunteer Services Coordinator at these locations.