Choir sings at bedside of terminally ill

April 24, 2013
Threshold choir leader Cindy Harris practices with choir member Janice Henry.

A choir of heavenly angels is often thought to welcome the newly departed into heaven. However, while on Earth a small group of ladies will sing at the bedside of those who are terminally ill.

Known as Threshold Choirs, members are scattered across the country with a new branch recently started in the South Hills. The local group gathers in a meeting room at the Mt. Lebanon Public Library to rehearse.

On a sunny but cold February day, three members rehearsed for about two hours. Normally, there are about 10 who sing in the South Hills choir.

Two of the three, Ellen Zeitz of Bethel Park and Janice Henry of Pittsburgh’s North Side, are relatively new to the group and are still learning the tunes and words. Neither has yet sung at a bedside.

The local leader, Cindy Harris of O’Hara Township, said the South Hills group is just getting started and began because many women expressed an interest in joining the Threshold Choir, but didn’t want to “go through the tunnel” to join the Pittsburgh club, which includes 27 singers.

“We never go to the bedside unless we are asked,” Harris said of the volunteer group. When not singing, Harris works as an Internet coordinator and is a musician.

Henry is retired from the mental health field, enjoys working as a children’s librarian and plays fiddle and banjo. Zeitz is a retired special education teacher from the Mt. Lebanon School District. Together, they made soothing, soft, sweet music.

The concept of a Threshold Choir originated with Kate Munger, who first sang at the bedside of a friend who was dying. A few years later, she was on a long drive in Montana and sang for the animals she saw that were killed on the highway. The first Threshold Choir gathering was held March 21, 2000, in California. Now expanding across the country, there are no fees to join, just the desire to help those in need.

The South Hills group will be available to sing to those in a hospital, in hospice care or at home. There are no religious overtones and about two or three sing at a time. Harris described the music as deeply spiritual, but not religious.

Members of the Pittsburgh choir come from a variety of professions and religious backgrounds including Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism and agnostics. All approach death in a different manner.

Prior singing experience is not necessary and there are no distinctive voice parts, with Harris saying anyone, even those who believe they have ordinary voices, can learn to sing the relatively simple songs.

“Only one in a million truly can’t sing,” Harris said.

Zeitz said she decided to join because, “I volunteer at hospice and it’s so rewarding, and I thought this would be wonderful to sing at the bedside.”

Henry said her connection to music brought her to join the choir.

Harris has been a member of the Pittsburgh Threshold Choir since its inception in 2007.

“Every hospice care worker should try to do singing,” Harris said. “Sometimes, they are the only one there.”

Recently, while visiting Florida, Harris sang to a man with pancreatic cancer. He passed away the following day.

Some of the songs used by Threshold Choirs are “In Breath, Out Breath,” “Ocean Breath” and the one the women rehearsed that contained just three words, “Open My Heart.”

Harris would like to form a group of all men, but she needs volunteers.

Most of those to whom the choir sings die within 24 hours.

“They feel at peace and it’s easier to go,” Harris said.

To join or to learn more about the Threshold Choir, call 412-447-1812.



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