Follow along with the transcript below for episode: Finding Comfort Through Music With Jan Stanley
[00:00:04] PF: What’s up, everybody? This is Paula Felps, and you are listening to On a Positive Note, where I sit down with a songwriter, recording artist, or music insider to learn how music can lift our spirits and heal our hearts.
Death is inevitable. But as with many things in life, music can change how people experience the journey. Today, I’m sitting down with Jan Stanley to talk about Threshold Choirs, an international movement in which a trio sings healing and comforting songs for people who are nearing the end of their lives.
Jan, a longtime Threshold Choir member, explains how sharing songs at this uncertain time not only brings comfort to the dying and their family members, but can be transformational for the singers as well. Let’s take a listen.
[00:00:50] PF: Jan, thank you so much for being with me here today.
[00:00:52] JS: Hi, Paula. It’s so good to see you again and to be together and to talk about something really special and meaningful.
[00:00:59] PF: Well, I cannot believe we haven’t had this conversation sooner because you’re the person who introduced me to the idea of Threshold Choirs. That was probably six years ago that you first told me about that. We talked about it then, and I just think it’s so fascinating. Can you tell everyone what a Threshold Choir is and what they do?
[00:01:18] JS: Absolutely. So Threshold Choirs are choirs of predominantly women, although that’s expanding, who sing for those at end of life and their loved ones. So picture someone on hospice who’s at home or someone who’s in an inpatient hospice care or even in a skilled facility like a hospital, nursing care, et cetera. The end is drawing near, and there are so many uncertainties for the person who’s at end of life. Of course, no one knows what the great mystery is beyond this life we’re living now.
Also, for family members, they have all different kinds of – sometimes, they’re very good, loving, grieving, sorrowful emotions. Sometimes, there’s leftover family dynamics of people who didn’t get along. Or maybe you didn’t even get along well with them, or there was some rift with you and the person who’s dying. So we’re called into those situations, and we come in with what we call comfort, songs of comfort.
That’s kind of the essence of what Threshold Choirs are. I’d love to give a little bit of history, Paula, when you’re ready for that.
[00:02:34] PF: Yes, please do.
[00:02:35] JS: So there’s a woman named Kate Munger, M-U-N-G-E-R, out in the Bay Area of the US out in California. She is a beautiful voice, a singer. She had experiences where she would sing for those who are dying. She would notice that there was great comfort sand ease that the person experienced when the songs and music were kind of floating in the air. So after law, she decided, “I wonder if there’s a way to kind of gather people together and start singing for people at end of life?”
In about the year 2000, she created the first Threshold Choir out in the Bay Area. A couple of other choirs followed. Now, the last time I checked, there were about 150 chapters that go even beyond the US, so international chapters. Each chapter follows the same kind of threshold, what I would call principles or guidelines. The clientele is the same, so singing for those that end of life and their loved ones.
But then each chapter has a little bit of autonomy to think about like what their cultural norms are or how they can best fit into the situation that they find themselves in. So I have been privileged to be able to have sung with the Madison Wisconsin Threshold singers and then also with a chapter in Manhattan, in the New York Threshold Choir. One of the things I love about it is the songs that are sung are mostly written by Threshold singers themselves, so not like –
[00:04:16] PF: Oh, I was going to ask about that.
[00:04:19] JS: Yes. They’re not like popular songs. They’re not necessarily religious songs, hymns, those sorts of things. Although, chapter by chapter, sometimes the chapter will adapt. If the religious preference of someone who’s dying is known, we can sing a hymn or something of that religious background. But primarily, they’re songs of comfort, just kind of at the end of life.
[00:04:44] PF: So when the members are writing the songs, how do they know what to write about? As you said, you’ve got to make it kind of fit all these different personalities, belief systems, situations. So how do – what is the songwriting process?
[00:04:59] JS: It’s such a good question. Like most things creative, there’s probably some like little hint of inspiration from somewhere that’s coming into the process. But basically, if you think about dying, if you think about death, and our society doesn’t really like to think about it.
[00:05:17] PF: Yes. That’s not our favorite topic.
[00:05:17] JS: So if you think about this journey, that might be a little bit uncomfortable for listeners. But if you think about dying, it’s like a great mystery. Life is a great mystery. We don’t know how we came to be here and when our time will erode, those sorts of things. So Ramdas, who’s one of the spiritual gurus of the, I guess, 20th century would be the best way to describe him. He had this saying that he used to say we’re all just walking each other home. It’s such a beautiful saying.
One of the women in the Threshold Choir actually put that to music. So we sing in three-part harmonies. So it’s a very simple song called We Are All Just Walking Each Other Home. So that’s one of the core songs that often will be song bedside. I give that background because that’s sort of the overarching theme of the Threshold song. So it’s how can we bring comfort? How can we ease in this transition?
There’s one that’s probably my favorite bedside song, which is Let Peace be with You. So it’s a four-line song and, again, in three-part harmony, and it goes – the first verse is let peace be with you. Let love be with you. Let grace be with you. It’s a very just kind of calming, simple melody. When we sing bedside, we send either three or four singers. So we don’t send a full – we might have 30 members, but we do all.
[00:07:01] PF: Get a little crowded in there.
[00:07:02] JS: Yes, exactly. Exactly. So it’s soft. It’s like a lullaby in some ways. Another one that I love is Rest Easy. Another one is You Are Not Alone. So they’re very, very simple themes. They’re designed to kind of bring that state of calm, of relaxation and almost as if we’re walking them home in that moment with our voices. We’re kind of channels for the care that we all might desire at the end of our life.
[00:07:35] PF: When you talk about it, and I remember the very first time you told me about them, I thought this would be such a difficult thing to do because you’re going in. You’re seeing what direction this is going. Especially in the US, in our culture, we see that as very sad, like that end-of-life thing. But from talking with you, it’s not a sad experience. It’s a very beautiful and an uplifting experience. Can you talk about that?
[00:08:01] JS: First, from the singer’s perspective, there are rituals that each choir adopts and customizes to their own. But they often involve what I’ll call a song mother. So we’re lined up with texts, and we might get a text sometimes. As the dyeing process goes on, the health professionals can say, “Oh, you know,” where it’s in the final weeks or in the final days, that sort of thing. So sometimes, there’s an appointment lined up for us. Other times, it’s more on-demand or like an urgent call of like, “Someone took a turn, and we’ve sung for them before. Can you please come in and sing now?”
The song mother, whatever the situation is, will line up the singers in the right range. So we have to have the middle singer who’s singing the melody. Then we have a soprano above and an alto below. So she has to find the right singers who are available. Then we gather before we get to the room or the home or wherever it is that we’re going to sing for the person who’s dying. In that, we do like a little warm-up, a little kind of getting ourselves in tune with one another, both musically but also spiritually or emotionally. We set an intention for what our intention is for going into this home.
It’s very simple. Over the years, we’ve gotten to do it with kind of almost a word or a couple of words. My intention might be gratitude for the privilege of being with someone at this most precious time. Someone else’s might be love that they’re wanting to convey that this person is loved, even though they might not even know the person. But still, through our voices, we can convey that. Then so we’ve kind of come into sync with one another, and we go into the situation. You never quite know exactly who is going to be there, what it’s going to be like, what the kind of general energy in the room is. But as soon as we start singing, you can see the kind of almost like the exhale, the energy in the room, just kind of weird doing the work, right? Everyone else is kind of receiving.
It’s one of the things that’s interesting, Paula. The question I’m probably asked most often around my work with ritual and the fact that I’ve sung with Threshold is I’ll get emergency texts or emails like, “Oh, my cousin is dying, and I’m heading out there. What do I do? What do I do when I’m in the room?” So when you have the Threshold singers, it’s kind of like we’re providing a way of being. We’re kind of holding space, as they say, in the facilitator world, for all the emotions that might be present in the room to arise, both with the person in bed who we’re singing to.
Just a little aside, we always bring our own like little lightweight folding chairs because we don’t want to like look down on the person we’re singing for. We want it to be heart-level. So we’re singing kind of heart-to-heart with them.
After the songs are done, we’ve sung, sometimes we sing never fewer than three, sometimes up to five or six. As I said, if the family requested a certain Amazing Grace or a Jewish, we have like a small repertoire of songs that they could say at request, and we’ll do that. After we sing, we meet up again. The song mother reconvenes us, and we just process what that experience was like for us.
[00:11:45] PF: That’s interesting. How important do you think that is to the overall process? Because you’re really recognizing what it did for you. I mean, that’s a very thoughtful approach.
[00:11:56] JS: Absolutely. When we reconvene, it does a number of things. It kind of – I wouldn’t say our job at all is traumatic. So there’s no like real trauma associated with our job. However, we’re seeing things that you don’t normally see in a regular time period. So it’s an opportunity to talk about what we noticed, what we observed, what we were feeling. Very occasionally, we’re sort of trained not to be the ones expressing emotion. But very occasionally, I mean, music can carry you away. Sometimes, one of us has to pause from singing for a moment because there might be tears coming down. So it’s an opportunity to really reflect on all of that.
[00:12:42] PF: As you’re doing that, obviously, as you said, music is such a powerful connector to our emotions. Even as you’re talking, I’m thinking about when my mom was dying, and I was sitting by her bedside, and the music that we were playing for her. So how do you keep from having all those memories come in and be part of this experience? Or do you? Do you let it all come together?
[00:13:08] JS: It’s a good question. As a family member, all of those emotions and feelings are there. So I think, for me, when my sister died, which is now 10 years ago this July, so we had her – our whole – her four grown children, their partners, a few grandchildren. I was there, and her husband was there. So it was like this extended surrounding of her with just kind of love and care and helping her make that transition, walking her home, so to speak. So then it’s fair game. Everyone was having every emotion, even though I was sort of the leader of the facilitator of the whole process. But you’re having those emotions.
As a Threshold singer, you’re exposed to it more and more often. So it’s akin to being like a hospice volunteer or a hospice worker. You’re seeing people at the end of their days in all different circumstances, hopefully, with at least one person there with them. On the occasions where there’s no one present, those are the ones that are really the most difficult ones for me when we’re singing. We’re just singing to the person who was very close to taking their last breath. For whatever reason, geography, deaths in their family, there’s just no one there. Those are really the heartbreaking ones for me.
But as a little small core group of three or four singers, we sort of support each other. If we notice one is experiencing those memories or emotions, the others take over. Soon enough, the person takes a few breaths, and back they come and join in. So my daughter’s a veterinarian, and one of the things that I remember her telling me about their training in vet med school, of course, they have to euthanize pets. It’s all around the compassion of kind of this pet is suffering to such a degree that it’s time for saying goodbye.
One of the rules of thumb that they taught her, which I’ve shared with all my Threshold singers is that it’s okay to be vulnerable. It’s okay to have emotions. It makes you human. We’re human beings. We’re not robots in the situation. But the guideline for veterinarians is you should never be the focal point of those emotions. So you don’t want the family turning to comfort you as –
[00:15:40] PF: Right. That’s a lot of work for them to that.
[00:15:43] HC: Exactly. So that was a good rule of thumb for me, knowing that it’s okay to experience those emotions, that the scene, that music, that all of it evokes. But just don’t let it be the focal point of the moment. Keep the purpose of singing to the dying person and their family members as the key.
[00:16:02] PF: Yes. I want to talk in a moment about how it affects the person in the family that’s being sung to. But how has it changed you to be part of this experience? What has it done? Also, what do you think of in your own? I would think it’d be impossible not to think about your own end of days, as you’re part of this experience.
[00:16:21] JS: Absolutely. So the greatest gift for me of being a Threshold singer is the gift of community. So you have this really – I’ll use the word sacred, meaningful. I’m not sure exactly the right adjective, but you have this bonding experience that’s unusual that you’re doing. You can see that it’s bringing a positive effect. Sometimes, in our daily work, we’re not able to quite see that as immediately or as vividly as the work of a Threshold choir.
Because we’re doing and we’re engaged in such activities, there’s a true bonding among the singers themselves. So we do other things like – of course, we have weekly rehearsals, but we’ll also have potlucks, or we’ll do other gatherings. So it’s a true sense of purpose. We’re doing something that’s meaningful and belonging. We’re doing it together. It kind of crosses almost like historic boundaries as well because singing has been a part of life and death for tens of thousands of years. So you just feel this real sense of connection.
Personally, how it’s changed me, I think you’re exactly right. It’s made me very much more conscious of the decisions I make in my life today. So when I counsel people, I don’t do this like professionally, but friends or friends of friends, that sort of thing. I’ll ask, “Do you have in mind like where you might like your ashes scattered?” Or now, with people’s geography having shifted, sometimes even if they’re going to be buried, they’re not exactly sure where that might be because maybe their family has moved from place to place. They have loved ones at different locations. So we talk that through. Sometimes, people will say, “Oh, by the ocean.” Sometimes, people will say in the woods in Northern Wisconsin or whatever it is that might ring true for them.
What I mean by living our lives more richly is we talk this through, and we thought, “Oh, that would be lovely. I could see that. Yes, that would be a great, eternal resting place.” Then the next question is when was the last time you’ve been there? Are you planning to go there again?
[00:18:41] PF: Oh, interesting.
[00:18:43] JS: So it’s kind of how do we have that endpoint that we kind of yearn for and we think about and we can imagine it happening. But how do we back that up and say, “Let’s put more of that into our days now.”? Then it makes an easier transition when the time comes.
[00:19:01] PF: That’s so thoughtful. That is an important thing for us to think about because you’re right. We do start making those plans and say, “This is what I want to do,” and that had never even crossed my mind.
[00:19:12] JS: Another one that’s similar to that is who would you want your family members to notify when you’re gone? So that might be friends, family members, former colleagues, whoever is on your mind that you want to have them notified to make sure they know, and they find out from a family member that you have passed. Then the same question applies. When’s the last time you contacted them? When’s the last time you did something with these folks? So it’s a different way of thinking of life, really.
[00:19:40] PF: I love that. Yes. Yes. It really reminds you to live while you’re here. So when people are in a situation where their loved one is dying, how do they know who to reach out to? How do they find a Threshold Choir? How does that process start?
[00:19:56] JS: I wish it was broadcast more publicly because in the US, for example, almost every major city has at least one Threshold Choir, and lots of other cities do as well, smaller cities. Usually, when I sang in Madison and in Manhattan, we were tied very closely with the health care systems and the hospice facilities. So often, staff would say, as end of life was approaching, one option is to have the Threshold singers come in. But I wish there was a way that was like more broadcast because it really is something that’s comforting.
One of the things I’ll say, Paula, is in the same way that we have this aversion or fear around talking about death, the same thing about hospice. So one of my wishes is that people think of if you’re going on hospice or receiving hospice care, that it means like you have a day left to live or something. It means like it’s the very, very end. But, in fact, palliative care, hospice care, you can do it. I think the actual cut-off on the health insurance side is six months.
But people don’t take advantage of that ,all of the care and comfort and services that they could be having in those final six months. I think part of it is we just don’t want to think that the end is near. So hospice is often called in those final few days. I regret that. I wish people understood or were less frightened by the idea of hospice because – I don’t know how much contact you’ve had with hospice workers, but they’re all just like amazing people.
[00:21:37] PF: They’re angels. They are actual angels.
[00:21:39] JS: [inaudible 00:21:39] to be compassionate, right?
[00:21:42] PF: Yes. That’s interesting because my partner’s aunt has been in hospice for a couple of months now. We talk to her about once a week, and she is thriving. I mean, she is dying and thriving at the same time. It’s the most amazing thing that I’ve seen because she’s in a facility where she enjoys the people. There’s a woman down the hall that comes and drinks wine with her every night at five o’clock. She is having a full, rich, dying experience. It’s the most amazing thing that I’ve seen.
[00:22:12] JS: Paula, I’m so glad you shared that story. I love that story, and I hope you write about it or somehow get it out in the world. Because I really do think it’s important for people to know that even though – maybe are our greatest hope is that this person won’t die. Well, that’s like not going to happen because we all die. We all have circumstances accompanying us on our end-of-life journey.
If that hope is out of the question, what are the other hopes that might still be in play? Like having friends, having community, having people surround you, being able to go outside and listen to the birds sing in the morning. Or whatever those alternative hopes are can be realized. I just wish more people understood that.
[00:23:02] PF: Yes. Because the last time we talked to Linda, she was saying that, at first, she was really angry because she felt like she shouldn’t be dying yet. She’s too young. She had things she wanted to do. Now, she’s like, “Okay, this is going to happen. So I’m just going to enjoy what I have and take this time.” She is. She’s got a little wine fridge. She’s doing –
[00:23:22] JS: I absolutely love that.
[00:23:24] PF: So if someone wants to be a part of this, if they want to join a Threshold Choir, how do they go about it? What kind of commitment do they need to be prepared to make? What are the logistics of it?
[00:23:35] JS: Yes. Each choir is a little bit different. But if you go to – I think it’s thresholdchoir.org if you – we can put it in the note episode.
[00:23:45] PF: Yes. We’ll put it on the landing page.
[00:23:47] JS: But there’s a full website of Threshold Choirs, and you can do a location search. So you can find out Threshold Choir chapters that might be close to you. Each one is a little bit different. But I would say, in general, there’s usually a weekly rehearsal. Then you have to be available to sing once per month for those at end of life. It’s kind of a rule of thumb and, again, with some flexibility chapter by chapter.
In terms of vocal training, I am not vocally trained. So you don’t need to be vocally trained, although we certainly have some choir members who just have those ethereal voices. That’s not me. But you have to be able to meet the minimum guideline of you have to be able to keep on pitch and tempo with the songs, including when people are harmonizing in three parts. So that if you start going astray, that’s not going to work for the whole sound that’s being created. So what I like to say, Paula, is I need those bare minimum requirements. But I’m never going to be one to stand up in the room and just like –
[00:24:57] PF: You’re not going to go audition for The Voice anytime soon. Is that what you’re telling?
[00:25:02] JS: I would say as a singer and other people who’ve worked in choirs, there’s good research on this that there’s an experience of community of –
[00:25:11] PF: I was just thinking about that. I was wondering if you get that same thing because all the science it says of singing together, what it does for us, so.
[00:25:18] JS: Exactly, exactly. The synchronous movements even, the synchronous sounds as part of that belonging. But there’s also, I would say, uplifting experience, like an experience of transcendence or an experience of awe. For me, it always happened. When we would sing our songs, the first line would be the melody. Then the second line, the alto would come in beneath. Then the third line, the soprano would come in on top. When all three were there, it just – I had the feeling of being lifted, the feeling of being kind of carried away. I think that the recipients of some of the Threshold songs, hopefully, would have a similar experience.
[00:26:03] PF: That’s fantastic. This is so fascinating to me, I think. As you said, more people need to know about it. I think it’s such a wonderful way as you approach the end of life. Of course, music has been there throughout our entire lives. What better way than to let it lead us home? So, Jan, thank you for talking about this.
[00:26:21] JS: Absolutely, Paula.
[00:26:21] PF: Again, I just appreciate it. I always love talking to you. But this is a topic I just think is so important for people to hear about.
[00:26:28] JS: Really is, yes.
[00:26:35] PF: That was Jan Stanley, talking about Threshold Choirs. If you’d like to learn more about Jan or find out more about Threshold Choirs, just visit livehappy.com and click on the podcast tab. I hope you’ve enjoyed this episode of On a Positive Note, and I look forward to joining you again next time. Until then, this is Paula Felps, reminding you to make every day a happy one.