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Singing at the threshold

Several members of the Voices of the Sierra Threshold Choir gather around the piano in the lobby of the Oakhurst Healthcare & Wellness Center last week, warming up before singing for the residents. The choir, made up of 30, sing for healing and at the bedsides of the ill and dying. Here, from left, are members Tammie Wheeler, Carla Rajnus, chapter founder Barbara Liss, Judy Ball, Anne Cozean and Juanita Martinez.
Several members of the Voices of the Sierra Threshold Choir gather around the piano in the lobby of the Oakhurst Healthcare & Wellness Center last week, warming up before singing for the residents. The choir, made up of 30, sing for healing and at the bedsides of the ill and dying. Here, from left, are members Tammie Wheeler, Carla Rajnus, chapter founder Barbara Liss, Judy Ball, Anne Cozean and Juanita Martinez. Sierra Star

Respecting and trusting in the healing power of music, Barbara Liss has been singing for more than 20 years. A nine-year member of the Santa Barbara chapter of the Threshold Choir (singing to those at life’s threshold), she decided to begin a Mountain Area chapter, and so, the Voices of the Sierra Threshold Choir sprung into existence last January.

While there are now about 30 members, only a dozen have been bedside trained - singing at the bedsides of the ill, dying and those in need of healing.

With no religious affiliation, the members sing Acapella and three part harmonies in groups of two to four to soothe, comfort, and uplift the spirit. They sing in private homes, hospices, care facilities, and hospitals.

“The voice, as the original human instrument, is a true and gracious vehicle for compassion and comfort,” Liss said. “Just as we instinctively sing lullabies to newborns, so we sing farewell at bedside - a graceful send off, celebrating and normalizing the inevitability of death as a natural part of the miracle of life.”

Even though Paola Staeblein has been a member of this chapter for a couple of months, she isn’t new to Threshold, belonging to an East Bay group for six months. “I love to sing, to do this service for people on the threshold or in need of healing. Music is such a great gift.”

“Sometimes at the bedsides, we get requests,” Liss added. “We’ve been asked to do Sinatra standards, campfire music, Bridge over Trouble Waters, and we’ve gone to Hospice settings where people were well enough to sing right along with us. We’ve even gone to Fresno to sing for someone who was having surgery, and once a month, we sing at the Oakhurst Health & Wellness Centre.”

Prior to one of their regularly scheduled monthly visits, a small group of members warmed up in the centre’s lobby. In slightly different pitches while keeping in perfect harmony, they repeated the phrase, “We are all just walking each other home.” Afterwards, choral member Anne Cozean, who has been with the group since its inception, said she felt “shivery, humbled, honored and healed.”

Once the perfectly pitched group began emitting those sweet flawless melodies for the residents, several leaned their heads back with eyes closed, letting the peaceful sounds wash over them. Resident Verna McDonald, in her mid 80s, sat transfixed, appearing to be transported to another place and time, a content smile frozen on her face - a look momentarily broken as she whispered, “Beautiful, just beautiful.”

“The soothing music brings beauty into the lives of our residents,” explained Sharon Reeves, the centre’s activities director. “It’s beautiful, magical, and has a calming effect on them.”

Serene. Tranquil. Untroubled. These are the exact feelings the singing group hopes to spark.

“Our music is supposed to calm and relax. We want people to close their eyes and listen, and if they fall asleep, well that just tells us that we’ve done it right,” Liss said. “This is not performance, this is service.”

Weekend workshop

Voices of the Sierra Threshold Choir will hold a weekend workshop, “Nurturing your Bedside Singing,” April 28-30. The workshop is intended to assist circle singers in making the transition to bedside singing, and is also for experienced singers wanting to deepen their presence at bedside.

The $30 registration fee includes snacks and lunch on Saturday and brunch on Sunday. Hours are 6:30 - 9 p.m., Friday April 28, and 9:30 a.m. - 12:30 p.m., and 2-6 p.m., Saturday April 29 at the Positive Living Center, 40045 Indian Springs Road, in Oakhurst. An optional singing and social gathering will be held 7:30 - 9 p.m., Saturday, at Liss’ home, as well as a Sunday brunch, 11 a.m. - 2:30 p.m., also in her home.

Details and registration: Barbara Liss, (559) 641-5591, or barbara26point2@yahoo.com.

About Threshold

Threshold Choir was started by Kate Munger, who sang for her friend Larry in June 1990 as he lay in a coma, dying of HIV/AIDS. On the website, she wrote: “I did housework all morning and was terrified when the time came to sit by his bedside. I did what I always did when I was afraid; I sang the song that gave me courage. I sang it for two-and-a-half hours. It comforted me, which comforted him. The contrast between the morning and the afternoon was profound. I felt as if I had given generously of my essence to my dear friend while I sang to him. I also found that I felt deeply comforted myself, which in turn was comforting to him.”

Seven years later, she was inspired to create Threshold Choir, and today, there are about 130 chapters with 800 members around the globe working as volunteers, singing to those facing death, grief or suffering. The service is always offered as a gift at no charge.

The Sierra chapter

As long as you can carry a tune, you’re welcome to join the Sierra group. Liss advises, though, that you need to sing softly and listen carefully to be able to blend in with the other singers.

They meet from 2-4 p.m., on the first and third Sundays of the month in the Community Room at the back of Raley’s.

Details, to schedule a bedside visit or demonstration: (559) 345-5034, or sierravoices@thresholdchoir.org.

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