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3:34 pm
Sun December 1, 2013

'Threshold Choir' Sings To Comfort The Terminally Ill

Originally published on Sun December 1, 2013 5:55 pm

Transcript

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

THRESHOLD CHOIR: (Singing) Can I stand here for you? May I use my heart as a gift?

ARUN RATH, HOST:

Those are the voices of the Northern California Threshold Choir, an a cappella group that brings music to a very specific audience. Kate Munger founded the Threshold Choir, and she explains what the organization does.

KATE MUNGER: Threshold Choir is a group of singers that go, when invited, to bedsides of people who are dying.

RATH: And how did you get the idea for this?

MUNGER: In 1990, I was asked to fill in a volunteer slot for a friend who was dying of HIV/AIDS. He was comatose and agitated, and I was terrified. So I did at the time what I did when I was terrified, which was sing a power song. And it looked like it was having a powerful effect on him, and it certainly was for me.

So I kept on singing for about two and a half hours. And at the end of that time, I felt like I had given him the best gift that I could give him. I had given myself a tremendous gift. And I had stumbled upon something that needed to be brought back when someone is in trouble, that of singing when a member of our tribe is in trouble.

RATH: When you are working with people to provide this service, do you have specific requests or do you come in with a set list of songs? How does it work?

MUNGER: We come in with two or three songs of our own that are generally original songs written by choir members over the last 13 years. And then we might ask if they have a song that they would like to hear. And then if we know it, we'll sing it right on the spot. And if we don't know it, we'll run home, get on YouTube, learn it and come back.

RATH: And in terms of the sound of the music you're going after, I'm assuming you wouldn't want to be too happy or ecstatic at the same time. It's not a funeral either. I'd think you'd want something that celebrates the person. So how do you balance, I guess, that happy and sad parts of this?

MUNGER: Most of the time, we start out with songs that are neutral - not sad, not happy - addressing that situation. And then very often, we're asked by a family if we have something a little more upbeat because they are not grieving. They may be sad, but this isn't a tragic situation. So we have some songs that are, you know, you might snap your finger. And we bring those often.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

CHOIR: (Singing) We are all just walking each other home.

RATH: You know, it's hard for me to imagine a performance where there'd be more pressure in a way. You know, not to be funny about it, but I would be terrified to fall off key, you know, for something so important. How do you handle that as - that pressure?

MUNGER: That's a good question. Performance is really not the right word. We don't consider what we're doing performance. We consider it more like prayer. We also know that there's very little judgment at that time in that place in this context.

RATH: And you're humans and it's a pretty human moment, if there ever was one.

MUNGER: That's the truth.

RATH: Kate Munger founded the Threshold Choir. It is an a capella group that brings music to the sick and dying. Kate, thank you.

MUNGER: Thank you, Arun. It was a lovely experience to talk with you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU ARE NOT ALONE")

CHOIR: (Singing) We are not alone, we are here... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.