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Voices of angels

“The music was sweet and nourishing and washed my body clean of pain and discomfort. And the swirl lifted my bed, as it slowly rose on notes of music, lifted by angels blowing air into the notes, lifting, lifting till I was swirling in heaven.”

These are the words of ‘Terry’ who, after being badly injured in a fire, spent many months in hospital hovering on the threshold between life and death, before eventually making a full recovery.

He is describing his memory of a visit from members of a small group of singers, part of the a cappella Threshold Choir network, who sing – by invitation only and in small groups – at the bedside of someone on the threshold of life. The aim is to bring comfort to and uplift the spirit of anyone facing death, grief, or suffering, so this extends to the families and carers too.

The singers, primarily women and all volunteers, do not charge for their service, and offer gentle voices, simple songs, and kindness, to soothe and reassure. They invite families and caregivers to participate by singing or by listening and choose songs according to the client's musical taste, spiritual direction, and current receptivity. A session typically lasts about 20 minutes.  

The Threshold Choir was founded in 2000 by Kate Munger in California, inspired by her experience of singing for a friend who lay dying.

“I felt as if I had given generously of my essence to my dear friend while I sang to him,” she says on her website. “I also found that I felt deeply comforted myself, which in turn was comforting to him.”

The first group launched with just 15 women, but the idea began to snowball across the US. Now there are around 150 ‘chapters’ worldwide, including some in the UK, Australia, New Zealand and Cambodia. Each chapter is based in its local community but the repertoire of songs and music – much of it written by members – is shared, and choir members are welcome at gatherings outside their area.

The singers come to the choir in a variety of routes. Some have cared for a family member or hospice workers or volunteers. Some are religious, some are not and others are simply spiritual.

Natacha Ledwidge launched the Heart of London group in January 2015, after reading about the movement and realising how much it resonated with her own experience of sound and song as a healing process. “More and more people are seeing the value of singing as a truly meaningful, beautiful and powerful process,” she says. “And sometimes at the bedside, silence, stillness and song are all you need.”

The members of the Central London-based chapter are from various backgrounds. The group has no religious affiliation and honours all spiritual paths. They meet for bi-monthly practices in Bayswater and, despite having only 10 official members, these are often busy. “We get many visitors,” explains Natacha. “People come and sit in from other chapters but others also want to set up a chapter themselves.”

The first person approaching the threshold of life that the group sang to was Natacha’s mother in the week before she died.

“She warned me that she would be listening carefully and would pick us up on any wrong notes,” says Natacha. “But she smiled throughout." 

The fact that clients and their families gain benefit from the healing powers of song in these circumstances is no real surprise but all the singers stress the blessing of sharing their voices: “Sound healing can be incredibly powerful,” says Khristina Evans, a fellow member of Natacha's Heart of London chapter.

“When I’m singing with individuals in this way, it is wonderfully uplifting. Something magical can come through and make changes.”

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