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'Kindness Made Audible' 

Arcata Threshold Choir brings comfort to those in need

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Photo by Mark McKenna

Inside a bright blue cottage tucked along a quiet street, members of the Arcata Threshold Choir gathered on a recent Saturday morning to rehearse in the living room of co-founder Jane Riggan.

With white song books tucked in their laps, the group settled into chairs and sofas encircling the warmly decorated space awash in color and patterns. Dashes of conversations mingled with laughter amid the sunlit room.

After a few moments, the choir's musical coordinator Maggie McKnight made a song recommendation and played a quick note on the silver pitch pipe in her hand. There was a brief sliver of silence. Then, the women begin to sing.

Almost like a lullaby, the lyrics were simple and repetitious, the a cappella singing soft but strong — a gentle blending of melody and verse specially arranged to bring comfort.

"I let the river, the healing water, I let the

I let the river, the healing water, I let the

I let the river, the healing water, I let the river carry me home.

I let the river wash away. River carry me home."

"That was nice," someone says softly when the song is done.

One of many facets setting the Threshold Choir apart from traditional ensembles is the way the singers approach the music, Riggan explains, saying they "really try to hear each other, to sing as one voice, intimately."

When called upon, their voices are brought together — just two to four members at a time — to bring solace to individuals in need. Often, the singing takes place at the bedside of someone who is approaching the last threshold of their life, as the choir's name denotes.

"There's a sacredness at that moment. ... It's about that connection at the end of life. It's moving away from that fearful thing of, 'Oh, they're dying.' It's about being their community," choir member Diana Noyes says.

"I am sending you light to heal you, to hold you.

I am sending you light to hold you in love. No matter where you go.

No matter where you've been, you'll never walk alone. I feel you deep within."

They call it "kindness made audible."

Those are the words of Kate Munger, who founded the first Threshold Choir in the Bay Area some 17 years ago. Today, there are more than 150 chapters worldwide, according the nonprofit, bringing song to those "facing death, grief, or suffering."

Whether in England or Australia or Arcata, the choirs share the same songs — with many of the original pieces composed by Munger — and the same mission.

But, Riggan notes, each one also has its own "flavor," with some more formal than others. "It's nice that there can be that diversity," she says.

Anyone is welcome to join, Riggan says.

No formal musical training is required, just an ear for a melody, an ability to carry a tune and a calling to help others. While only women were present at the rehearsal that Saturday, the choir has one male singer.

Dennice Stone, volunteer coordinator for Hospice of Humboldt, says she has seen firsthand the comfort music can provide, sometimes bringing about a sort of awakening, even if just for a passing moment, that allows families a window of connection with loved ones who are dying or have lost their memories to dementia.

"Threshold Choir is a great group of dedicated people and we've used them before ... and they're just really neat people giving freely of their time," Stone says.

Many of the Arcata members, like McKnight, joined at the urging of friends or family members who sing in choirs in other cities. Several others have backgrounds in caregiving, advocacy and support that translate naturally into providing "service through song."

The choir is available to "anyone who could get comfort from singing," Riggan says, not just for those who facing the end of their lives.

"All we want to do is help," she says.

Munger and Riggan both credited their experiences with AIDS patients during the early years of the epidemic for planting the seed that would bring together their love of song and desire to help ease the passage between life and death.

"I think people are just called to do it," says Riggan, an East Coast transplant and retired social worker who describes Munger as "an extraordinary woman with such a big heart and such talent."

After a Threshold Choir recording brought Riggan to tears, she knew she wanted to start a local chapter. The pieces began to fall into place when she was introduced to fellow co-founder Sandy Sweitzer by someone who knew their shared passion for starting a local choir.

When the two organized their first meeting in 2013 — using only word of mouth — more than a dozen people showed up. While membership has ebbed and flowed over the last several years, the Arcata choir now has a core group of about 20 singers to call on.

"Since the beginning it's just been magical for me," Riggan says, her voice breaking with emotion as she looked around at the group of 15 women assembled in her living room. "The right people came. They know why they're coming and they came."

While Sweitzer has since passed away, Riggan says her late friend was a driving force behind the Arcata chapter's start, pushing to get the choir off the ground, even if there were still some loose ends to tie up.

"She was always kicking me, 'Let's do it now,'" Riggan says with a smile.

After Sweitzer died in February of 2016, the Arcata Threshold Choir gathered for one last good-bye, singing at her service.

"People came up and said she just would have loved it," Riggan says.

While they found their way to the choir for different reasons at different times, the tight bond members have formed with each other is evident in the conversation flowing about the room, punctuated with inside jokes and bursts of laughter.

"I'm not naturally a hugger," Lissa Anderson quips about the influence of her choir colleagues. "I've been transformed."

Singing under such intensely personally circumstances sometimes means needing a way to unload a bit of life's everyday stresses in order to gather by someone's bedside in the right emotional space.

That's where the regular Saturday rehearsals come in. More than just a chance to practice, it's also a time for members to reconnect and just enjoy each other's company.

While their singing brings comfort to people in their times of need, the singers also understand the importance of supporting each other.

"It's just a place where you can safely get a little off your chest," Riggan says.

Many of the choir members have a story of a special moment — no matter how brief — that embodies for them how much of a difference their singing can make.

Anderson spoke about an elderly man at a local nursing home who was very thin, lying in bed with his eyes closed, and seemingly unaware of the choir's presence as its members entered the room.

Gathering around him, they began to sing.

"After about two songs, he lifted one arm, then put it down," she recalls. "We just kept on singing. Then he lifted the same arm and put it down. We just kept on singing. ... The next time he opened his eyes — big, beautiful blue eyes.

"To just see the music bring him back a little bit was very powerful," she says.

He died a few hours later.

Dot Campbell, a caregiver who sways gently as she sings, shared a similar experience about a 93-year-old woman she tended to before joining the choir. Sensing her death was drawing near, Campbell says she felt a need to sing for the woman and asked a friend to join her.

The experience, Campbell says, was an epiphany that eventually led her to join the Threshold Choir.

"The two of us sang to this dear one and it was the first time I had ever done that," Campbell says. "There are a lot of ways we can go out but it never occurred to me that we could go out on the bliss of song."

"So many angels all around me. So many angels, it's you I see.

So many angels all around me. So many angels, it's you I see.

So many angels all around me. So many angels, it's you I see.

So many angels gathered around. So many angels, it's you I found.

So many angels gathered around. So many angels, it's you I found.

So many angels gathered around. So many angels, it's you I found."

Those moments leaving a lasting impression, choir members say.

"You feel so grateful to the people who allow you into that intimate space," Riggan says. "It's a gift every time. It's just a huge gift."

Kimberly Wear is assistant editor at the Journal. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 323, or kim@northcoastjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter @kimberly_wear.

Threshold Choir: 'Service Through Song

The Arcata Threshold Choir receives singing requests from families, chaplains, medical professionals, spiritual communities and Hospice. The service is provided free of cost but the group does accept donations to cover expenses.

To request a bedside visit, contact 633-8022.

The choir is open to new members. To learn more about Threshold Choir, visit www.thresholdchoir.org or call Jane Riggan at 502-4245.

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About The Author

Kimberly Wear

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Kimberly Wear is the assistant editor of the North Coast Journal.

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