Sunday, February 14, 2016
Sophia Compton “can’t read a note” of music. The retired professor (Compton taught women’s studies, religion and philosophy back on the West Coast before moving to Lawrence three years ago) isn’t embarrassed to admit her lack of vocal training, even amid three of her fellow choir members.
Her regular audience doesn’t seem to mind, either.
“I can’t read music,” Compton says again, “but I fit into the group just by listening. I think that’s what the dementia patients do, too. They tune in, and all of a sudden just start singing.”
Compton and her friends have gathered at the Oread Friends Meeting house in East Lawrence to rehearse, just as they do twice every month, for the dying.
The Sunflower Threshold Choir is part of an international network of similar ensembles that travel to hospitals, homes and hospice settings to bring ease and comfort to those on the threshold of life and death.
The first Threshold Choir formed in California — its founder, Kate Munger, writes on the organization’s website of the comfort she experienced singing to a friend dying of HIV/AIDS — nearly 16 years ago. As of 2014, there were more than 100 chapters of the Threshold Choir in North America, Australia, New Zealand and Europe.
“Our group has veered off in what I think is an innovative direction, in the sense that we’re moving toward working more with dementia people,” says Jean Drumm, a piano teacher, organist and the group’s unofficial leader. “And for that, we like to sing in parts.”
They sing songs about peace, acceptance and love, with the goal of guiding patients, families and caretakers through the difficult time at hand.
Since its founding three years ago, the choir has struggled to attract and retain members, she says. On this particular Wednesday night, four women have shown up to rehearse. The other four couldn’t make it.
Drumm blows her pitch pipe before leading the singers in a rendition of “Rain Fall Down.” It’s one of their more “upbeat” numbers, she says. The others are sung at lullaby-soft volume, but this one’s joyous, and the women’s voices resonate throughout the small, modest house at 1146 Oregon St.
Rain fall down on me. Heal my body. Rain fall down on me. Heal my soul. Rain fall down on all of Creation. Rain fall down on me. Make me whole.
The national Threshold Choir organization provides original music to affiliates like the Lawrence group. The idea being, if someone on the edge of death recognizes the tune, it’s more likely to “hold them back” from passing on, says Patrice Krause, a longtime member.
The songs are also spiritual, but don’t cater to any particular denomination, encompassing all faiths or none at all.
“They help me with my own spiritual journey,” Krause says. “If I am in a difficult situation, maybe one of these songs will pop into my mind and give me a perspective of love and gentleness and flow, rather than pushing.”
The administrative assistant joined the Threshold Choir about three years ago, when her own mother was on the threshold of life and death. “Blessings on Your Journey Home,” another Threshold original, embodied “what I wanted to express to her at that time,” Krause says.
Since its founding three years ago, the choir has struggled to attract and retain members. On this particular Wednesday night, four women have shown up to rehearse. The other four couldn’t make it.
Most are retired. A few are students, though they aren’t here tonight.
“Well, I was looking for a place to sing,” says Anne Haehl, a now-retired jack-of-all-trades with a master’s degree in speech communication and a penchant for storytelling.
“I only found out when I was well past 50 that I could sing, because all my life I had been trying to sing in the wrong key ... or the wrong range?” she says, looking to Drumm. “I thought it sounded cool, the idea of doing it for people who could really benefit from it.”
The choir mostly works with dementia patients, most frequently with those at Lawrence’s Neuvant House, which specializes in Alzheimer’s and dementia care.
Research has shown that music boosts brain activity among people with dementia, Drumm notes, so she and her choir members sometimes break from Threshold tradition by bringing out folk tunes and old church favorites like “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” “This Land is Your Land” and “Do Lord.”
These songs recall memories, evoke emotion, and provide dementia patients with a form of personal expression long after most other abilities have deteriorated at the hands of disease. As Compton puts it, “They might not be able to remember their kid who’s visiting them, and yet they can remember ‘Amazing Grace’ or ‘Go Tell it on the Mountain.’”
When the choir visited Neuvant House a few years ago, they didn’t expect retired Kansas University journalism professor and Journal-World columnist Calder Pickett to join in.
“One of the aides said afterward she had no idea he could sing,” Drumm recalls. “He was just booming out ‘Home on the Range.’”
Pickett died about a month later. He was 92.
It’s often difficult to engage with those suffering from dementia, says Compton, who took up with the Threshold Choir soon after moving to Lawrence three years ago with the intention of performing at the bedsides of the “actively dying.”
There hasn’t been a bedside performance yet, perhaps because the group doesn’t have much visibility in the community. They’ll need to devote more time to building relationships with families and facilities, Drumm proposes.
“We’ll get there,” she says to Compton, reassuringly.
When Compton visits her mother’s assisted living facility, she notices the lack of eye contact, the slumped posture, the muteness of people whose dementia has stripped them of the ability to communicate with the outside world. Still, she says of performing with Threshold Choir, "it's been wonderful."
“But you know what? They look up and they look at you when you’re singing, and that’s been my special feeling about this,” Compton says. “You know they’re present.”