Austin Choir Brings Serenity to People at the End of Their Lives
By Destinee Reyes
For Reporting Texas
In a side room at Christopher House on a recent Tuesday night, four women are rehearsing for the evening’s musical performance. They determine who will sing the melody and other vocal parts and run through the songs in the binders they are carrying.
Then they walk out into the hallway in a slow parade and start singing – soft, gentle, a capella melodies for an audience of patients who are nearing the end of their lives.
The women are members of the Austin Threshold Choir, the local chapter of an international organization that sends female choirs to sing to people who are dying. Austin, Dallas and Houston are the only Texas cities with chapters.
The Austin group sings each Tuesday night at Christopher House, a 15-room hospice on East Martin Luther King Boulevard run by Hospice Austin.
“Music is very important to the environment here at Christopher House,” said Philip Sadler, the volunteer coordinator. The women have “the heart and the passion. They’re very dedicated, and they just have a sense for what they’re supposed to be doing, and they do it well.”
Lora Weber, a retired state executive who lives in Round Rock, has been with the choir since it was founded in 2008 and is its director. At first, the women sang occasionally at nursing homes but had no regular place to perform until 2010.
“We got in touch with Hospice Austin and asked if we could begin to sing… And that’s what we’ve been doing ever since,” Weber said.
The choir has eight active singers, and Weber, 64, said that number works for what they do. “It’s rare that all of us are there” on any given week. “Three or four is a great number for a patient’s room.”
Julie Slim, 55, has been singing with the group for about a year. While most members are amateurs, she’s a professional jazz singer.
“I enjoy everything about it,” Slim said. “The women I sing with are amazing, and are all here for each other and the patients.” From the first rehearsal she attended, she said, “I felt like family — loved and supported.”
The national group provides the music – short, sweet songs created to bring serenity and peace to patients and their families. There is no charge for the groups to sing.
Andrea Cortez, an Austin music therapist, said the choir is providing a valuable service for the hospice patients and their families, helping ease their stress at a very difficult time.
“Music can help give emotional support for the family,” Cortez said. “It can also help to unlock emotions that are difficult to express with words.”
Most nights, the group will sing a couple of songs in the hallway, then walk from room to room and offer to sing for an individual patient. On a recent Tuesday night, there were only three patients, so the performance was short. In most cases, the women rehearse for an hour and sing for an hour.
Sometimes, a family member will invite the group into a room and ask them to sing for a loved one who is nearing the end of his or her life.
“I think that this work is very important,” Slim said. “Dying can be a peaceful thing… It doesn’t have to be all suffering.”
Sadler said the choir’s music has a powerful impact on patients.
“Musicians affect patients in a remarkable way,” he said. “In more cases than you might imagine, people are able” to make the passage from life to dying in a peaceful way. “I strongly believe the choir helps them do that.”
Click below to hear samples from the Austin Threshold Choir: