There's no time Kate Munger can remember that her mother wasn't singing. Every night, Kate and her four siblings would be graced with lullabies at their bedsides. The physical proximity of the vibrations of her mother’s body would activate the cells in Kate.
Now, Kate brings that gift of voice and vibration in service to those at the threshold of the other end of life – singing songs as lullabies at bedside to those near death. In 2000, she founded Threshold Choir, a decentralized, distributed community of more than 1300 volunteer singers now comprising more than 180 locally-formed Threshold Choirs around the world. The organization’s vision is to spark a movement for “a world where all at life’s thresholds may be honored with compassion shared through song.” The organization furthers this vision by supporting local voices who come together to offer gentle a capella singing to people in their communities who are dying in hospitals and hospices.
For Kate, the voice, as the original human instrument, is a true and gracious vehicle for compassion and comfort. She speaks of a “tribal inheritance” of singing together and a “lineage and legacy of women singing for millennia”. She describes singing at the bedside as “more a prayer than a performance” -- soothing and calming to the dying as well as their family and caregivers. As The Washington Post recently wrote, Threshold Choirs “seems to have tapped into something both primal and much-needed: a growing desire not to recoil from death or abandon the dying but to face that ultimate truth and figure out how to help ease the isolation of those near the end.”
The seed for the Threshold Choir was planted in June of 1990 when Kate sang for her friend Larry as he lay in a coma, dying of HIV/AIDS. She did housework all morning and was terrified when the time came to sit by his bedside. He was agitated, thrashing under the sheets. So Kate did what she always did when she felt afraid—she began to sing:
“There’s a moon / There’s a star in the sky / There’s a cloud / There’s a tear in my eye / There’s a light / There’s a night that is long / There’s a friend / There’s a pain that is gone.”
Kate repeated the lyrics over and over, singing for two and a half hours. “I felt as if I had given generously of my essence to my dear friend while I sang to him. I also found that I felt deeply comforted myself, which in turn was comforting to him.”
Several years later, while driving home from Montana, she committed herself to sing for any animals she encountered that had been killed on the road. “It felt good, and I continued long after that trip was over. It is still my practice. I stop whatever I am doing (except driving), turn off the radio, and sing a small song I wrote that begins ‘May your spirit rise safely...’"
From these seeds, Threshold Choir was born. Each Threshold Choir chapter is firmly rooted in its local community while also being an important part of a shared community as an international organization. The various chapters sing from the same repertoire of about 300 songs, many written by Kate and other choir members specifically to convey presence, peace, and comfort. “We sing very softly and quite close,” says Kate. “We’re trying to re-create the distance between a mother’s mouth and a baby’s ear.”
Kate is a gifted songwriter whose songs are simple and repetitive with gentle harmonies and an open feeling. These songs can be integrated by those approaching death as well as those in deep grieving. “A song is a bridge between what we know, what we can feel, and the big mystery,” she says. “We consider our songs this weightless evanescent, shimmering, ephemeral, yet substantive bridge. So how we choose the songs and how we sing, the words we use and whether we use words at all, all of those things are decisions we make in the moment.”
Threshold Choirs mostly use a repertoire with pieces limited to just a few words, and sung without accompaniment in three-part harmony. The idea is to keep things simple and not tied to any spiritual tradition. Complicated verses could intrude on the process of dying, Kate says. All song choices are made with deep listening to and observation of the person facing death: “It's about offering them attentive silence. Because what we find is that … it's between the songs that they can actually integrate and use our singing. [Their response] can be teeny tiny, a flicker of an eyelash. So we're watching really carefully.”
Kate has recently retired from directing the larger Threshold Choir and has returned to her passion of singing for people who are dying or in coma. She also loves to bring singing community to the incarcerated and to persons released from prison.