History of The Threshold Choir Repertoire
by Kate Munger, January 22, 2023
When I started the Threshold Choir in March of 2000, there were many things I couldn’t have anticipated. One of these was the amazing collection of songs that developed from our experiences singing at bedsides. The depth, beauty, importance and uniqueness of our repertoire are so meaningful. First, that most of the songs are original; then that they are so expressive, gentle, yet direct. Then beyond all that, the spontaneous quality, feeling like a benevolent spring from the earth, songs flowing outward with no official requests, just deep appreciation from members as each new song was brought to bedsides.
The first song I wrote for the Threshold Choir in 2000 was “Guide Me” which was a response to knowing I needed guidance when things were going well as much as when they weren’t. The second one was “Because” with lyrics from Merrill Collett, a hospice worker. “Because you have a tender heart; because it is asked of you; because you are afraid; because you can make a difference.” The message that being afraid was a (likely) possibility and could be balanced out by “making a difference” seemed vital to this whole movement.
Helen Greenspan’s song “If Not Love” arrived in June 2000 and amplified the elegant simplicity and purpose that typify our songs. It seemed like that song started the waterfall of many new songs from Sherrin Loyd, Katharine Osburn, Devra Wolf, Jody Healy, Rebecca Cone, Ilana Cotton and Susan Abbot and others. Our need for very specific kinds of songs at bedsides seemed to drive the creation of many new songs in those first years. Many of these composers’ songs were on our first recording “Listening at the Threshold” in 2004. In 2006 our next recording “Tenderly Rain” included songs by Laura Fannon, Marilyn Power Scott, Maria Culberson, Bayla Greenspoon, Elizabeth Weiss and Tammy Heinsohn. At this point our repertoire was about 150 songs, a manageable number. Then the avalanche came.
In 2014 we recorded our most recent CD “Walking Each Other Home” with songs from many of the above, adding Marti Mariette and Annie Garretson. I am pleased and grateful that the original concept of a repertoire for bedside singing came to me, glad I could set the example very early on of requesting permission to use songs, for being open to a wide range of songs without imposing limiting criteria like “bedside only,” for teaching songwriting and promoting first songs and simple songs as worthy of sharing, for teaching us ways to teach songs, for allowing for imperfection and “striving for approximation,” for modeling and supporting the importance of honoring and respecting songwriters’ rights to say how they want their songs used, for teaching us that bedside singing is basically “improvisation,” where songs, keys, tempo, repetitions, harmonies, lyrics—virtually everything we do in the moment—should be chosen mindfully.
In 2008, with about 100 choirs mostly in the US, new songwriters emerged with remarkable songs. Since accurate lists are not my specialty, I know each of the songwriters, some experienced and some for the first time, will recognize that their gifts have been beyond precious to the Threshold Choir and the people we have sung to. I am so grateful. All this while, Ellen Rose shepherded the process of welcoming, collecting, organizing, standardizing and beautifying the notation, making recordings where possible. She gave thousands of hours of her love and precious time making this collection of songs meaningful and accessible to the people who could use them.
Also great thanks go to:
- Rhea, for establishing the first web-based repertoire and for indexing all the songs in the original songbook (indexes that proved invaluable as we decided where to focus our efforts as we started building the repertoire on the current website).
- Cindy Harris, who recognized the need and provided key guidance for our implementing more formal permission processes.
- Cathy Baird, for co-leading the design effort for the current website and for writing and maintaining much of the tutorial information about choosing core songs, preparing for memorial services, communicating at bedside, and many other topics.
- Kay Caldwell, for initiating and leading the effort to produce the “Highlights of the First Fifteen Years” Threshold Choir songbook.
- Many, many others who offered input and feedback on notations, translations, recordings, permissions, priorities, contacts, and other topics over the years.
- The repertoire committee, for continuing to fill in and enrich our repertoire.
This collection of real, beautiful, evanescent songs with deep purpose is unique in the realm of “songs of a people.” To be present at a bedside, singing about death as it is actually happening gives these songs lasting meaning. I feel strongly that this collection needs to be used, preserved and honored in some lasting way. I hope that the Smithsonian Institution or the Library of Congress might be appropriate resting places for this treasured collection.
Thanks for asking for this account. It makes me appreciate even more what we all have created here. All blessings, Kate