The vocal direction to the John Taverner composition “Song for Athene”—which premiered at Princess Diana’s memorial—states: “Very tender, with great inner stillness and serenity.” So it goes, most of the time, for Santa Barbara’s Threshold Choir, an all-volunteer group composed of women from all walks of life who appear upon request, free of charge, to sing for the sick, infirm and, most often, dying. Members have ranged from a graduate student at UCSB to an octogenarian.
The choir (which ranges from about a dozen to 40 active members, with two to four members at a time performing bedside in three-part harmony), offers its service as a gift; there is no charge. Choir members rehearse at Quaker House and in the family room at Serenity House and visit the dying in their private rooms up on Carrillo Hill on the fourth Monday of the month, but they will appear anytime and anywhere a friend or family member requests their non-denominational bedside singing for an ailing or dying person.
They also sing in the living room at the end-of-life-care Sarah House on the third Friday of each month. “Anything can happen. Sometimes residents come sit and sing with us,” says Penelope Salinger, a clinical social worker by day/angel by night and choir member.
The choir sings hymns and popular songs upon request (if they know them) in English and in Spanish, as well as original songs written by the nationally run organization’s Bay Area founder Kate Munger.
Once stumped by the request for “Sea shanties!” by a patient, the gals broke into “What Shall We Do With a Drunken Sailor?” much to the recipient’s delight, who joined right in. A minister requested “Get Me To The Church On Time.”
One of Salinger’s more profound experiences occurred after a request to sing Chris Williamson’s “Ship in the Harbor” in Spanish. She and two other members of the choir arrived in time to sing as the woman took her last breath. “It felt so amazing to be able to sing her out in her native language.”
“Like you lullaby a child to sleep, we lullaby people at the end of their lives to their last sleep,” says choir member Arlene Stepputat.
“We’re not the Mormon Tabernacle Choir,” Stepputat, who is also manager of volunteer services at Visiting Nurse and Hospice Care of Santa Barbara, stresses, “We sing for the nurses at Serenity House and we have even face-timed with the dying. We also sing for people recuperating. You don’t have to be dying for us to appear.”
To schedule a visit or to join the choir, call 805/322-3558, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit thresholdchoir.org/SantaBarbara.
This story was originally published in the winter 2016/17 issue of Santa Barbara Seasons Magazine.