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Littleton-based choir soothes the way with bedside songs

The Indian Hill Threshold Choir rehearses at the First Parish Church of Groton. The Indian Hill Threshold Choir rehearses at the First Parish Church of Groton. (Mark Wilson for The Boston Globe)
By Cindy Cantrell
Globe Correspondent / October 14, 2010

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Pam Espinosa anxiously flipped through a magazine in her doctor’s office, waiting to discover whether the breast cancer with which she had been diagnosed 11 years earlier had returned.

Suddenly, the magazine fell open to a story about the Threshold Choir, a group founded in California by Kate Munger to sing at the bedside of the sick and dying.

Espinosa learned she was still cancer free, but that day in 2006 changed her life.

“I made a pact with God,’’ Espinosa recalled. “If I was OK, if I was going to get through this, then I was going to start a Threshold Choir. And if I wasn’t, then that’s how I envisioned going out, surrounded by my family singing around my bed.’’

Espinosa, a teacher at the Indian Hill Music School in Littleton for 11 years, followed through with her promise. With the blessing of executive director Susan Randazzo, Indian Hill started one of the first Threshold Choirs in the Boston area.

This weekend the school will host its third annual New England Threshold Choir Gathering, with founder Munger to lead workshops for both prospective volunteers and members of the nearly 100 such choirs across the country.

“From the very beginning, we have valued the importance of Indian Hill being relevant to the community,’’ Randazzo said.

“I love the relationship-building that takes place through the Threshold Choir. It’s about really being there for families at a time of great emotional need.’’

The founding members of Indian Hill’s Threshold Choir in 2007 practiced for months, learning songs and receiving hospice training, before accepting invitations to visit clients in hospices, hospitals, retirement communities, and private homes. There is no charge for performances by the volunteer choir.

Renee Anderson, a chaplain at Nashoba Nursing Service & Hospice in Shirley, said she has been assisting families in inviting the group to sing to their loved ones for two years.

“If someone is very private then visitors may not be appropriate, but the families for whom this is a good match have had wonderfully positive experiences,’’ she said. “Medication deals with the pain, but not the anxiety. Music provides comfort, which is a blessing.’’

Espinosa says the word “choir’’ is somewhat misleading, since only two or three of the group’s 30 members actually make bedside visits at any one time.

The group has no religious affiliation, and songs include rounds, chants, lullabies, hymns, classical choral music, and original compositions by Munger and members of other Threshold Choirs nationwide.

Special requests have been granted whenever possible, Espinosa added, such as “My Old Kentucky Home,’’ “Danny Boy,’’ and “Let Me Call You Sweetheart.’’

According to Espinosa, the choir averages four requests a month across a service area within a half-hour drive of Indian Hill. New members of all ages and walks of life are welcome, with rehearsals taking place every first and third Wednesday of the month from 7 to 9 p.m. at Indian Hill.

Volunteers need not have a trained voice or be able to read music.

She noted that a bedside visit is different from any other musical experience. While singers are normally encouraged to project their voices to a large audience, she said, choir members sing “soft, softer, and softest,’’ similar to a mother singing a lullaby to a child.

“If you love music, this is a way to give back with your voice,’’ said Espinosa, who recently left her teaching post at Indian Hill when her husband’s job was relocated. “I’ve sung all around the world, and this is probably the most beautiful and powerful singing I’ve ever done in my life.’’

Even though her father, Roger Brandt, had difficulty communicating, Betsy Nahas of Westford said, she is certain that he became relaxed and soothed by the choir’s visits during the year before his death two years ago at age 88.

“Sometimes he’d nod a little bit or smile,’’ said Nahas. “The music is beautiful and the people who are singing are full of compassion, focusing love and energy on the person who is preparing to move on. It was like a lovely breath of fresh air every time they came in.’’

Music and singing were also a big part of life for Helen Hauenstein, who lived at Carleton-Willard Village in Bedford until her death at 84 in June. Her daughter, Elise Hauenstein of Carlisle, said she was introduced to the Threshold Choir by classical guitarist and vocalist Marcia Guntzel Feldman, who sometimes sings with the group.

“They were incredibly helpful to us in creating a meditative sanctuary for Mom,’’ Hauenstein said. “Everyone involved respected her dignity in a way that was beautiful to be part of. It felt like the right thing.’’

Singers interested in volunteering with the Threshold Choir are invited to attend a workshop led by Kate Munger on Saturday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Members of a Threshold Choir or similar group may attend a workshop Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. The free sessions will take place at Indian Hill Music, 36 King St. in Littleton. To register, call 978-486-9524. For more information, go to www.indianhillmusic.org.