There are worse things than dying, says Ira Byock, MD, former director of Palliative Care at DHMC. One of these is dying badly. To Byock, this means dying alone, perhaps in a hospital room, with the TV on. Rather, he says in the film Holding Our Own: Embracing the End of Life, we should be “waked out of life” in the company of loving family and friends. Illness and dying are often isolating, cutting a person off from both a sense of who they are and who they were, and from community.”
The Evergreen Singers, a local hospice choir inspired by the Hallowell Chorus in Brattleboro, Vermont (which was featured in the film Holding Our Own), is a group that truly wake the dying out of life, surrounded by song, and stir – remarkably – joy in singers and sung-for alike. “There is something magical about the voice and giving yourself and being vulnerable,” says Anna Alden, director. “Music helps people get to that emotion they may not have been able to get to.”
The Evergreen Singers was formed in 2007, recalls Penny McConnell, when she and Calli Guion wanted to sing for hospice patients. Early inspiration included the Hallowell Chorus, Kathy Leo, Mary Cay Brass, and Joan Shimer. The group moved around a bit, searching for a home, and now practice at St. Barnabas. In the early years, Calli says, when they were called the Upper Valley Community Choir, “We learned repertoire and practiced bedside singing around volunteers who would lie on the floor.” The group has coalesced now – though they are always looking for new members – and has strong affiliations with local hospices.
Currently there are 25 singers in the choir (only four men), with the ages of the singers ranging from 54 on up into the 70s. Many of the singers participate in other choirs, such as Revels, shape-note singing, or the Thetford Chamber Singers, to name just a few. Anna Alden, who became the director in September of 2014, says that her role is to give them feedback as musicians and to help with their singing. “It can be challenging to be a singer in this setting,” Anna explains. “The bedside group could be as small as four singers, so people really have to be able to sing independently.” The Evergreen Singers have a solid repertoire, and Anna is helping them add songs and genres. “Sometimes,” she says, “we’re asked if we can sing a country song.” As director, she is full of admiration for the wonderful and well-meaning singers who give the gift of music and their own vulnerability so readily.
In addition to the stability and support that a director now gives them, the training from hospice is a vital component of the group experience, says Norwich resident, Carole Dempsey, one of the Evergreen Singers. The training familiarizes them with the fundamental tenets of hospice, such as confidentiality, and honoring the beliefs and experiences of the dying, and also helps them feel more comfortable with entering the space of the dying. Additionally, Carole says, “These trainings serve as real bonding experiences for the singers. In regular rehearsals we are so focused on our music that there’s not time to get to know one another. The trainings really deepened our personal connections, and it is amazing how that influences our ability to provide a quality experience at bedside.”
In the film, Holding Our Own, the power of music for those on the threshold of life and death, and for those singing to them, is clear. Though the film focuses on the Brattleboro chorus which was the inspiration for the Evergreen Singers, this is a constant refrain from participants. “When someone is at the end of life,” Carole explains, “all that sort of non-essential life-noise falls away. No one is concerned about politics, or how they look, or their social status. Even though it can be an emotionally difficult time, there is always so much love in the room, and people are wanting to be present with each other at a very deep level. It’s as real as it gets.”
To learn more about participating with or receiving a visit from the Evergreen Singers, call Margaret Jernstedt at 603-643-3663, visit their website (www.evergreenvt.weebly.com) or email Anna Alden at email@example.com. Next auditions will be held on March 29th.
by Vicky Fish
Vicky Fish has been a hospice and palliative care volunteer. Her first book of short stories, A Brief Moment of Weightlessness, was published in June 2014 and can be purchased at the Norwich Book Store.