Want to found a similar group? Director Kellie Walker explains how to get started.
Does the leader of the group need to be a trained music director?
Not necessarily, although the person leading the group should be confident in his/her own singing, comfortable singing a cappella, and good with people. It’s important to have someone who is passionate, someone who’s a good organizer. Also, keep in mind that the leadership roles could be broken down and shared between a few different people: you could have someone who leads the music, another person who organizes the choir, a third person doing the advertising or publicizing. The leader could come from other organizations, like religious education, a pastoral care committee, a lay ministry, etc.
How are your rehearsals structured?
The first year the group met, we only rehearsed for an hour, but we soon realized we needed more time – not just to rehearse, but to talk about our experiences singing to people who were dying or incapacitated. With the new hour and a half time frame, we have enough time to talk, sing and make plans for future performances.
We rehearse in a circle with a lounge chair in the middle to give us a focus when we’re singing. (I got the idea from Kate Munger of Threshold Choir.) This setup allows us to practice “singing with intention.” We also take turns being in the chair ourselves, sometimes to check how the voices of the group are blending and other times just to receive the gift of song ourselves. There’s nothing like hearing women’s voices all around you after a tough week.
How often do you meet?
Regular rehearsals are essential to keeping the group prepared. We choose to meet twice a month, and each rehearsal lasts an hour and a half.
How can we spread the word about our group?
Word of mouth is crucial with a local or community groups. Sometimes just asking your friends or acquaintances if they have friends of family living in assisted-care facilities or senior centers is enough to create a fairly long list of potential places to sing. A lot of these places are very open to having visitors or entertainment; try contacting occupational therapists, activities directors, or social directors. Make some contacts with local groups that are already working with a hospice agency. Put yourself out there! Traditional media like flyers and websites are also good ideas.
Where do you find your music?
I get ideas from everywhere! After years as a musical director, I’ve accumulated a lot of my own resources as far as songbooks, and group members are also free to make suggestions. Take care to pay attention to what selections are in the public domain; some people may not realize that you still have to be aware of copyright even when you’re doing therapeutic work. We’re also in the process of developing our own packets of downloadable songbooks with selections appropriate for this kind of work.
Do you have specifications for group members, such as age, gender or experience?
I made the group women-only because the vocal blend is better, but any women in the area are welcome – we don’t promote any particular religion. I put the age minimum at 10 years old, as younger girls might not be able to handle seeing someone sick. I do request that young girls come with a mother, a female relative or another female buddy.
Does it wear on you to do this kind of work? Is it depressing?
Not everyone’s experience is the same. Some people may find it sad, but, speaking for the women in my group, we’ve often been amazed at how uplifted we feel afterward. We usually feel really good about having sung, having been there and connecting with the family or the patient; we feel honored that they’ve allowed us into their lives, and we get just as much – if not more – from it than the person to whom we are singing. The power of music ultimately seems to outweigh any of the depressing things. If a group member does get upset, however, we make sure to discuss it (I’ve created an optional form for singers to fill out after a visit, in case any issues arise that they’d like to share with the group.) It’s important to acknowledge difficult feelings in order to move forward.