I’m taking part in a singing rehearsal — but this is not your average amateur choir session. I’m at the North London Hospice, and our group is preparing to sing to people as they approach the end of their lives.
I came here — kindly permitted to take part for the sake of my research — with some trepidation. I am, after all, a writer with no experience of working in the caring or therapeutic professions (though I have endless admiration for those who do).
The evening starts off just as any rehearsal might, with voice exercises, followed by practice of the repertoire, with work on pitching and rhythm and harmonies.
It’s only when discussion begins about whom we are going to sing to, and where, and when, that the distinct nature of our task becomes evident.
A large family is in the hospice visiting a relative. Some of them, we learn, want us to come and sing in the room, but others do not. It’s decided that it won’t be appropriate to do so.
It soon becomes clear that there is a constant, ever-shifting need for thoughtful judgment surrounding how the group can be helpful.
“Our aim is to direct the singing exactly where it’s required or requested,” says Judith Silver, founder of the group, which is called Companion Voices. “Everything I do is trying to empower and encourage people to use their own intuition and innate musical skills.”
She emphasises that we are not meant to be producing a rehearsed performance. “This isn’t about perfect singing — far from it. It’s very much to do with singing from the heart and bringing our whole selves to what I feel is a sacred task.”
Silver is a professional singer, teacher and composer. A member of Finchley Reform Synagogue, she regularly leads the music in services across the Liberal and Reform communities. She founded Companion Voices in 2014 in Brighton, and it can now be found in London, Watford and Frome (Somerset) — with further expansion planned around the country.
Silver’s friend Havva Mustafa was instrumental in the founding of the first group, which is based in Brighton. Mustafa felt strongly that there should be more rituals centring on the process of dying: “In the Islamic tradition — particularly the Cypriot/Turkish one that I come from — there are lots of rituals after death, but not before someone dies. There’s a silence around it.”
Silver agrees: “Although our culture has moved death into the realms of fear and dread, it’s a normal and accepted element of life in many other cultures around the world. In Judaism, we definitely have some special and profound rituals after death; but unlocking more confidence to sing to and accompany those in the last phase of life is not catered for, in my experience.
“I set up Companion Voices to make it possible for people to choose to be sung to as they approach the very end of their life; to be surrounded by the loving presence and voices of people who wish to accompany and affirm them at that moment of transition.”
The group has a growing repertoire of songs — often ones that already had some meaning to individual members. The songs are simple and repetitive, from a wide range of traditions and in various languages.
Erika Adler, one of the Brighton group’s Jewish participants, explains that they intend “not to pull people back towards life and the familiar, but to allow them to progress forward knowing they are not alone; to give them a sense that their experience is held and acknowledged by the singers and their voices as they take their leave of life.”
So the idea is not to perform jolly, cheering-up music or to take requests for favourite songs (though that sometimes happens, too). Rather, it is to bring a peaceful and beautiful sound into the room.
Silver explains that niggunim (Jewish wordless melodies) are a perfect choice: “Who can find the right words at such a time? So a niggun can be a priceless gift— a way of communicating that goes beyond the present moment, the angst or pain.”
The London branch of Companion Voices has to date been administered and funded by the Jewish Music Institute (JMI) and around half of the members are Jewish. Future sessions are planned at Finchley Reform Synagogue.
Companion Voices is not the first organisation of its kind. Silver was inspired by the Threshold Choir movement in the US, which she came across around 15 years ago. It was set up by Kate Munger, who explains that she got the idea back in 1990, when she was sitting with a friend who was dying of AIDS. As a coping mechanism, because she felt nervous and afraid, she began to sing. “I watched him calm, settle and get positively serene,” she says, “and I felt I had discovered something.” The Threshold Choir now has chapters across the US, and internationally as well.
Kay Ashton from the Watford branch of Companion Voices says that one of the trickiest tasks is to direct the singing exactly where it is needed: “We’re very conscious of definitely not wanting to impose anything on anyone. For some people, it might be entirely wrong but, for others, it’s perfect.”
Speaking of her experience of singing in the Peace Hospice in Watford, she says: “We see a lot of tears — a lot of people emotionally affected. In a good way, I think. It’s just very affecting to hear human voices singing for you — it’s really powerful.”
Ashton feels strongly that there should not be a sense of a sharp division between the singers and those who are dying: “It’s not them and us — it’s just us. We’re all going to do it at some point.”
Silver agrees. “I want to recognise myself that it is a part of life and not be scared of it,” she says. “And I want to help other people perhaps just peel away a little bit of the fear — bring some comfort, maybe even some joy, some peace or serenity.”
Back to our rehearsal at the hospice, and a Jewish patient has said she wants Companion Voices to sing — but will she be too tired? And how many should take part — just a few people, or everyone?
In the end we are all invited. I feel a weight of responsibility I rarely have before — not about the technicalities of getting the notes right (though that is a bit alarming), but, much less tangibly, about how to “be” in the room. It is a moving experience. I speak to the patient’s sister afterwards. “I do think the singing was a wonderful thing for her,” she says.
Kate Munger of the Threshold Choir says: “There is a vital, visceral and connected feeling when we sing at the bedside of someone who is dying. It arrives in waves and through more than the ears — through the whole body. Right to the heart.”
Contact Companion Voices, either to ask them to sing or to join one of the groups: www.judithsilver.com/companion-voices