Companion Voices comfort dying people through song
Judith Silver, left, is a self-employed musician and the founder of Companion Voices: choirs who offer spiritual support and comfort to dying people through singing at their bedsides. Judith set up the first of these groups in Brighton in February 2014, and has since set up further choirs in Watford and London. In her blog for Dying Matters, Judith writes about the remarkable therapeutic power of music, not just for those who are at the end of life but for those who are singing.
I don’t know exactly when the thought of singing for people at the end of life came to me. I became aware of the Threshold Choir many years ago and contacted the founder, Kate Munger. I had various conversations over at least a decade with Kate, friends and colleagues about finding a way to sing for people who might benefit from and be uplifted or comforted by it. But it wasn’t until December 2013, in the home of two dear friends, that the idea became reality. We were talking about our plans and wishes for the new year and I mentioned this. They were immediately enthusiastic and suggested we set up a group, inviting friends and colleagues they knew who might be interested, deciding on what would be practical for me to offer.
We hit upon a monthly Sunday afternoon and Companion Voices was born (though only named a year or so later, thanks to the wonderful brainstorming of the group). There are now three monthly groups: Brighton, Watford and London.
Music is a solace in troubled times
As a human working her way through the ups and downs of life, I, like everyone else, have experienced joy and pain. I have always found music, especially the sound of voices singing in harmony, a solace in troubled times, an enhancement in happy ones. Though I’m not a music therapist, I have increasingly found through my work with choirs and other singing groups and also within religious/interfaith and therapeutic contexts (eg: with people living with mental illness or dementia) that singing unfailingly lifts the spirit. There is an enormous and ever-increasing body of research proving this, and we who work with it know it deeply. It’s a fundamental part of ritual and the creation of a connected community. There is nothing like it.
In our monthly learning sessions, I stress that this is an experience of both giving and receiving. We practice doing both in exercises I’ve developed: for example, half of the group sings to the other, or an individual is in the middle of the group and we sing to them. Then we talk about our experiences as both givers and receivers. At a bedside, the singers will support and accompany a dying person, or 'listener', with their presence and voices. We are moved and grow as a result of the experience; reminded of our own mortality, privileged to share a critical moment of transition in another’s life.
We work on being sensitive and spontaneous
One of the challenges we face is in how to be sure that our voices and what we’re offering feels right to listeners when they may not be able to clearly indicate this to us. This is work in progress; apart from the basic premise of singing on request, we work on being sensitive and spontaneous. We’re prepared to be invited in and then find it’s not a time when singing is wanted or needed.
Two of our groups are held in hospices. This has some pros and cons. We’re working on how to let people know what we offer while keeping the integrity of the project. Singing in public areas is one way to spread the word, but it’s not the thrust of the idea and it isn’t yet bringing us to those we’re aiming to support. Medical staff may be unsure about ‘letting us loose’ on their patients. The Threshold Choir works only with individuals and families, not institutions, and this may be a way forward. Or we may develop a strategy where hospitals and hospices are completely au fait with our mission and happy to facilitate our connecting with patients. My wish is that the option of being sung to at the end of life be written into patients’ care plans along with all the other options on offer.
Companion Voices is still new. There is a lot to learn. I feel convinced that there is a place for bringing the loving presence and humble voices of those moved to offer them to those moved to request them.
Find out more about Judith's work and Companion Voices at Judithsilver.com