Rev. Donald Schell is a Founder of Music that Makes Community and Member of the MMC Board of Trustees. He is also a Co-Founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco.
Rita Pihra-Majurinen taught us the beautiful song Holy, Holiness by Peter and Ellen Allard at our NYC Practice Group Gathering February 20, 2016 in Brooklyn, NY.
As a young pastor in Idaho, over a week of visiting a parishioner who was dying of cancer, I saw him go from conversations to dimmed consciousness to comatose silence and finally stillness except for his slow breathing. When his family was there, I’d talk with them. When he was alone, I’d speak a prayer for him aloud, remembering that hearing persists even in coma.
For his working life, Joe had traveled the intermountain west as a cattle-broker. And when I first met him, he told me a story from his teenaged years when he’d worked summers as a sheepherder in Utah. Early one summer, alone in high meadow, he’d planned to sleep out, but near sunset, a sudden storm blew in, rain turned to sleet and then it began to snow. There was little cover and no way he could get down from the mountain. He was soaked and ill-prepared for the cold. Not expecting to make it through the night, he gathered the sheep round him, and lay down among them, reciting the 23rd psalm, “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” and closed his eyes and slept. First light of morning penetrated the thin layer of snow that covered him and his wooly protectors. He told me that story to explain to his new pastor why he wanted the “23rd Psalm, King James Version” at his funeral.
That funeral was near now. The doctors said he wouldn’t awake from this coma and we’d see his breathing slow, and slow, and become irregular, and then he’d die. I kept visiting, offering a brief prayer, and then one evening, recalling his sheepherding story, I began reciting the 23rd Psalm just as he’d quoted it to me by heart. From his coma, his body still as it had been for days, I heard Joe’s voice, faint but clear completing the psalm with me, “surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” Those words from the coma were his last. He died two days later.
Much later, when I was working at St. Gregory’s, San Francisco, a truck hit a parishioner crossing a street downtown and threw her body through the air so she landed on her head. Paramedics rushed her to the trauma center completely unresponsive. In emergency surgery, doctors removed part of her fractured skull to relieve the brain swelling. She survived the surgery but in recovery, the monitors showed no brain activity at all. She was on a ventilator with IV’s for fluid and nutrition. The first day they were allowed in, St. Gregory’s choir came to sing to her, surrounding her bed, and singing songs she’d known and loved, and they returned daily. One day she seemed to stir as they sang. The next day, her response was more evident, and the next she opened her eyes. She couldn’t speak. It wasn’t clear that she recognized people or understood when anyone’s words speaking to her, but the choir kept coming and kept singing songs they’d sung with her before. She found a few words. She could thank them.
Recovery was painfully slow. She spoke in phrases. Sometimes made sense. Sometimes not. Visiting her in a rehab hospital months later, my wife and I took the congregational songbook. She welcomed us, understood where she was and searched her memory for words to talk with us. I asked her if we could sing for her. We sang, “There are Angels Hovering Round," an oral tradition song we sing at St. Gregory’s to begin the Easter Vigil and often use at funerals. She seemed to recognize it and clearly enjoyed us singing to her. Then we sang “Simple Gifts” and she exclaimed, “I know that one!” and as we finished, “till by turning, turning we come round right,” haltingly, gaps in the tune, pitches uncertain, she joined her voice to ours. We sat quietly when we were done, and she nodded and said, “I think I remember that. Let me see.” She looked at the music and words and said, “No, I can’t read it now.” but she sang, picking her way through the song, following the tune a phrase at time as it bound her fractured memories together.
Leading music orally requires the patient iteration of phrases, call and echo, call and response, imitation. We’ve learned that in order to form a memory we need to not just learn the song, but to share it and sing it together to make the deeper memory that makes the song our rod and staff passing through the Valley of the Shadow of Death.
Even if we already know a song, listening patiently to a leader and then repeating the song enough that the whole group’s imitation has made melody and words “ours” can put us in a state of beginner’s mind and allow us to have an experience of anamnesis – the kind of memorial that makes what we’re remembering newly alive in a present moment.
Notice the deeply affective, embodied quality of learning together as we gently committing melody to memory. Think how the practices we learn and share in Music that Makes Community remind us as leaders to LISTEN, to “see with our ears” and peripheral vision. When we make a gentle, steady invitation and request that can welcome everyone’s voices, we offer our songs to both friend and stranger relationally. Notice our heart and gut feeling of how we’re singing together as we listen for when we’re ready for the people to sing out on their own.
Across cultures, oral traditions of leading and sharing music engage short-term memory for everyone (even those who might insist they “already know the song”) and take the music to a place where we can lay a fresh stratum of knowing, a new growth ring of the tree that can begin or add to one of those memories that shapes us all.
You can find more songs to sing at the bedsides of people who are sick or dying using the "Bedsides" filter on our MMC Songs Database. You can also add a song if you have one that works well for this context.
If you're looking for more resources for hospice singing ministries, we highly recommend the national network of Threshold Choirs, the Hallowell Singers in New England and the Morningstar Singers in Minnesota.