On a recent morning in the Big Sky Senior Living facility’s upstairs chapel, Easter Seals-Goodwill Highlands Hospice employee Ana Shaw asked the four women beside her to close their eyes.
“Take a deep breath and think about your intentions of being here,” Shaw said. After a few moments of silence, the women broke into melancholy, meditative song, repeating just a few words over and over in different harmonies.
And so the Butte Montana Threshold Choir practice began, followed by more song and a few tears. The local singers are part of an international group that aims to comfort and soothe people nearing death by singing to them at their side.
“Our focus is to bring light, love, and peace to patients at the end of their life,” said Shaw, who organized the local Threshold Choir and works as both the volunteer and spiritual care coordinator for Easter Seals-Goodwill Highlands Hospice.
Shaw said she was first inspired to start a Butte Threshold Choir in 2016 when she watched a PBS special on the unique choir organization. Shaw said she had just started working for Highlands Hospice at the time and was captivated by the Threshold Choir mission.
“Music is so important to me personally. I know it’s something I would want when I’m dying someday,” Shaw said, referring to the Threshold Choir. “And I knew that through my job, I’d be able to pull a group together.”
Shortly after seeing the PBS special, Shaw visited a Threshold Choir group in Sandpoint, Idaho, and started working to get a Threshold chapter going in Butte.
Over the past two-and-a-half years, Shaw said the Butte choir has sung for a few locals, but group numbers have fluctuated, making things difficult. But this year, Shaw said there’s a solid seven women that meet every Tuesday morning for practice, leading to the launch of the Butte Threshold Choir website in March.
The Butte Montana Threshold Choir chapter is the only one in Montana so far, but Shaw said she’s working with a few people to start chapters in Bozeman and Helena as well.
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Shaw also hopes to add more Butte choir members and to potentially start a second choir group so the Threshold music can reach more people in the Butte area interested in receiving it.
“It’s really cool to think that Butte is the little Threshold pioneer in Montana,” Shaw said.
At the most recent Tuesday morning practice, Shaw led the choir through a handful of songs. For a few, she asked choir member Anna Dockter to lie in a chair in the middle of the group to receive the music.
These few songs brought Dockter — and some of the other choir members — to tears.
“It really feels like they’re singing to me,” Dockter said between songs.
“There’s a certain energy between the giver and the receiver,” another choir member, Susan Walsh, added. “Even if we never sang at a bedside, it (the music) would benefit us in a spiritual way.”
Walsh said she is a member of four choirs in the Butte area but has never experienced music like that sung with the Threshold Choir. She explained that the songs are more like meditations than anything else and are easy for her to remember and fall into singing outside of practice when she has trouble sleeping or needs personal soothing.
Sabina Pate-Terry, another Butte Threshold Choir member, expressed similar thoughts. She said even if someone isn’t religious, singing or receiving the Threshold music creates a unique spiritual experience.
“I think it reminds us that we all have a connection,” Pate-Terry said. “All of the music is universal; it speaks to everyone.”