Singing to the end. How a group who sing for people in palliative care, came to be

One of the few things of which we can be certain is that one day, we’ll die. For many of us, this is something we avoid thinking about, preferring to concentrate instead on getting through each day in as positive and as present a way as possible. But imagine how our anticipation of this final journey might change if we could choose to be sung to, as we passed out of this life.

This is the mission of Ilana Sharp. Ilana leads Sonder, a women’s singing group that has been meeting monthly since March at McCulloch House, a palliative care centre that’s part of Monash Health in Melbourne, to sing for people who are reaching the end of their life.

Singing acapella in three and occasionally four-part harmony and for up to forty minutes each time, this group of eleven women are bound by their desire to deliver an uplifting sense of joy into an emotionally complex environment. Unsurprisingly, Ilana finds it’s an amazing thing to do.

“..it’s the intimacy and privilege of being able to offer something so gentle, open and comforting as singing, at the end of someone’s life.”

Sonder sing for the benefit of everyone in the hospice. For the patients, the staff, for themselves and for the family members of those people who are dying. Ilana says this isn’t without challenge and that life continues around them from their central point in the lounge area between the two wards. “Phones ring, sometimes the TV’s on….” But the staff assure them that the sound of their singing transcends this, travelling down along the corridors and filling all the rooms.

“The sound is uncomplicated, an offering to counteract the physicality of pain, suffering and concern, it offers an external focus… it takes you outside of yourself… there’s something in that for everyone. It also normalises the environment a little bit.”

The seed for Sonder was sown a few years ago by a short article Ilana read in the weekend Age newspaper about a Sydney based singing group who were doing a similar thing. She was taken by the idea and did some research into the existence of similar groups in Melbourne, but found nothing. Later, when her own mother was dying, Ilana was inspired to sing a Buddhist Mantra to her as she passed… “I’m not Buddhist, although I have a long standing interest, and I hadn’t sung for years but I had a strong urge to sing this mantra, over and over.”

Then about a year ago, the regular community choir to which all of the Sonder singers also belong, was having a night off. Keen to get their regular singing fix, some of the women met in the lounge room at somebody’s house. Used to singing together as part of a much larger group, the sound that evening was amazing; intense and enveloping, and the idea of singing as therapy for the dying recurred to Ilana.  She put the idea out there, expecting for only one or two people to be interested but, to her amazement, the women agreed unanimously and Sonder was born.

It was never Ilana’s intention to start a singing group of her own, and the emergence and sustainability of leading a group under any conditions, is rarely without challenge.

At first, Ilana felt a fraud. The dynamics were messy, things felt disjointed within the group even though they were united by a common aim as everyone struggled to work out a structure. Recognising the need for someone to take a stand and emerge as a clear leader, and with support from within the singing circle, Ilana found the courage to seize the reins and offer direction, something she has continued to do, taking cues on instruction where she can and attending leadership skill days. She’s surprised to find how much of what is required is already in her.

Sourcing material is a collective process with everyone suggesting and contributing songs. The women then work out harmonies and commit to meeting and practicing two or three times a month. This in itself is a challenge because of the pressures of life, such as work and kids and other bumps in the road.

McCulloch House is an intense and busy working environment to enter into, and the group is happy to enter quietly, sing, and leave again, as unobtrusively as possible. “We really don’t interact much with staff other than them listening to us and being glad we’re there, and we are warmly supported by their music therapist and nurse unit manager.”

This aim of their singing is not to make the world stop and listen, but to deliver a sense of warmth and light, and the women in Sonder find that they get out as much out of doing it, as the people on the receiving end of their singing.

“It’s incredibly joyous and uplifting and there’s a real sense of … family, I think, between us…”

‘Sonder’ is taken from the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows and is defined as ‘the realization that each random passer-by is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.’

This summarises the mission of the singing group perfectly. Singing to contribute a sense of normalcy and peace to the fabric of an emotionally charged environment and at the crossing points of the lives of many people, in as unobtrusive way as possible. To be the light in the window.

If you know of the Sydney based singing group from which Ilana’s inspiration came, or of the existence of other Victoria based groups doing a similar thing to Sonder, do get in touch. Ilana would love to hear from you, and so would we.

Deb Carveth with Ilana Sharp

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9 thoughts on “Singing to the end. How a group who sing for people in palliative care, came to be”

  1. Hi Deb, Thanks for this entry – it was great to read and hear what Ilana has been doing. My choir South of the River have sung twice at Cabrini Palliative Care in Armadale and were planning to go last month – then realised it was Father’s Day! We will be singing there next term. Happy to chat to Ilana if evr she wants to… Thanks Deb, Annemarie 0419 500 903

    Date: Wed, 23 Sep 2015 04:58:22 +0000 To: annemariesharry@hotmail.com

  2. There is a large network called Threshold Choir with chapters all over the US: http://thresholdchoir.org/ It created to sing for those at the end of life and those who care for them. Threshold has been running for many years and exist in many cities. It has recently expanded to the UK. Founder Kate Munger has developed an enormous songbook. You might like to get in touch with her. Here’s an article about Threshold: http://www.npr.org/2014/08/17/340704870/at-lifes-last-threshold-choir-brings-comfort.

  3. Lovely insights shared in article. Singing in Sonder for me is like the blossoming of “performing”with several other choirs, all gathering strength from leaders like Fay White, Therese Virtue & Richard Lawton who have all served music-making so well,thru The Boite or Community Music Victoria! No wonder Vic Health saw the value years ago & supported Fay’s community singing groups-singing heals!

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