Hallowell – Bedside Singing as a Practice

From an update which appeared in the 2009 Brattleboro Area Hospice Annual Report         

After six years, Hallowell continues to serve the community by offering bedside sings for the dying.  We consider these sings to be the heart or core of what has become known to us as our “practice.”  Every time we are invited to sing for a hospice patient, to connect with the grieving family, to witness love and grief, joy and pain in the same space, we are the ones who feel anointed or blessed by the invitation. 

For us as bedside singers, the practice is showing up, entering each situation with beginner’s mind, and being fully present with what is before us.  In this way, we sing over and around and with the dying with confidence and guidance, with grace and curiosity and always with reverence and respect for the mystery of the dying process.   Those dying before us have been our teachers.  We remain humble in our practice and grateful to this community and Brattleboro Hospice for supporting it. 

Outside of the heart of our practice, there are many other outreaching veins and arteries of Hallowell.  Over the past year we have traveled to many communities in this region as well as Washington DC and Indiana to teach workshops and help launch other newly forming hospice choirs.  Last November we held a weekend long workshop in Brattleboro attended by 120 people from as far away as Minnesota, Canada, Florida, New York,  Pennsylvania, Washington DC., and many from New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts and Vermont.  We shared stories, songs, intention, experiences, and began to form a widespread community of hospice choirs. 

We have just printed our first 500 copies of the companion book to the Angels Hovering Round CD,  many thanks to Mary Cay Brass and especially to Peter Amidon for this project which now allows developing choirs access to the music that goes with our first CD.  Did I say first CD?  Yes I did let that slip because indeed, when we ask ourselves what’s next as far as projects go,  we might be ready to go to the recording studio again in the not too distant future with many more beautiful songs.  

I have personally been working on a small guide book to answer some of the many questions new choirs call or write with often.  How does a singer behave in a room where someone is dying.  What about the emotional part of this work?  How do we relate to the families we sing for?  How do we raise funds to sustain our group?  One of the most difficult concepts to teach is the sense of spirit and guidance we feel as we enter the sacred space of the dying and what the music does to the heart, the way it opens, and to the body, the way it releases.  How does one teach about how it feels to witness love.  To stand beside someone else’s grief?  I hope my “guide” book will offer just that—enough guidance to allow entry into that space with trust and an open heart and mind.  The rest unfolds.  The rest comes with practice. 

Last week we were invited to sing at a local hospital for a man actively dying in the hospital’s hospice room.  He was surrounded by family. His wife,  their four grown daughters and each of their husbands.  One granddaughter.  Two dogs.  On the dresser were the ashes of the son/brother who had died a few years back.  There was joy in the room.  This was a family together.  There was love.  There was life and pizza and dogs to be walked.  There were stories and tears and laughter.  We were invited in to sing.  Five Hallowell members made a semi circle in the corner of this full room and began to sing quiet reverent songs.  The family fell silent.  They moved closer to dad.  They climbed onto the bed.  They reached for hands.  They cried.  They felt the flow of grief and in their grief they felt the flow of love.  We sang with our hearts open to this lovely man who seemed to hear us, to respond through his raised eyebrows.  We ended with the song that had been the prayer at the son’s funeral.  We left the family in a state of grace.  We left in a state of grace as well.  This is our practice. 

For the past six years,  this is what Hallowell has been practicing.  Being present.  Anointing others and being anointed.  Singing in grace and with deep gratitude for what continues to grow and spread and change even while our heart remains home, strong and open.