Teaching and Learning

Hallowell’s Ten Year Anniversary (2013)

A decade after we gathered around Dinah’s bed in the Breunig’s cozy Putney house and sang for her during the last days of her life, a decade after Noree Ennis; the then-patient care coordinator asked if we might sing this way for others, a decade after we said Yes with all of our collective hearts to this practice that awaited our voices and our spirits, Hallowell’s voice is as strong as ever. We continue to sing for hospice patients throughout the community, visiting people in their homes, in their hospital rooms, in their clean quiet rooms in the area’s nursing homes. We are recognized in these places. We are called for by Brattleboro Area Hospice (Ryan and Cheryl never fail to mention our services to new clients) and directly from families or hospital and nursing home staff. The first Thursday of every month, in several small groups, we make repeat visits to families in the early stages of hospice care. In between these planned sings, we are always on-call and available to organize a sing on short notice. What we have learned these past ten years is that no two sings are the same. That we can not, ever, know what to expect when we start to sing.

Our voices vulnerable in close harmony, open with emotion, invite the honest responses of family and friends supporting the dying person. We have learned how to give and to receive and that there is nothing more to expect aside from this simple exchange. We have learned how to be present. We know how to make any size group feel small inside someone’s room by energetically being quiet and still inside. We know how to enter and leave a place seamlessly, asking nothing of the family. We take off our shoes at the door. One person visits the bedside first, inviting our client to simply receive the music when singers come in. We will not be performing for you, we might say. Close your eyes and rest in our sounds. Or if someone is unresponsive, already in that deep place we can’t yet know about, we invite them to stay there while we sing, go deeper even. And I believe they do. We can see it in the way the eyelids soften. The mouth relaxes. The breath deepens. We anoint with song and in doing so are anointed by grace in return. We hum our way into the room then and hum our way back out, inviting the family to linger with their loved one as the sounds and songs are absorbed by all. We see ourselves quietly out the door to make our closing circle and integrate all we have just witnessed. Love. Grief. Hearts opening. Love again. These are the gifts we bring back into our own daily lives.

Our voices reach far and beyond the bedside these days as we continue to teach other groups the practice of bedside singing. Workshops and trainings have become, in a sense, a reflection of the bedside sings, modeling how the unexpected happens when a group comes together with intention, song and spirit. As we teach, share stories and experiences, sing and open to each other in these workshops, we never know what to expect. Emotions run deep as hearts open with personal stories of grief and healing.

A weekend at a Hallowell workshop includes many elements of a bedside sing: preparation for what we might expect during our time together, entering a sacred circle, singing with intention, grief, memories, stories all inviting deep sharing and connection. There is often a moment of intense heart-opening grief or emotion that shows up when we least expect it, requiring us, as leaders, to respond in the moment. We know how to do this. It’s what we do at the bedside. We choose songs that speak to the moment. We soften our voices. We hold and support and acknowledge all that is human and vulnerable in each of us simply by staying present with whatever comes to us.

The first year we taught at Rowe Camp and Conference Center in Western Massachusetts, a young woman and her mother came to the workshop. All weekend Carrie sat just outside the circle, quietly absorbing the teaching, learning and singing the songs. During our closing circle, she surprised us all when she asked if she could sing a song that she had written for her brother after he took his own life. She stood up and sang in a strong, clear, pure, beautiful alto voice. Her song asked him the questions, why did you do it and where are you now? When she finished singing, the silence was palpable and full of collective tears. As 40 pairs of eyes turned to me in question about what to do next, there was no longer a question, just a clear knowing. “Bring Carrie into the center of our circle, I said. And her mom too.” Mother and daughter held onto each other and wept while we sang around them. Their grief was a tangible thing in the room. Our hearts held them. Our tears. Our love. Our voices. No one left that workshop without a deeper understanding of how music can open a pathway for unexpected grief and how music, presence and trust can be powerful responses to emotions that may surface when songs open the heart.

We have a wonderful resource in Hallowell. Our songs can say what we might not be able to say otherwise through the words we choose to sing, the music, the sounds we make and how we sing the notes. We are vulnerable when we sing, inviting others to be comfortable with their own vulnerability. In this way, we are humbled. We are the same. We are all learning, over and over again, whether at the bedside or in a workshop, how to be our most present and loving selves. And we look forward to another decade of sharing and receiving this kind of grace and gratitude.