Songs For Life’s Journeys

Hallowell Hospice Choir, Rani Arbo & daisy mayhem celebrate musical kinship with concert

By JON POTTER / Reformer Staff
Posted:   11/08/2012 03:00:00 AM EST

Thursday November 8, 2012
BRATTLEBORO — Peter Amidon had a simple request for 30 or so singers he was leading in song one recent Sunday afternoon.

“Let’s make that the most beautiful chord in the world,” he said.

And sure enough, they did.

Coaxed along by friendly acoustics, the chord filled the big space of Brattleboro’s First Baptist Church, wrapping the listener in a warm, sonic hug, while still packing the power to produce tears … or revelation.

“It sounds so beautiful,” exclaimed one listener — high praise, especially considering the source.

When Rani Arbo tells you you’re making beautiful music, that means something. For 12 years, Arbo, a singer, songwriter and instrumentalist, and her vivacious band named daisy mayhem have delighted audiences with music that is a jubilant and unabashed mix of traditional, original and contemporary sounds.

But in Brattleboro, Arbo was listening, and she liked what she heard from Brattleboro’s Hallowell Hospice Choir.

“This choir is really, really, really, really, really good,” she said.

What prompted this praise was a run-through of the song “Crossing the Bar,” which Arbo and Hallowell sang together. When it was done, Amidon told her it is going to be hard for the choir not to cry.

“That’s going to be a problem for me, too” Arbo said.

This Friday, Arbo, daisy mayhem, and Hallowell will team up in a first-ever collaboration in concert at the First Baptist Church at 7:30 p.m.

For the singers and musicians, the event represents a convergence of the different roads their common mission of providing music that touches the heart and soul as it invites listeners to embrace life’s journeys. For the audience, it promises to be a rare offering, even in music-rich Brattleboro … something singularly powerful.

“I think it’s going to crack their hearts open,” said Kathy Leo, founder and overall director of Hallowell.
Linked by mission and spirit, Hallowell and Arbo & daisy mayhem are also linked by a single song, “Crossing the Bar,” which they will perform together Friday night.

About 15 years ago, Arbo wrote a melody for Tennyson’s poem “Crossing the Bar” to sing at her husband’s grandmother’s funeral. Leo got a recording of Arbo’s tune, fell in love with it and passed it on to Amidon.

“You gave me the CD and said ‘Arrange this!’” Amidon recalled. Arbo’s version and Amidon’s arrangement have captured the hearts of legions of listeners and a growing number of hospice choirs. It touches people, and it seems to find its way into important moments in people’s lives.

“It’s a story catcher,” said Amidon. Meanwhile, Amidon’s arrangement circled back to Arbo, who was inspired after a bout with breast cancer to pursue studies in the transformative and healing power of the arts.

“I think some of my interest in that work was from watching what that song did,” Arbo said. That course of study connected with her Leo, Hallowell co-music directors Amidon and Mary Cay Brass and the work of the Hallowell Hospice Singers.

That work began in 2003, when Amidon put out a call for singers to sing at the bedside of Dinah Breunig. That call produced an overwhelming response — more than three dozen singers stepped forward to sing for their friend, which they did twice. After the second sing, Breunig told them “I’m as happy as a clam.” From there, it became apparent that they filled a need.

“We offer this service to the community. We bring music to the bedside. … We bring the medicine of music to the bedside,” said Leo.

Hallowell will celebrate its 10th anniversary next spring. From a pool of 40 skilled and experienced singers in this singing-rich community, Hallowell sends small groups of a dozen or so to people’s bedsides, and they do this as often as 75 to 100 times a year. To date, in 2012, they’ve done 60 sings. On the first Thursday of the month, Hallowell sends out two to four groups to visit families in hospice care. They also respond to other urgent calls in between. In all, Leo estimates Hallowell has served some 800 families in its decade of existence. “We offer this. It’s so simple, and yet it’s so profound,” said Leo. “What we’ve received as singers and as people is beyond anything we ever expected.”

It is in that spirit of humility and gratitude that Hallowell has helped seed the ground with other hospice choirs. What Hallowell learned to do in its practice over the years has become a model for others to follow. “We really have learned how to be present in the face of death or grief,” said Leo. Sharing its arrangements and its expertise, Hallowell has trained other hospice choirs. There are now some 40 such choirs in the Northeast, including 15 in Vermont. Part of growing movement, Hallowell has also connected with some of the more than 100 so-called Threshold choirs doing similar work in the western part of the country.

For Arbo, the work of Hallowell not only dovetails with her own deeply personal interest in the healing power of music, it also coincides with some of her own feelings as an artist. Life in the music business can be a consuming, self-absorbed existence — promotion, tours, CDs, career, career, career. “I feel a real disconnect between that activity and why music is important to me,” said Arbo.

“So much is self-centered in the music business, we wanted something more,” added Andrew Kinsey, who plays bass, banjo and ukulele for daisy mayhem and was on hand for the rehearsal in Brattleboro recently. That quest for something more has led Arbo and her band to make music she calls “agnostic gospel.” Without being sectarian, it is spiritual. Kinsey recalled one father and daughter who came up to the band after a show and said “You’re the closest thing we have to religion.”

With Arbo’s beautiful, expressive alto at the helm, the quartet sings in four-part harmony and employs fiddle, guitar, banjo, bass and a 100 percent recycled drum set to create lively rhythms and varied settings for their heartfelt songs. When Arbo’s path crossed with that of Leo, Amidon and Brass, the seed was planted for Friday’s event, although Hallowell has long resisted calls to be do concerts.

“We’re not performers. … We see what we do as a practice,” said Leo. Ultimately, the time and spirit seemed right to do this joint concert with Arbo and daisy mayhem.

The Hallowell Hospice Choir will open with a set of music they might bring to a bedside sing, then will join Rani Arbo & daisy mayhem on several songs, including “Crossing the Bar.” Arbo and her band will complete the evening concert with a set of their songs, some of which will highlight their latest CD, “Some Bright Morning.”

“I think what the concert is is to show different ways to hold space. I think there’s a kinship between Hallowell and what we do,” said Arbo.