By Jane Valencia
The songs are soft and gentle, sung in what is called a “lullaby voice,” all voices blending in music that is not intended for performance, but for the comfort of those who are suffering near or at the end of life. Two to four singers gather at the bedside, offering restful songs to soothe and nourish. This is the special kind of music that Barb Adams discovered when, in 2005, she responded to an ad about a Threshold Choir starting up on Vashon. The music changed her life.
After joining the Threshold Choir, Barb took part in the Providence Hospice volunteer training to get a good foundation for the work. She linked up with Melissa Frykman-Thieme, who played therapy music on the harp in Seattle, and the two went out as a pair to play for patients. To begin, Barb played autoharp and sang, but soon got a harp too, and learned to play it. Barb describes her experience playing with Melissa as a kind of on-the-job training.
Barb soon became the therapy harpist for Vashon, and became more involved in the work. She came to serve a huge area covering South King County. Leaving the Island, her work involved travel from facility to facility, and to private homes as far away as Covington, Renton, and Auburn.
“It was a big stretch but it was something that I absolutely loved,” Barb explained. “My heart was really drawn to this work through doing that.”
Meanwhile, Barb became director of the Vashon Threshold Choir, and serves as director to this day.
“The harp is wonderful, and people think of it as an angelic instrument, and feel an affinity for it,” Barb says, “But I’ve always felt that the Threshold Choir had a special way of connecting, being just simply pure voices.”
Barb, who has performed in the Vashon Opera and Vashon Island Chorale, explains of Threshold singing: “It’s totally different when it’s a service of kindness and love [as opposed to performance], and that’s where my heart is.”
Often in her harp therapy work, Barb plays and sings Threshold Choir songs, mostly ones she’s written.
The Threshold Choir is an international organization, and almost all of the music in its repertoire are songs written by members. When Barb began writing her own songs, the Threshold Choir and its founder, Kate Munger, encouraged her. She now has 21 songs in the international organization’s repertoire, and the Vashon Threshold Choir sings several of them.
Barb also loves to travel, especially to wilderness along rivers. While in these places, she often finds inspiration to write songs.
Sometimes she hears from singers, such as a Threshold Choir in Indiana, who tell her, “We use your song a lot. Could you write the harmony for it?” So, she’s returned to a number of her songs and added low and high harmonies.
When other avenues shut down during the pandemic, the Vashon Threshold Choir continued to sing. Last spring, they sang for two hospice patients who have since passed.
The Vashon Threshold Choir welcomes new members. Musical training and big voices are not needed. Requirements, Barb explains, are: “Loving to sing, being sensitive to the person in the bed at the bedside, being flexible enough to follow the breath, and knowing that what we’re doing is offering something that’s beneficial to them.”
“It’s wonderful to be back doing the service,” Barb says. “The Threshold Choir gives the singers the opportunity to provide service and love, and to sing as a community within themselves.”
Like the rivers she loves, the soft, comforting music Barb discovered in 2005 has led her on a transformative journey.
Below, enjoy the lyrics to one of Barb’s songs.
Live deeply in this moment
Find the stillness deep inside
Enter the quiet
The calm inner space
And peacefully drift
Peacefully drift beyond
From Barb: “This song was written in one of my favorite places, where the Salmon, Snake, and Imnaha Rivers come together in Hells Canyon. The isolation of this spot in northeast Oregon is incredibly peaceful, with vast views across into Idaho.”
To find out more about the Vashon Threshold Choir, please visit thresholdchoir.org/vashon