Songs for a peaceful passage

Hospice singers: Community choir members start bed-side service for those in final stages

PETERBOROUGH — For Marybeth Hallinan, singing to someone is the simplest way to communicate love.

Hallinan directs the Two Rivers Community Choir in Peterborough, a mixed ensemble whose concerts benefit local nonprofit organizations. Now Hallinan and choir members have formed TraverSing, a group that will visit people who are in hospice care to sing to them during the final stages of their lives.

“What can you possible say to someone who is dying? There’s not a lot,” Hallinan says. “We try to provide ease and comfort for those who are traversing to the next stage. It’s special to be there.”

Hallinan says about 35 Two Rivers singers have volunteered to sing with the recently formed group, which rehearses once a month.

“We have a diverse repertoire from a number of different traditions,” Hallinan says. “Sometimes lyrics distract. Often lullabies in other languages bring people a lot of comfort. They can just absorb the energy and the sound.”

At rehearsals, members will take turns sitting in the center of the group and just listening.

“It helps us bring a deliberative, gentle sound and energy to the bedside,” Hallinan says. “These aren’t performances. This is very egoless, a very different energy from a performance.”

Hallinan works with Home Healthcare Hospice & Community Services, which provides hospice care to people in the Monadnock region. When she’s contacted about making a visit, she’ll send an email to her roster.

“We’ll visit with between four to six singers, whoever is available,” she says.

The group has made four hospice visits to date.

“People are just so grateful,” Hallinan says. “We had a patient the other day, she said how lovely it was to have visitors. She thought it was incredible.”

Often the music can comfort the singers themselves, as well as the person who is dying.

“It’s a really rewarding thing to do,” says singer Kate Dean of Greenfield. “We really come away moved.”

Dean said the group recently sang for two people at a local nursing home.

“One woman was so quiet, but when we sang, she perked right up. The life came back into her face. It does things for people. The other woman was so deaf she could barely hear us. But she was a long way from her family and was so pleased that we had come to give her this gift.”

Dean says the group does a lot of African music, some early American shaped note pieces and at this time of year quite a few Christmas carols and other sacred music. Because visits are done by small groups on short notice, flexibility is key.

“We’re working on a lot of multipart pieces,” Dean says. “You need to be able to sing different parts, which is really kind of fun.”

Another Two Rivers singer, Emily Manns of Peterborough, was hesitant at first to join TraverSing.

“The practices were lovely, 30 people doing simple, beautiful sacred four-part music,” Manns says. “But I took some time to think about it.”

Manns says she was moved and grateful when she chose to sing at one of the TraverSing visits.

“It was a lovely way to be present for someone. There’s a lack of pressure for perfection. It’s just being present, and sharing something. I really sang my best.”

Lorraine Bishop, the hospice volunteer coordinator for Hospice at HCS, says TraverSing is a wonderful resource for her program.

“Music touches a lot of people. Sometimes music still connects for people who have dementia,” Bishop says. “Elderly people remember the lyrics of songs they once knew. At this time of year, they love the Christmas carols. It’s a lovely way to keep that circle of life.”

Hallinan is hoping to expand the group’s outreach.

“My vision is to have this as a service choir, to offer it to any people in need, not just those in hospice,” she says. “You can give something beautiful that requires nothing back. Just the gift of sound.”

For more information about TraverSing, contact Hallinan at 924-9527 or

Dave Anderson can be reached at 924-7172, ext. 233 or He’s on Twitter at @DaveAndersonMLT.

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