savoring the silences

Last weekend I went to a workshop at beautiful Rowe Camp and Conference Center. The workshop was called “The Practice of Bedside Singing for the Dying.”

Kathy Leo, Mary Cay Brass, and Peter Amidon are the directors of Hallowell Singers, a chorus that formed 15 years ago to offer therapeutic singing to the dying. Since then, they’ve led workshops around the country to offer insight and support to other such choruses.

To state the obvious, singing for a dying person is different from performing onstage. The music still matters very much: you strive to make it excellent. But just as important – more important, really – is the quality of presence you bring to the situation. Offering music to a dying person and potentially his/her family requires tuning in not only to the sounds of music but to the energy of the people in the room. The songs can’t be all planned out ahead of time; the leader needs to respond to what s/he senses from moment to moment.

In the workshop this weekend, we learned songs and set up simulations of singing around the bed of a dying person. Over the course of our time together, the group settled into the space of making music together. No one was striving in the way that singers often do. We breathed deeply; we listened to each other intently. I sensed that the sound we created together was an offering: perhaps not to a specific patient at this moment, but to something beyond ourselves. But there was even more to it than that. Something unusual was happening.

Aldonna, a music teacher, told us what she tells her high school students: “Music is the organization of sound and silence, and perhaps there is more magic in the silences than in the sounds.” She expressed what I couldn’t quite put into words. That’s what was happening amongst us: our silences were as beautiful as our sounds.

Perhaps this is true in life as well as in singing. Sound may be where the action happens, but silence is where reflection happens. Sound is the incoming tide; silence is the outgoing tide.

When we’ve had plenty of noise for one day, our hearts yearn for stillness. Good news: stillness is possible between the sounds, too. When we approach life with a spirit of reverence we naturally savor silence. And when our sounds come out of that place of stillness and silence, when our silences become as beautiful as our sounds…that’s when we resonate at our core.

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