Barbara Monsler has always liked to sing. And she found a new purpose for her voice 10 years ago when she discovered Threshold Choir.
This special organization, with chapters across the country and around the world, sends out small groups of singers to serenade a person who is on the threshold of life and death, to honor them through shared song.
"I read about Threshold Choir and thought, 'Oh, my goodness,'" recalled Monsler, who lives in Pleasanton. "I had sung for other church members as they were dying, and I felt it was something I could bring to people."
Threshold Choir was started by Kate Munger, a Marin resident, who recalled caring for a friend dying of AIDS in 1990.
"I did housework all morning and was terrified when the time came to sit by his bedside," she remembers on www.thresholdchoir.org. "I did what I always did when I was afraid; I sang the song that gave me courage. I sang it for 2-1/2 hours. It comforted me, which comforted him."
It took another 10 years for Munger to fully develop the idea -- and the computer skills -- to begin Threshold Choir. The first gathering, of 15 women, was in El Cerrito in March 2000.
"It is compassion made audible," noted Monsler, who belongs to the Diablo Valley Singers, centered in Walnut Creek. "Presence, being there, is important. And we bring comfort as we are able, through our voices."
Relatives or caregivers usually request the choir, and two to four singers go to bedsides as is appropriate in each case.
"Each group has its own repertoire of songs, little meditations," Monsler explained. "They are mostly quite short so we sing a phrase many times, such as, 'Peace be with you,' and 'Breathe easy, rest well.'"
Monsler, a soprano, sang in her church choir from the third grade on, she said, in a suburb of Milwaukee. She and her husband Michael moved to California in the mid-1970s, and to the San Ramon Valley in '86. They were among the first residents in Stoneridge Creek, the senior living community in Pleasanton, when it opened in July 2013.
When Monsler's mother was not doing well, she would sit with her and she began to sing, mainly music from a CD called "Songs for the Inner Child."
"Those were the songs I started singing to my mom because they were in my head," Monsler recalled. "As my dad was getting closer to the end, I sang for him."
She remembered leaving him in Wisconsin to return to California.
"I sang for him because I wanted him to have that last impression of me," Monsler said.
One frequent Threshold Choir song shares the thought that it is all right to go, "your memories are safe with us," Monsler said.
"Most of the songs offer generic comfort," she added, "about resting and breathing. Songs that acknowledge you are on a journey."
Monsler's chapter of Threshold Choir holds four rehearsals a month, one on Wednesday afternoon, one on Saturday morning and two in the evenings.
"There are a lot of opportunities to practice so we can know our songs," she said. "Our whole repertoire is something close to 400 songs."
Referrals came from its website or from hospice groups. Some people with a personal connection will make a request.
"I've sung to several people through my church community," said Monsler, a choir member at St. Timothy's Episcopal Church in Danville.
"Relatively late in my life, I got my masters in marriage and family therapy," she said, and her practice was in Danville. "I focused on elderly issues."
Threshold Choir attracts many people who are used to giving back to others through their professions.
"Many members of the Threshold Choir are nurses and other counselors, with healing practices," Monsler said. "Many of us are retired but not all."
Clients are usually older but not always. Occasionally choir members sing for newborns who are at risk.
"As we seem to bring comfort and peace to our client, we are also bringing it to ourselves," Monsler said. "We come out at peace -- and, often, strangely energized."
Monsler has serenaded residents at CreekView, the health center adjacent to Stoneridge Creek.
"I feel like this is my ministry," she said. "I am contributing to the world something I feel is appropriate. This is something I can do."
When Monsler was asked if someday, when she is on her journey across the threshold, she would like someone to sing at her bedside, she replied, "Oh, yes, absolutely. Music is a big part of my life."