July 04. 2018 9:32PM

Silver Linings: Evergreen Singers save their best for last

New Hampshire Union Leader

Evergreen Singers greet assisted living facility residents after performing a “social sing” for a large group in their living room. From left: Larry Gatto, Kathleen Shepherd (partly obscured), Sue Bridge and Margaret Jernstedt. (COURTESY)

The Evergreen Singers, with 31 members from the Upper Valley of New Hampshire and Vermont, perform in hospitals, nursing homes, assisted living facilities, hospice houses and private homes — occasionally entertaining rooms full of listeners, but more often standing at someone’s bedside singing something soothing, or a dying person’s favorite song.

Since 2010, they’ve performed melodies in four-part a cappella, sometimes in languages they’ve never learned or heard spoken.

“Even if you don’t speak Croatian, the music washes over you in a way that you don’t have to pay attention to the words,” says Sally Shipton of Lyme, who has sung with the group since its inception. “You’re surrounded by beautiful sounds. You don’t have to understand the meaning,”

Evergreen Singers is a hospice choir, one of four in the Granite State and nine in Vermont — part of a phenomenon that typically goes unnoticed until performances are requested. There are Threshold Choirs in California, Oregon, Michigan and Massachusetts; other similar choral groups go by names such as Gracenotes, Eventide, and By Your Side.

New Hampshire’s Journey Song is on the Seacoast; Sunapee Singers are based in greater New London; and the Silver Lake Singers of Madison sing to hospice patients from Wolfeboro to Jackson — and at some farmer’s markets and town fairs, too.

Most hospice choirs in Vermont and New Hampshire, including Evergreen Singers, have been trained by the Hallowell Singers of Brattleboro, Vt., the East Coast’s first hospice choir formed in 2003. They’re predominantly composed of amateurs who love to sing, including hospice volunteers and singers who are specifically trained to bring musical comfort to hospice patients and their families.

“When I go to other parts of the country, to visit friends and relatives, and tell people what I do, they say, I’ve never heard of that,” says Shipton.

“Singing for a person who is dying has always happened within the family,” explains Kathy Leo of Westminster, Vt., a founding member of Hallowell Singers. “It’s not a new idea. We’ve just taken it to a different level.”

Evergreen Singers’ repertoire includes popular songs, oldies, songs from other cultures that are soothing to listen to, hymns such as “Amazing Grace” and “How Great Thou Art,” gospel music such as “I’ll Fly Away” as well as songs that are spiritual without being religious, such as “Over the Rainbow.”

“We try to know a little bit about the person so we can tailor our music,” says Shipton. “For some people, hearing familiar religious music is really important. Some people want to hear the same song four times in a row. Once someone leaned over and said, ‘Don’t you have anything more lively?’ We’re all hospice-trained. If we notice someone becoming agitated, we change the song.”

“For people who are dying and have memory impairment and can’t remember words, it’s amazing to see how often familiar music is something they remember,” Shipton says. “If we start singing ‘You Are My Sunshine,’ some people start tapping, some people start mouthing the words, and some people break out in song.”

Lianne Moccia of Lebanon, who was trained as a hospice volunteer in the 1980s, has been with Evergreen Singers since the beginning. “I think of it as a practice. It’s not a performance. I think of what we do as making a connection. We’re not performing for an audience. Sometimes we reach people who have not been responsive. I almost always feel moved and grateful.”

Ted Frazier of Etna, who has sung barbershop and in church choirs for most of his adult life, was skeptical when a church member approached him to join Evergreen. “My first reaction was, ‘Go sing to someone who’s dying? Isn’t that kind of a downer?’ It’s turned out to be very rewarding.” After singing at a nursing home in White River Junction, Vt, Frazier says, the nursing home director asked some Evergreen Singers to visit a resident’s room.

“You guys better be good,” said the elderly woman lying in bed. “She ended up conducting us,” Frazier says. “Music is one of the last things you have.”