Marti Mariette
Marti Mariette is the director of the local chapter of the Threshold Choir, an international organization devoted to one simple mission: to sing to the dying.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
City Life

Unsung Santa Cruz: Singing for those passing into the great beyond has become Marti Mariette’s calling

The mission of the Threshold Choir is not only to bring solace to the loved one, but to his or her family as well, to restore a sense of the sacred to the experience of dying. The organization discourages the terms “performance” or “rehearsal,” because they want their singing to transcend the performer-audience dynamic.

On an otherwise ordinary Thursday morning, over coffee at an outdoor table at Abbott Square, Marti Mariette suddenly asks me if she can sing me a song.

Then she does:

I live my life in a river of grace/I trust this river will carry me home.

Is it a little awkward to be sung to, one on one, in a public place with others turning their heads in curiosity? Sure. But it’s also arresting. I didn’t notice until a beat or two later, but her singing changed my breathing. When she finished, it took a moment for me to return to my senses.

In contrast to this ordinary Thursday morning, Mariette usually sings in extraordinary circumstances, namely in the final moments of life. In fact, sometimes, her singing voice has been the last sound some people have ever heard in the realm of the living.

Mariette is the director of the local chapter of the Threshold Choir, an international organization devoted to one simple mission: to sing to the dying, often at the very threshold of death. It has about 150 chapters all over the world, mostly in the United States, and traces its roots to the Bay Area. Santa Cruz was among the first chapters established about 20 years ago.

“Choir” is a bit of misnomer. Usually, the singers number no more than three or four at the bedside of the dying. Surprisingly, most of the group’s repertoire consists of original songs, written precisely to bring comfort and peace in the last moments of life. But they’re also willing and able to adapt to personal preferences, from the religious to the secular.

Choir rehearsal is part of how the group works on striking the right tone.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“We’ve sung ‘Take Me Out to the Ballgame’ because it was somebody who was a huge Giants fan, and that’s what she wanted to hear,” said Mariette. “We’ll come in with a list of songs that we think we’re going to sing, but you read the moment. And we train all our singers to look and get in touch with what’s going on in the room.”

The mission is not only to bring solace to the loved one, but to his or her family as well, to restore a sense of the sacred to the experience of dying. The organization discourages the terms “performance” or “rehearsal,” because they want their singing to transcend the performer-audience dynamic.

“It happens to all of us,” said Mariette, “but our culture doesn’t do a really good job of really embracing it. Often, we’ll find we come into a situation and people are skeptical: ‘My sister asked for this to happen, we’ll go along, but I’m not really willing.’ And we’ll watch them drop all of that. And the first song we sing, you can see it: ‘Oh, this is going to be OK. This is right for us.’”

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The local group numbers 45 members, mostly women, but only about half of that number are consistently active. “It’s not for everybody,” Mariette said. “We are open to anyone who wants to sing with us and can carry a tune. But there has to be a willingness to be open-hearted and collaborative. There’s a culture in our choir that we really work on.”

Before the pandemic, the Threshold Choir would regularly visit local nursing and elder care facilities to sing for those in hospice care, as well as private homes. But the lockdown changed all that, and singing at someone’s bedside was suddenly not an option anymore. Choir member Claire Paul said it was at that moment that Mariette embraced technology and learned how to be more adaptable to keep the group together and deliver its service.

Choir members meet on a recent weekend.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“She found ways to continue to be of service,” said Paul, “singing outside on a patio adjacent to the bedroom of someone on hospice, or carrying an iPad tablet to those in a nursing home. Most importantly, she maintained an island of connection and kindness for our local members going through stressful isolation.”

Mariette also developed something called a “song bath,” a continuous flow of singing designed to soothe or comfort anyone who wants to hear it. “We did that monthly,” said Mariette, “and people would come and sit in a circle. Sometimes we’d have 10, sometimes 25. And one person at a time would sit in the center, and just absorb it all. And people cry or laugh or whatever suits them.”

She’s so completely dedicated to us as a tribe of sorts. She’s really wonderful at keeping us feeling like family and staying connected. It’s been a great source of community for us during COVID.

Post-pandemic, Mariette adapted the song-bath form to Zoom, and now at virtual sessions the second Tuesday of every month, the choir sings for people in all corners of the world.

“Marti’s been a fabulous leader,” said Kerry Beth Hosley, who has sung with the choir for 18 years. “She’s so completely dedicated to us as a tribe of sorts. She’s really wonderful at keeping us feeling like family and staying connected. It’s been a great source of community for us during COVID, even though we haven’t been able to go out and sing at people’s bedsides. She’s still kept us going.”

Song lyrics are worked upon at choir practice.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Mariette, 65, grew up in Southern California near Pasadena singing in glee club and the Girl Scouts. As she grew into an adult, music became more of a private, singing-in-the-shower passion, until, around 2000, living in Santa Cruz, she read about Threshold Choir in a magazine. “I got chills down my back when I read it,” she said. “I had been thinking about joining a choir in some way. I had been looking around at some choirs, but I wasn’t really focused on the performance part of it. I wanted something with a real connection.”

At the same time, Mariette was looking for a way to stay connected with her ailing mother, who was suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS) and had lost the ability to speak. Inspired by Threshold, she began to sing to her mom, who once loved Broadway show tunes. Once, she was singing “Shall We Dance” from “The King and I” while holding her mother’s hand. When her mother faintly tapped a rhythm at a certain point in the song, Mariette knew she was getting through. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, she’s right here.’”

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It was that experience and others that convinced Mariette that music can reach people even if they no longer can express themselves in any way. As long as they are alive, they can be touched by song. And even after that final passage, the song can endure.

Mariette recalls one experience where she and her fellow singers arrived too late and the woman they were going to sing for had already passed on. In that bewildering moment, it appeared that Threshold’s services were no longer necessary. But Mariette and her fellow singers decided to sing anyway.

“We just started singing. I don’t know what possessed me to do that in that case but it just felt like the right thing. And as we started singing, people started appearing from other rooms and, you know, first there was the crossed arms. But by the time we got to the third or fourth song, everybody was gathering around the woman and weeping for her. And then, they started requesting songs.”