Harpist, singer and composer Therese Schroeder-Sheker has devoted her life to exploring this greatest silence of all, through more than forty years of clinical experience serving the physical and spiritual needs of the dying with prescriptive music. Ms. Schroeder-Sheker founded the palliative medical modality of music-thanatology and The Chalice of Repose Project, the first music-thanatology organization in the world.
Her beautiful and award-winning recordings include The Queen’s Minstrel, Rosa Mystica, and The Geography of the Soul. She is the author of Transitus: A Blessed Death in the Modern World. As the title of that book suggests, her work has a contemplative dimension that explores how music can be a gift to those who are dying or in hospice or palliative care.
Blessings Of The Road
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The Woman Who Abandoned a Successful Recording Career to Play Music for the Dying
I celebrate 50 years of end-of-life interventions by Therese Schroeder-Sheker
Below is the latest installment in a series of articles on people I call visionaries of sound. These individuals possess an amazing capacity to use sound and music to transform lives.
In previous installments, I’ve written about:
Charles Kellogg, an eccentric master of transformative sound who could put out fires with his music.
Hermeto Pascoal, who has earned my praise as the “most musical man in the world.”
Raymond Scott, the eccentric and secretive inventor of the Electonium.
Layne Redmond, a percussionist who devoted her life to reviving the most ancient drumming traditions in human history.
Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou, the honky-tonk nun of Ethiopia.
Paul Winter, a global ambassador for music as an art form beyond category.
Hans Jenny, creator of Cymatics, a science of sound as a creative force in organizing physical reality.
Maybe a few of those names are familiar, at least in some circles, but most are forgotten figures at the margins of our culture. Perhaps that’s not surprising—after all, we live in a society that treats music as an entertainment commodity.
But we should support and celebrate these visionaries of sound. I aim to do that as a music writer. To some extent, this is the most important part of my vocation.
In fact, when I’m asked to give a quick summary of what I do for a living, I don’t even use the words writer or author. I simply say that I’m an advocate for music as a source of enchantment and a change agent in human life. For me, that’s the bottom line—even more important than recommending albums or hanging out with the band.
That’s why I celebrate these visionaries of sound. Their legacy is at the heart of what I do here. And today I get to write about one of the greatest of them all, an extraordinary woman named Therese Schroeder-Sheker.
I sometimes tell aspiring music writers to make a list of the recording artists they most admire. And then do everything possible to avoid meeting them. In the flesh, they will only disappoint you.
Of course, I’m just joking.
Or maybe not. Perhaps I’m half joking. Some musicians do strut around like heroes in real life, and almost compel our admiration. And perhaps a few fans even feel like Wayne and Garth when they meet their heavy metal icons—bowing down, proclaiming: “We’re not worthy.”
But the more general rule is that many artists have the opposite effect. They put the best part of their selves into their creative work, and sometimes not much is left for the rest of their lives.
Am I too cynical? Maybe. But I am always wary before meeting a musician I admire. And over the years I’ve grown even more cautious. I certainly don’t seek out my heroes.
But in recent years, I’ve made at least one exception—for a recording artist living in Oregon named Therese Schroeder-Sheker.
After learning about her, I not only sought her out, but even found a way to work with her on a project. And not only did she live up to all expectations, she left me feeling a bit like Wayne and Garth.
In other words, I feel unworthy to tell Therese’s story. So I’ll let her tell it herself.
Here’s her account of how she began practicing her vocation, which she has now pursued for 50 years.
I was very shy when I was young….I got a job working at a geriatric home as an orderly. I think orderlies can have a profound impact on the daily lives of the residents in those homes, but I have to be honest and say that I was plucked off the street and given a job without any training.
I had zero background. Over time, I became incredibly uncomfortable with the deaths that I was witnessing in the nursing home. Most of the elderly people were dying alone, unaccompanied by family and friends. Their accompaniment was the television—I would walk in and find people in the death rattle with an I Love Lucy rerun playing in the background.
Therese was so dismayed, she considered quitting the job. She turned to others for guidance, and got many suggestions. But one trusted adviser insisted that her discomfort actually provided her with a “spiritual opportunity” to do this work in a “new way.”
But what could she really do? These people were dying. She was just an orderly.
Her only marketable skill was as a musician—but she was an exceptional musician. She was good enough to perform at Carnegie Hall and later enjoy success as a recording artist. But that talent was of no help to these neglected elders in the final days of their lives.
Or maybe her musical skills could be of use. Therese continues the story:
Most of the residents for whom we cared were Russian émigrés and many had been farmers. I was assigned to care for a man who was actively dying of emphysema. The charge nurse active on that shift had explained that there were no longer any medical, nursing, or pharmacological interventions that could change or improve his condition.
George was known as a difficult man, pushing away staff and sometimes even throwing things at them. But now his lungs had failed, and he was in the last struggling moments of his life.
What should she do? What could she do?
I responded to him to the best of my ability….I sang because although I am a harpist, singing was first nature to me; it was an embodied practice. I also responded to him from a position that is associated with childbirth, getting into bed and supporting his emaciated personhood and body from behind.
I sang mostly unmetered music, very quietly, and as synchronization of breathing patterns occurred between patient and care-giver, the flailing and heaving began to lessen.
He had very little time remaining and yet trusted and rested into me. For a brief period, we essentially worked together as a team.
That incident took place back in 1973—and it set the course for what Therese Schroeder-Sheker has been doing for the last 50 years.
She has devoted her life to performing music for the dying. She has done this on countless occasions, and has accumulated a huge body of knowledge, wisdom, and practical skills that she generously shares with others.
"I was a skeptic," recalled one veteran oncologist. "I wondered if this woman was a mystic." And maybe she is, if you ask me—but the effect she had was undeniable. This same doctor soon started seeking her out to help with patients when his own skills no longer helped, as did many others. "I have seen nothing as effective as this,” he explained.
Schroeder-Sheker eventually created a formal discipline of study and practice known as Music-Thanatology, which embraces harp and vocal music as a form of palliative care in end-of-life situations. Many other musicians now draw on her training in these interventions all over the world.
This life story would be impressive under any circumstances, but especially so when you consider that Therese Schroeder-Sheker had a brilliantly successful career as a recording artist and concert hall performer. She could have spent her entire life as a music star, but instead put her primary focus on serving those in the most dire and hopeless situations.
This runs counter to everything you’re taught in the music business.
By definition, the people she served would not purchase her next album or buy tickets to a future concert. In any business model for building an audience, they are the worst possible demographic. Whatever she does for them is the purest gift, a favor that can never be repaid.
She’s the calm center in the storm, no matter how stormy it gets.
And others benefit too. “We try to work with the patient's pain," says Schroeder-Sheker, "but also give the family a way to share. Sometimes they're the ones who need rest or need to let go."
Yet even today, many people only know about Therese Schroeder-Sheker from her concertizing career and recordings—for Windham Hill, Sony, Celestial Harmonies, and other labels. She has performed all over the world, and when I first met her, I learned how well-connected she is in commercial music. But you would never guess this from her demeanor, which is the exact opposite of what we expect from commercial artists.
She is the antithesis of a pop star. Therese is an exemplar of compassion, caring, and contemplation—three things that never show up in a MTV video. And what she does as part of her palliative care is nothing like a concert.