At a recent rehearsal at the United Methodist Church in Belfast, 20 members of the choral group HeartSong stood in a circle and sang a West African lullaby. I was in the center of the circle, occupying, for demonstration’s sake, the place of the audience for which the group was created. They had asked me to, and so I sat cross-legged on the floor, eyes closed and then, as they started to sing, getting fairly beamed with love.

The choice of a lullaby was apt. HeartSong was not singing for me; they were singing to me, in a way that I don’t remember having happened since I was a child, and that probably wouldn’t happen again for some time.

HeartSong sings to people who are dying. The group formed out of a desire to use music to comfort and calm those who are facing the end of life. To hear the group sing, the image of angels appearing at a person’s bedside comes easily to mind.

The members of HeartSong are quick to say that they are not “performers” and they don’t give “performances.” The occasions when they sing to a person are called “sings,” the difference being some degree of separation. Where “performance” implies a kind of impersonal entertainment, a “sing” is personal and direct. The group’s entire energy is focused on the well-being of its audience of one.

HeartSong turns two years old in April. Founding members Chris Marshall and Jean Goldfine started the group after attending a workshop in Waterville in 2008 at which Hallowell, a Brattleboro, Vermont-based choral group, appeared. Hallowell formed in 2003, composed of community and church members who came together to sing at the bedside of a beloved community member who was dying. Hallowell also shy away from the “performer” label. A passage on the group’s Web site describes them as “gift givers.”

Much of HeartSong’s repertoire comes directly from Hallowell, and members of the group have gone on to add their own selections to the songbook. The group has a deep repertoire, drawn from around the world and down the axis of time, and the song selection varies from one sing to the next. The music at any given sing may be lively or uplifting. More often, it is reverent. HeartSong will also incorporate music of a specific religious denomination if the subject requests it.

There are traditional songs and hymns (“Angels Hovering Round,” “Amazing Grace”), a Russian Orthodox Kievan chant and a Zulu prayer (“Thuma Mina”), songs from the Taizé tradition (“Ubi Caritas” and “Nada Te Turbe”). The group performs a Croatian song called “Plovi Barko,” Libby Roderick’s inspirational “How Could Anyone Ever Tell You,” “Non Nobis Domine” by William Byrd, “Windcalling” by Gordon Bok and “Now All the Woods Are Sleeping,” which has harmonies by Johann Sebastian Bach.

“From Bok to Bach,” one of the members joked.

Generally, the group gets a call from a hospice worker or family member of the ill person. HeartSong responds with a single-page intake form that, in addition to questions that would precede admission to a hospital — name, address, diagnosis and religious beliefs — asks “How many singers?” and “Type of music preferred.”

The sings can involve the full group or have as few as three or four members, depending upon the wishes of the recipient, the size of the room and the availability of the singers. HeartSong member Kathy Muzzy said the group often tries to sing to a person more than once.

“People have this idea that if we show up you’re going to die tomorrow and we don’t want to publicize it that way,” she said.

The group has done a number of sings, but getting the word out has been difficult, in part because they don’t perform.

“This is really what we want to do, so we want people to know about us,” said Jean Goldfine.

The question of how to get the word out without compromising the integrity of the group seemed genuinely vexing. After some discussion, it appeared that the group would be willing to demonstrate what they do at churches if it might attract new members.

Some of HeartSong’s 20 members found out about the group because they had friends or loved ones in hospice. Others joined the group because they love to sing.

Ivy Lobato of Belfast recalled being at her father’s funeral on the Caribbean island of Curaçao. Lobato was 13 years old. “All the men sang,” she said. “It was incredible.”

Lobato’s recollection prompted Jacqueline Lee to comment on the absence of singing in American culture. “People don’t sing; they listen to other people sing,” she said. “Singing massages the inside of your body. It’s such a good thing. It’s a major loss in our culture.”

Lee recalled singing by the bedside of an 80-year-old woman who, like many people to whom HeartSong sings, was not obviously cognizant.

“She really glowed. She understood the words,” Lee said. “And she was gone three days later.”

Several HeartSong singers who were traveling to Belfast from the Rockland area recently broke off to start a similar group called Solace. The group began with many of songs that HeartSong and Hallowell sing and, like HeartSong, has added others to the repertoire, though Solace member Nancy Button of Warren said her group has yet to incorporate what she described as world music.

At a recent rehearsal at the Nativity Lutheran Church in Rockport, the group was discussing the dynamics of singing to a person who is dying, which seemed to go beyond the usual choral concerns of sounding cohesive. The directive was always toward a softer, more fluid sound. Occasionally, a member of the group would step into the center of the circle to give the group a person to focus upon.

“It’s not a question of whether they’re going to survive what they’re going through,” Button said. “But I think even in [death] there’s a chance for healing.”

Button recalled singing to an old friend who was dying. This was before Solace was formed. The woman had a large house and consequently many singers were able to come. “She was completely cognizant,” Button said. “She had us sing our whole repertoire and then recommended a few songs.”

Solace has 20 members and a decent list of songs, but the group has yet to do an actual sing.

Another member of the group, Sharon Osborne of Union, had sung at a friend’s memorial service once, but never to someone who was dying, though she guessed there might be some similarities.

During the rehearsal, Osborne had spent part of one song in the center of the circle of singers, standing with her eyes closed, listening to the dynamics, but also, as she said, “soaking it in.”

“You just have to be guided by what’s going on,” she said.

You have to be present, I offered.

“That’s exactly it,” she said.

Osborne went quiet for a moment and when she spoke again, there were the beginnings of tears in her eyes. “I think it’s going to be hard the first time,” she said.

HeartSong rehearses weekly at the United Methodist Church, on Mill Lane in Belfast. For more information contact Jean Goldfine at 338-3080 or Chris Marshall at 589-4632. Solace is planning an introduction session in the coming months. For more information, call Nancy Button at 273-3767.

VillageSoup reporter Ethan Andrews can be reached at 207-338-3333 or by e-mail to