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IU Social Worker Sings for the Dying

Donna Pittman
Donna Pittman


February 13, 2012

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Donna Pittman had a plan: the long-time clinical social worker would combine her interest in childhood obesity with a desire to earn a PhD at the Indiana University School of Social Work.

Then she experienced a year that would have left most people devastated. Three family members – her mother, husband, and uncle – died in the same year.

Pittman sang for her loved-ones as they lay dying. Later, she sang for herself as a way to survive. According to Pittman, “Singing healed and transformed me. I’m a new woman with a changed perspective on life and on death.”

This transformation spread into Pittman’s doctoral work and she refocused her PhD to Music as End-of-Life Communication. Serendipitously, Pittman met Kate Munger, founder of the Threshold Choir which began in California and has since spread across the United States and internationally. Threshold Singers are women who practice the ancient tradition of singing at the bedsides of those who are struggling, be it with living or dying.

It was a natural progression for Pittman to found the Indianapolis Threshold Singers Chapter. Pittman was a voice major in her undergraduate work at Jacobs School of Music on the Bloomington campus. As a hospice social worker she often sang for her patients, and as a primary care giver, she sang for her husband as he died in their home. “It just seemed natural to sing for other hospice patients,” Pittman remarked.

The Indianapolis Threshold Singers are aligned with a local hospice and received the Heart of Hospice award in October, 2011.

Hans Christian Andersen once said, “When words fail, music speaks.” According to Pittman, “Family members of hospice patients often don’t know what to do when their loved-ones become unresponsive. Singing the specialized, Threshold repertoire, a cappella in groups of 2-3 women, seems to bring peace to the patient and family. I want to understand the ‘lived experience’ of the families who invite Threshold Singers to their loved-one’s bedside. Pittman will use hermeneutic methodology to interview family members who were present at Threshold singing events.

Anyone wishing more information can reach Pittman by email at