Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Change #13 Sing Her Across the Thresholds of Birth

Dear Birth Peeps,

A few years ago I went to the hospital to visit a postpartum mom and stopped by labor and delivery to visit a midwife. We greeted each other in the hallway. I said, "Slow day? Nobody in labor today?" She looked surprised and said, "Every room is full!" I was genuinely confused. There were no birth sounds, no birth "songs. I listened again; except for the beeping of machines, it was as silent as the hospice ward my father-in-law spent time in. "How can this be?" And of course, every mother was medicated or had an epidural. The sound of her labor was clinical. Did the silence of that ward increase mothers' self-consciousness should she begin to make the primal sounds and "songs" of labor? Don't we all feel less self-conscious to sing and dance when everybody around us is doing it, loudly, badly, freely, and in-joy? Nobody wants to be the only one making a scene! Heaven forbid: we are conditioned to abide by the first lesson we learned in primary school.

So Change #13 may send waves of fantasy and resistance through birth peep-ville. If this takes off, it will probably change the very profit margin of the corporate birth world.

Have you heard about "Threshold Choirs?" This is a fairly new voluntary movement started by Kate Munger in the Bay area. It's a very simple idea. Two or three women form a local Threshold Choir chapter, they practice songs together every week, and sing to people who are struggling with illness or dying, often in hospice. Patients, their families, and the hospice nurses, respond positively to the singing. But then, people who work in hospice are already different, at the edge, and in a service-to-the-patient-(and their family)-mindset... so Threshold Choirs are welcomed there.

Threshold Choir members learn a range of songs so when they meet the patient, and feel into the mood in the room, their voices raised in song can meet that person at their Threshold, and assist by soothing or uplifting the recipients as each one crosses their psychic or physical threshold.

Threshold singing is a sacred gift, it is offered in humility, in absolute service to the one at the threshold. It is not an ego-driven "performance." Singers do not have to be "professional," or "trained." Singing may entrain all the scattered thoughts in the room, but the singers do not sing to bring about a particular mood change they believe would be best for the recipient(s). The Song is the Medicine, and they are the Instrument—when the Medicine is wanted.

Women in every stage of labor are crossing psychic and physical thresholds. So are their partners, and sometimes the staff. I can imagine birth threshold singing helping calm anxious, exhausted mothers in prodromal labor, perhaps allowing them to rest (or to allow medications to help them rest or ripen work better). Certainly, birth threshold songs might soothe and celebrate the mother/parents, still in birth shock, as she/they take the first psychic steps toward parenthood. What a lovely way to celebrate them.

What songs do you already know that could be Medicine for these Thresholds of Birth; in early labor; or postpartum? Perhaps repetitive chanting, non-English lyrics, spirituals, or lullabies? Please, write in your ideas so we can begin learning songs. Send in the lyrics, your sources where we can learn the melody.

What kind of music might help women cross the deep Thresholds in active labor, when they are deep in the trance of wordless-Laborland?


Layne Redmond is a musician, drum maker, and author of When the Drummers were Women. In her wonderful book she reminds us that drums were associated with fertility in ancient cultures, and that frame drums were associated with feminine sexual energy. Beating her drum connected her to the primal rhythms of life apparent in the sexual act. In ancient mythology, Goddess-priestsess’(Inanna, Hathor, Aphrodite, and Cybele) all played the frame drum to increase the energy of sexual attraction and the power of femininity. "In menstruation and birthing rites, certain drum rhythms caused the womb to contract, aiding the flow of menstrual blood or the birth of the child. A forceful beat of the dream could drive away evil spirits and purify a space where health and well-being could flourish."

Drumbeats send messages to the body, mind, and to others. In parts of rural Africa drumbeats may be used for long-distance communication, sending complex messages from village to village. When I hear the question (resistance) raised that singing or drumming for one mother might disturb another patient or doctor, I think it is equally possible that the music might also send a message of life, movement, joy to others, separated by walls, but sharing a similar journey in the hospital "village." But let's not let these individual possibilities stop us from dreaming a new dream; our dream must also include being sensitive to shared experience and finding solutions to problems as they arise.

We have all been energized and entrained by a drumbeat. Layne Redmond observed that, "Before the age of machines, in factory [and birth factory places], drums [and singing] linked people together, they measured the shared tempo of life, coordinated and energizing group effort. Since the Industrial Revolution, the grinding, discordant clang of … machinery destroyed the peaceable synchronization of natural rhythms and work."

I am suggesting that singing and drumming can help mothers find their own rhythm in labor and enter into the natural trance of Laborland. But, let’s also consider how singing or drumming would soothe and aid women who are birthing restrained, numbed, worried about their progress or well-being of their baby. Music could also be powerful Medicine for them as they cross their thresholds through labor, perhaps enhancing the drugs effectiveness as the mother relaxes and feels contained by rhythm of music.

Good Ideas Must Pass Through the Gate of Resistance

Let's go into the resistance that might come up in our own minds, or in the culture, when live music for birth thresholds is proposed. When we hear about how women in traditional cultures still hear drumming for them in labor, and how it helps them move their bodies to their own rhythm in labor.... perhaps we romanticize that bit of “National Geographic” news, or feel fleeting remorse that we don't have such a ritual, and then--we distance our selves from the idea, from our loss, and from our self-consciousness.

Perhaps we settle for a compromise, “I’ll bring a music CD,” and then further compromise, “… and wear headphones so it’s not too loud.” But women know the power of live music! We know it awakens the Divine Feminine in us. Live music is “alive,” and we are alive when we hear it and feel its vibration in our bones, and hips, and hair flying, and in our feet! Live music, not CDs, have always been used in rites of passage because it has the power to rock us and to entrain us.

Wouldn't it be great if every nurse, midwife, and doula had to learn to drum or sing as part of their holistic preparation to work with mothers in labor and postpartum. What if certification or re-certification required contact hours in music, singing, drumming? OUTRAGEOUS, I know! I can hear cries of resistance, "Has she gone mad? Are we supposed to go backwards? What if a mother doesn't want to be sung or drum across her threshold?" Alrighty then, we already know what to do, don't we? We can just sit there and watch the monitor and the clock and hope she “chooses” for the best.

And what if, worst-case scenario now, what if drumming and singing helped women and families (and staff) relax, and the rhythm made women move and go into trance... and the epidural rate fell... and this upset the corporate profit margins in obstetrics?
Hmmm... that would be a shame. Let's not upset this system.

For my American birth peeps, I wish you a happy holiday weekend.
For all of you, I hope you go out and hear, feel, and dance to live music… and write your fellow-peep revolutionaries here so we can get some tunes to start this change, change #13!



  1. What a beautiful idea! I worked with a client who was born in Sri Lanka. Her mother was there and recited Hindu prayers throughout her entire labor, while she (my client) and I OM-ed together. As her baby was born, we all recited the Gayatri Mantra. Her mom told us that the Gayatri Mantra was sung to all birthing women in Sri Lanka. Deva Premal has does a great version of the mantra. Here's a link:



  2. Hi, Pam -

    I have sung throughout all three of my own labors and sung/spoken with several doula clients. This was instinctive, not something I had read about or seen except in briefest passing before my labor initiation.

    I've found that songs with lots of vowel sounds work best as they allow lots of open-mouth and therefore lots of opening of the rest of the body . . . There's one called "Yes and Amen", several "Alleluia" songs that work well, a chant by Mary Grigolia called "Openings" . . . what we need is a varied and broad repetoir, from many cultures, because what will appeal to women (mothers and doulas) will vary greatly depending on circumstances.

    Dawn Star

  3. I started singing to my most recent client when she had been having hard Pitocin labor for some time and was really tired and suffering. I felt the need to sing to her like I do to my babies when they are inconsolable. I sang Sara Groves' "It's Gonna Be Alright."

  4. When thinking about the hospital environment, your post reminds me of the stir that was caused back in 1986 when Bernie Siegel, surgical oncologist, wrote Love, Medicine and Miracles. His suggestions of bringing music into the operating room and making a sign on your door to inform your caregivers about your needs were environmental changes that seemed outrageous at the time, but changes that helped usher in the age of patients taking responsibility for their healing.

    It seems to me that these thoughts about the role of song are already ideas in the embryonic stage within the birthing culture. When I attended training at The Farm, songs were introduced at very times during the week-long training -- woman-songs of strength and celebration. And, although I have not yet attended myself, I cannot tell you how many times I have read about, or heard someone recount how Penny Simpkin leads the singing of Dona Nobis Pacem at the DONA convention.

    As for the repertoire, this song caught my heart as a young, Canadian midwife-in-training sang it forth:

    The river is flowing,
    flowing and glowing,
    flowing and glowing,
    down to the sea.

    Mama carry me,
    your child I will always be,
    Mama carry me
    down to the sea.

    Thank you, Pam, for awakening our consciousness to ideas both ancient and new. Amazing ideas.

  5. Amazing Grace, Down to the River to Pray, Swing Low Sweet Chariot... simple, repetitive, soulful gospel music. :)

  6. Sweet Honey in the Rock - "Of Children"

    and also this one - "We Are"

    and anything by Deva Premal, but specifically this one:
    Deva Premal - "Gayatri Mantra"

  7. Yes Yes Yes! Thank You Pam for articulating & facilitating the flow of this idea. Just like babies there are so many beautiful songs already and yet to be born. Songs, singing & toning is something that comes very naturally and instinctively to me and I have been working on integrating this more into my work with pregnant and birthing women, helping them to access that natural and instinctive part of themselves and overcome the hesitation and awkwardness we feel when crossing the threshold from silence to sound. I've found that OM-ing and toning is a good place to start and from there the possibilities are infinite!

    As for pre-recorded songs, one of my absolute favorite artists is Tina Malia. Her old website

    has links to her first three albums

    Shores of Avalon
    Jaya Bhagavan
    The Silent Awakening

    and you can listen to samples.
    Every song from The Silent Awakening has been uploaded to youtube. Two of my favorites are

    Heal This Land

    The Silent Awakening

    The album Shores of Avalon has some great ones too and Jaya Bhagavan is full of beautiful renditions of Hindu chants and mantras.

    She is currently working on a new album and her style has evolved into more electronica kind of stuff. As far as I can tell her current websites are her youtube channel
    and facebook page!/tinamaliamusic

    She is a beautiful goddess, check her out!

  8. One of my favorite birth stories of this year involved a woman drumming and singing. It so helped the laboring woman listen to her body and ease her ten pound plus boy out! The whole atmosphere was so peaceful and calm. If the drummer slowed down, the mother would say Faster! I can't wait to get the book, When the Drummers were Women! Thanks!



  9. I love Lindsey's music ideas! Down to the River to pray is one of my all time favorite songs. I also wanted to add, that I Doula'd a birth once where the mom had the Sound of Music on until transition, and she was singing in between contractions and asked me and her husband to sing along with her. I felt like a lunatic and the nurses and staff surely thought we were, but it was fun.