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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.
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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.
Since 2022, Therese has operated out of her home base in Mount Angel, Oregon, just outside of Salem. When I mention that, I can’t help recalling all the mythic and archetypal resonances of mountains and high places as places of personal transformation and mind-expanding interventions. But, also, what a fitting locale for this woman, who is the closest thing I’ve encountered in my life to an actual angel.
That sounds like the most tired cliché you could ever apply to a musician, especially a harpist. But in this instance, no other metaphor or description quite suffices.
“This work is very much an interior practice,” Therese explains. “I don’t think it’s possible to do this work without some very deep kind of self-knowledge….We work on that ongoing, all the time.” She herself embodies this kind of life—of giving and forgiving, of letting be and letting go—and shares this with her students both formally and by example.
It’s a kind of dying to the world in a small way. And it allows her to be more present to those who, in the words of anthropologist Victor Turner, have reached that “liminal period” between life and death. She reminds us that this is “a period in which all of our normal identities and relationships are dissolving, boundaries are crossing. For many people, there are so many layers of this.”
After I learned about this woman, I went out of my way to find an opportunity to meet her. That’s something I never do—at least I haven’t since my college days, when I did try to meet my music heroes. But after a few bad experiences, I grew wary and stopped going backstage or reaching out in other ways.
But I did it again in this one instance.
A decade ago I was asked by the Fetzer Institute to set up and lead a panel of creative people who would help foster love and forgiveness in the arts. I agreed to do this, but what a daunting endeavor—and I had no idea where to start.
But I was allowed to nominate a few panel members, and the first name that came to my mind was Therese Schroeder-Sheker.
But I didn’t know her. I had merely read about her work in some obscure music therapy journal. But what I’d read stayed in my mind, and I kept thinking about it. So I sought her out for my ‘love and forgiveness’ project. Over the next 18 months, I got to spend time with her on several occasions, both in the US and overseas.
I warned you above about meeting your music heroes—so often the person falls short of the music. I guess that’s not surprising. I probably fall short, too, when encountered in the flesh. But Therese is the exact opposite. She radiates a calming, beneficent energy—and not just when playing the harp. She’s the calm center in the storm, no matter how stormy it gets.
Even her conversation is musical, in its cadences and phrasing, and inspiring. But what she says is extremely precise, even as it’s emotionally deep—a way of being understated that seems to channel power. I’m a student of language and persuasive speech, but talking to her is unlike talking to others, especially performing artists—you probably got a sense of that from the quotes I’ve shared above. And just her presence changes the entire room.
You may think that Therese’s vocation has little to do with music as it operates in our entertainment economy. But songs ought to be part of something larger than a recording or evening out at the club. At least that’s how I feel. And in her own inimitable way, Therese represents, to my way of thinking, an ideal type of musician. She’s a person whose songs are change agents in the world, and leave it a better place than it was before..
Not every musician has a calling of this sort. But I can’t help feeling that all of us can learn something from her. Her wisdom has come in the hardest way possible, namely through ongoing and sobering contact with those in the most dire circumstances—experiences few of us can match. In sharing some of that wisdom with us, she makes a gift to the living as well.