Playing Music in Care Homes and Retirement Communities

I recently received an email from a colleague who is interested in performing regularly in retirement communities (or care homes, as they call them here in the UK). She wanted to run her repertoire past me and also wondered if I had any tips specifically for this kind of gig. I offered her the following.

Regarding playing for care homes (man, I really miss that A LOT), an hour set is absolutely plenty. I rarely played for longer than an hour at any of my senior gigs. The set list you sent looks great, I'm happy to send more suggestions if you are interested.

But honestly, and I may have mentioned this before: the most important thing is connecting, and now more than ever. You are there to facilitate an experience that is highly dependent on nostalgia, but even more so on your willingness to engage. You facilitate the experience; it's not about YOU. Honestly, I don't really think of myself as having charisma. It's more just a willingness to be myself and to communicate with my "audience." This particular gig offers that opportunity in spades.

Truthfully, I learned almost all of this from watching my brother at our Music Brother's gigs at the care homes: Begin friendly communication as soon as you get there. Continue it as you set up. Set the tone for your performance right out of the gate. Let them know you'll be playing songs that hopefully they will know, at least some of them. Encourage them to sing along, get up and dance, etc. As pedestrian as these tunes may feel, I fell in love with "Goodnight Irene" and "You Are My Sunshine" because EVERYONE knows them and everyone sings along.

Be silly. Be sincere. Don't worry about making mistakes - nobody cares about this. Nobody will remember that you hit a wrong note or chord. They will remember how you made them feel. Quite honestly, the music is almost incidental to the experience. At best, it is a carrier wave for the joy and love that you provide in connection with associated memories that you helped to activate.

Bring a pencil and write down songs that you hear requested and learn them if you like them.

Eye contact, eye contact, eye contact. I think the idea intimidates some performers, but I have found that, ultimately, this is actually the best way to overcome [stage fright]. Sing directly to your audience. Sing directly to individuals and try to engage every single one of them for at least one line of lyric during your performance. I've never had the keyboard acumen of players like Fats Waller. This performance has ALL of the things:

...and so I keep my piano arrangements painfully simple for the most part. My ego gets the better of me sometimes, so I want to play something more complex, and a few of my repertoire numbers are of this nature, but I am keenly aware that there is a sacrifice of connection that happens there. Always err on the side of eye contact and connection.

You can see how simple most of my arrangements are here:

Play to your strengths, for sure! Put songs in keys that highlight your sweet spot. Perform songs with elements that show off your talents. For some reason I can sing very long notes, so when I get to the last word in "As Time Goes By," I hold that [note] FOREVER. It's super fun. I make some joke when I'm done about how I'm trying to get that a little longer every time I sing it. It's not a funny joke, it's just stupid banter that engages. Learn names. Shake hands. Have conversations.

Yeah: play on your own, play with your friends. Invite students to come sing a song or three. Make it fun no matter what you do.

And finally, as trite as it sounds, just be yourself. Authenticity over entertaining. Any. Day. Of. The. Week. Be real. Nervous? Own it. Shy? Own it. Mistake? Own it. Triumph? OWN IT!

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