How to Perform Shows

This page is for musicians and singers who would like to know how to provide musical gifts for our seniors, particularly those in convalescent hospitals. There is no way I could convey to you the amazing feeling you will get when you perform a show and see the blissful look on so many faces, along with the smiles and general appreciation.

Singers and instrumentalists other that piano or guitar can perform these shows either with a partner piano or guitar player, or with the use of MIDI files. The MIDI files are played with either a computer or MIDI file player and provides you the rhythm instrument you need to perform a good show. We offer two Solo Piano Sing-A-Long Shows if you need them and we strongly urge any one interested to contact us if they need help getting it together.

If you follow the simple suggestions on this page, you can start to perform these shows. However, this type of performance situation is not for everyone. You must realize that these folks are often living out the end of their lives in difficult conditions and, consequently, you will see many kinds of misery. You will see folks who don’t know anything about their lives, but are still able to sing every word of every song. You will see feeding tubes, partial limbs, decaying flesh, and conditions that are difficult and extreme. Your saving grace is that you are blessed in being able to bring the residents out of their misery to a happier place of enjoying their favorite songs. It is the difference between another painful and boring day and one touched by the joy of music.

When I first started this work, I used to tell folks I could play my music in a bar and have a drunk stumble over to me and tell me how much he loved my music as he was passing out; or I could have a little old lady tell me I brought back the most wonderful and treasured memories of her life.



Getting Prepared

Just some tips:

1 - Learn 20 songs from the list of the  Favorite Songs. You should be able to perform these songs with a strong rhythmic feel and preferably without sheet music. (You can use some notes, but you should know most of the songs.)

2 - Obtain a list of nursing homes, convalescent hospitals, and retirement communities in your area. The Yellow Pages are a good start. There are a number of CDs available for a computer that list all businesses by type (SIC code - Standard Industrial Classification). The SIC codes (based on the 2002 classifications) you want are 623110 (Nursing Care Facilities), 623311 (Continuing Care Retirement Communities) and 623312 (Retirement Communities without care, i.e. Homes for the Elderly). Also, local government agencies often have a list of all Medicare facilities.

3 - Prepare a brochure describing your musical offering and how it applies to seniors. We will offer more suggestions. But in the meantime, you can see my brochure to use as a guide. (Sample Brochure.)

4 - Write a letter of introduction to the Activity Director of the facility. Almost every facility has an Activity Director in charge of all activities. They are usually the ones who schedule the music shows. (Sample letter )



Getting the Gigs

1 - Call the facilities and try to speak with the Activity Director. This is not always easy and you often won’t be able to get through. Get the name of the person in this position so you can call back. Don’t leave a message before they know who you are. They are all overworked and extremely busy. If you get through to them, ask if they have musical programs and if they have a budget. If they have a budget, or if you can afford to perform as a volunteer, ask if you may send them a brochure with your information. Follow up the mailing with a phone call.  Ask if they’ve received the brochure; do they think that they might have an opening for you? They generally book steady entertainers once a month and try to keep the same ones. But there are always changes. Once you get into the rotation, you can keep it steady as long as the residents enjoy your show. I’ve been working at some facilities once a month for over 8 years.

2 - You can offer to do a free audition (15-20 minute show) to get started. They rarely say no and then, if they like your show, you can be worked into the schedule.

3 - Generally the pay scale in the San Francisco Bay Area for a one-hour show is as follows: 

hospitals, $35-$60; retirement homes, $50-$100; private parties (often families of residents will ask you to play at some other function), $100 minimum.

4 - Try to book two shows close in proximity to each other to cut down on travel expenses and travel time.

5 - You can book mornings (10:30 or 11:00), afternoons (between 1:00 and 4:00), or evenings (after 5:00, often a candlelight dinner with all instrumental music).

6- You can also get these gigs through adult education programs, (We will research this and fill you in on the procedure,)



The Performance

1 - Call to confirm the show and try to be on time. It is a good idea to call and confirm the show just to make sure you are on the schedule and they are expecting you. Also, try to be on time. The residents are often waiting for the entertainer for as long as an hour because it can take that long to get the people into the room.   If there is an unexpected delay, a phone call will at least assure the facility that you are on your way.  These facilities get many last minute cancellations from entertainers, so try not to disappoint them.  Being reliable is an important part of the job.

2 - Greet the residents when you come in. You can talk to them about anything you’d like. You may be their only visitor--ever. The more you can make them feel like you are part of their family, the more your performance will mean to them. If you have equipment to set up, talk to them during the process. They are always interested in what you’re plugging in, or how the tiny contraption (electric piano) makes so much music. I often tell them that this (the setting up) is secret "musicianship stuff" that the audience never gets to see because it happens behind the curtain and that I used to charge extra to let them see this, but now I do it for nothing. They always laugh at this. Try to remember that even though they may not seem cognizant about what is happening, they often are. Talk to them the same way you would any other audience. If they don't understand, it won't matter. But if they do understand, it means a lot to them to be treated like 'regular' people. Tell them jokes, or just talk about how your day is going. Try to remember as many of their names as possible.

3- Introduce the songs. This can be anything from a simple "Here's a song written by George Gershwin" to an elaborate story about the song, where it came from, who performed it, etc. You can use information about the song, a personal story about the song or artist who performed it, or a story of how the song affected someone when you performed it. There are typical introductions and stories that I use that you can reach from the Music Files page or the Favorite Songs page. Feel free to use them, if you'd like, or develop your own. There are many sources of information about the songs from the 20s to 50s. One of the best I've found is Robert Lissauers' Encyclopedia of Popular Music in America, Paragon House, 1991.

4 - Pace the show with lots of up-tempo tunes from the 20s and 30s. These should be the mainstay of your show. Some songs are always hits, such as Ain’t She Sweet and Yes Sir, That’s My Baby.  See the Favorite Songs page for more information. Do two or three up-tempo songs, then a ballad, a waltz, and then something completely different like a classical piece, a country song, or a blues number. They generally love the blues. Remember, the blues started to be generally accepted in the 20s and is a major style of music that our seniors love. (Just don’t overdo it. A few blues numbers each show is usually enough.) Then repeat the process.   Mix it up and keep it lively.  I get requests for For The Good Times and Are You Lonesome Tonight?, but I do them faster than I would if I were playing in a country bar.

5 - The most important thing to remember during the show is to perform every song to the best of your ability. If you pour your heart into the music, they will love both the music you play, as well as you for putting so much energy into making it happen. And, to be honest, I believe this one practice of playing every song as well as you can, regardless of where, or for whom you are playing, can be the difference between being a happy musician and enjoying your profession or being at the whim of all the ups and downs of the entertainment industry. You’ll still have the ups and downs, but you’ll also have the joy of performing your best, all the time.

6 - During the show, many of the folks may not seem to be responding or enjoying the show. I can tell you in the beginning this used to concern me. I've since realized that many people who don't seem to be listening or responding at all are thoroughly enjoying the show. Sometimes it takes a long time for them to start to "come to the surface". I have often witnessed someone who doesn't respond at all for 30 or 40 minutes starting to sing and tap their feet and then tell me how much they enjoyed my performance. [See our Stories page for more illustrations of this fact.] The bottom line here is for you to perform as if they were all paying attention even if they look as if they're not

7- Towards the end of the show let them know you’ll be finishing soon. ("Well, I’ve got time for a few more songs..." or "Towards the end of the show, I always like to play ....". I always finish with "my favorite barroom song", Show Me The Way To Go Home.  You can also use Good Night Ladies or Goodnight Sweetheart or any other "saying-goodbye" song.

8 - I use an electric piano because generally the pianos in these facilities are pretty bad and out of tune.  After the show, I lead the residents in a sing-a-long while I'm packing up and it extends the show.  I usually use You Are My Sunshine or Let Me Call You Sweetheart. It helps make the transition from a lively show to whatever is next.

9 - Finally, say goodbye. Try to make eye contact with as many as possible and touch as many as you can. It’s important to leave five minutes at the end of the show just to say goodbye.

If you follow these guidelines, you can make a modest income and bring a lot of joy and happiness to the folks in our society who really need music the most.  It’s a great combination if you can do it.

Good luck. Please feel free to contact me if you'd like to exchange ideas:




Your Emotional Health

This work can be very hard emotionally. You are walking into what can be a very depressing environment, and, although you cheer the people up and make their lives a little better, you still see what they live with. This can start to affect you emotionally and you should be careful not to do too many shows, unless you can handle it. 

To illustrate this point I'll offer my personal experience over the past two days because they are fairly typical of the ups and downs of this work.

Yesterday my day started at 1:30 at a private-care convalescent hospital that I've been going to every month for the past 8 years. These folk are the luckier ones. The place is clean and the staff is attentive to their needs. As I come in, the Assistant Activity Director is making an announcement to the group. 

"There will be a [major cosmetics company] representative here to give a demonstration to the nurses after the show and you will all have to leave. The afternoon activity will be postponed." 

It seemed so unnecessary and frivolous. The nurses are taking time out of their schedules to get a demonstration about cosmetics and the residents have to vacate their activity room and miss their activity. Their lives are bad enough and now let's take something of theirs away so the nurses can play dress-up and the cosmetic representative can make some money. The folks can never show their emotions or the nurses will 'pay them back'. So no one complains and the nurses have their fun. Whose decision was it? I have no idea. Was it insensitive to the residents? Sure seemed that way to me. It was hard to watch, but certainly not the worst thing I've seen.

Then it's off to a new, up-scale residential community with an Alzheimer's wing. (I was moved to the Alzheimer's wing when a volunteer offered to come in and play for free. The Activity Director changed my show from the front facility, where everyone could come to the show, to the Alzheimer's wing, where only 10 -12 residents are present.) When I come in, the TV is blasting a soap opera and the air smells like ... how can I say this delicately?  It smells like a used litter box that has been sitting too long.  It smells like a diaper pail with the lid ajar.  I think you get the idea.  The air reeks.  Fifteen minutes into the show I'm ready to leave and feel like I'm about to throw up. I make it for 40 minutes and then leave, imagining what it's like to live in a place that smells that bad and not be able to do anything about it.

Needless to say I'm feeling a bit down about things. The next day I do three shows and they are all great. I play overtime on the third show because everyone was having a great time. I got comments like

You really make these people happy and bring joy to their lives

I wish you could come once a week

I haven't heard anyone play like that for 15 years!

We could listen to you play all night.

You play the best music.

This was all today!!  Needless to say I was energized by the shows and still working away at 12:21 AM because I think it's important for anyone doing these shows to realize what the emotional ups and downs are like.  Hopefully it can make it easier to deal with because that means that you can perform more shows, and that's good.