I don’t perform for many senior facilities, but I know some very talented people who do.
And lots of subscribers have been asking me for advice on this topic.
So, here’s the first of two articles on the subject; this one a guest post from musician Allen Hopkins.
Singing for Senior Centers: “Nuts and Bolts”
GUEST POST BY ALLEN HOPKINS
A 50-year veteran of performing folk music, I have for the past 17 years been playing professionally as a full-time avocation.
No, I don’t support my family through music –– though I do perform around 200 times per year.
Performing for seniors, in a variety of different locations and formats, makes up by far the largest proportion of my work; for example, out of 198 jobs I performed in 2016, 131 (66%) were “seniors’” jobs.
Working with seniors, and with the staff and leadership of seniors’ residences and organizations, has given me quite a bit of experience in this field. This “nuts and bolts” manual is an attempt to share what expertise I have accumulated through trial and error.
I won’t be attempting to discuss the therapeutic benefits of music, or the role of music, dance, theater, or other forms of entertainment in enhancing the quality of life for those considered “seniors.” The assumption is that the performer has already considered these factors, and has decided that he/she wants to begin performing for seniors, on a regular basis. This decision may be based on the performer’s skills, repertoire, and performance preferences; it may also involve consideration of the local “market” for musical performance.
The Seniors’ “Gig Market”
Demographic changes indicate that the number of US residents over the age of 65 is growing fast, both in absolute numbers and as a percentage of our population.
The “baby boomer” generation, broadly defined as those born between 1946 and 1964, have all reached at least the AARP-eligible age of 50; this group remains the largest age cohort in our current population, based on the 76 million births occurring in those years.
The current population of seniors in residences is an older cohort, mainly born in the pre-WWII years, with an age range of, say, 75-95 years.
For the performer, the market for his/her services is usually concentrated on residence facilities designed for seniors:
- “assisted living” residences
- nursing homes
- retirement communities
- long-term care medical facilities, etc.
A related market includes social clubs, churches or temples, and public or private recreational and social facilities such as senior centers, adult recreation programs, and affinity clubs with a high proportion of senior members.
Locating and identifying these potential performance venues is not difficult; Google is your friend, and most areas have directories of seniors’ facilities.
Many local governments have “Offices For the Aging” or similar programs, and these can provide listings of cultural and recreational opportunities for seniors which offer contacts for performers.
In addition, most of us have a general knowledge, and some personal experience, with seniors’ facilities; we may have friends or relatives who reside there, or have family members there.
Getting Booked in Seniors Centers
Once a performer has come up with potential venues for performance, the next task is to get his/her foot in the door.
What I did about a decade ago may be illustrative: I compiled a list of 25 or 30 residence facilities in the Rochester NY area. I was aided in this by having performed for several years for ArtsReach, a small non-profit agency that sent performers to “under-served populations”; these included nursing homes, prisons, veterans’ hospitals, group-home facilities for developmentally disabled, etc. This gave me a bit of a track record in performing for “special audiences.”
I called each of the residences on my list, and obtained the name of its recreation coordinator –– the person tasked with setting up entertainment for the residents.
I then sent a letter to each one, introducing myself, giving a brief resume that included places I was currently performing, and also mentioning some favorable references and comments I had received. I enclosed a business card. This approach got me several responses, and I was off and running.
Pay for Senior Gigs
(or should I volunteer?)
There is quite a bit of discussion and debate around this point. I almost invariably get paid for seniors’ performances –– not to say I won’t do “freebies,” but I’m well aware that every seniors’ residence, nursing home, recreation program, and social club budgets for “outside” entertainment.
Some feel, strongly, that volunteering services for seniors’ facilities is a mitzvah*, and that charging their limited budgets, when “I/we don’t need the money,” is exploitive.
*”meritorious or charitable act,” from the Hebrew
I, on the other hand, feel that performing as a professional entertainer –– including booking, preparation, reliable and punctual adherence to schedule, dependable performance quality (including special programs when requested), and overall value –– is worth a reasonable fee.
What each performer charges for a seniors’ performance, should be determined by his/her financial requirements, schedule preferences (a few higher-paid gigs, or lots of lower-priced ones?), and, primarily, by what the local market will bear.
My preference is for frequent activity at a reasonable price; I charge $55-75 for a simple 60-minute performance, more for additional travel or equipment requirements.
Among the musicians “working the seniors’ circuit” in Rochester NY, I am mid-to-low-priced, and am booked more frequently than most others I know.
Editor’s note – other musicians have told me they ask $100-125 for these gigs, and try to do a 2-4 gigs per day whenever possible.
I maintain a website (allenhopkins.org) with current schedules, descriptions of my programs, and other materials; it’s somewhat clunky, wordy and dated, but it does provide a destination for those searching online for folk music in our area.
I would say that I don’t get many inquiries from seniors’ venues through this route, but I do find now that probably 75% of my booking activity is through email rather than by telephone, as in the past.
Overall, I would say that some type of online presence is a near-necessity.
The Importance of Word Of Mouth
Whatever strategy a performer uses to get started, expansion of his/her schedule will largely result from word-of-mouth referrals.
Performing successfully, and recurrently, at a single facility produces inquiries from other possible venues. Recreation personnel do network, and refer performers; other performers also refer people they know, for potential jobs that they’re unable to schedule themselves.
I have frequently been on either side of this process. The flip-side is, of course, that a problem with a single performance can also reverberate through the network; it’s happened, though not, thankfully, to me.
Follow-Up For Future Gigs
I produce a postcard schedule of my performances every 6-8 weeks, and send it to approximately 250 local and regional people, largely potential bookers.
I also prepare and send a weekly email newsletter, with some news as well as my performance calendar, to around twice that number of friends, news media, and current and potential bookers.
(Recipients include not only seniors’ venues, but libraries, clubs, historical societies, local festivals –– anyone who’s booked me in the past, and prospects for the future.)
Since I enjoy writing, and select topics aside from strict self-promotion, the newsletter seems well received. The cost of the postcard mailing –– I do all the work of copying, sizing, addressing, stamping and mailing at home –– is about $100 per issue, and I almost always get more than that amount in bookings immediately after it’s received.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of undertaking these mailings, and I’ve found them very useful.
It’s Time to Do The Gig!
Having gone through all the steps to obtain seniors’ gigs, and having one or more bookings in hand, what can be expected?
I’d estimate that 90% of the gigs I play are for 60 minutes, though that may combine two half-hour gigs at two locations in the same facility.
What Time of Day, and Day of the Week?
The most frequent time for performances is the early afternoon on a weekday; of the 127 seniors’ jobs I played in 2015, 87 –– over two-thirds –– started between 1:30 and 3 p.m.
For this reason, it’s difficult for a performer to do a lot of seniors’ work and maintain a day job.
This can vary quite a bit, and will naturally influence the equipment a performer needs.
Small living rooms or lounges are often used for performances; another favorite space is a facility’s dining room.
Some seniors’ residences have larger auditoriums, to which the residents are brought for performances; this, of course, involves transporting a larger number of people, often with diminished mobility.
I do a few outdoor gigs every year, and also some off-site events for special occasions.
Audience Size and Composition
Again, this can be all over the lot; I find myself performing for as few as a half-dozen residents, and for as many as 100 or more.
Of course, audience size influences my preparation for the gig, and the term “seniors” can include a wide variety of audiences; it may mean a group aged in their 60’s, who drive themselves to a senior center for lunch. Or it may mean nursing home residents, average age 85, with severe physical and intellectual limitations, who could have trouble comprehending, much less appreciating, the program.
How a performer adjusts to provide the best program is a function of a) pre-event discussions with the sponsor, b) flexibility, and c) experience.
As a folk musician, my programs consist of vocals with instrumental accompaniment.
To almost all my seniors’ gigs, I bring an acoustic guitar, five-string banjo, and taropatch (double-strung ukulele).
I also have a gig bag containing harmonicas, tuners, neck rack for harmonica/guitar playing, and miscellaneous other gear.
If I know I will be playing in a living room format to a small group, I usually leave it at that. Over half of seniors’ jobs, however, have sufficiently large performance spaces, or audience size, to make some amplification beneficial.
For those larger gigs, I bring a small battery amplifier (Fender Amp Can), two inexpensive dynamic microphones (vocal and instrumental), a mic stand with a clip-on side boom, and related cabling.
Some facilities may have “house sound,” and I have used this on occasion, but as a rule I’m more comfortable with my own, familiar equipment.
I often also bring a folding stool, and stands to accommodate the three instruments.
I find the small (10 watts) amplifier provides adequate sound for almost all my gigs, and avoids the hassling with larger sound equipment that adds time and logistical complication.
When playing a larger auditorium, or large outdoor space, I will bring a “column” PA; I use the Fishman SA-220 SoloAmp, which is adequate for up to 300 audience size.
I will also often use condenser microphones, utilizing the phantom power the PA provides. The SoloAmp sets up easily, and provides all the sound I’ve ever needed.
Considering use of a sound system, remember that many seniors have some loss of hearing, and so amplification may be appropriate in situations where it normally wouldn’t be used.
And it’s crucial to try to enunciate lyrics clearly, perhaps speak a bit slower; I have been complimented by senior audiences, saying they could “understand the words” –– important to their involvement and enjoyment.
Songs for Senior Center Gigs
In determining what music to play, it helps to have more detailed information about the expected audience.
For example, those in their 80’s who grew up in the 1940’s, will enjoy folk and popular songs they remember from that period.
Younger audiences may appreciate 1950’s material, and even more recent popular songs.
I try to include older songs that are part of the American musical tradition, from Stephen Foster to George M. Cohan, and a few “chestnuts” that most of us learned as kids, such as You Are My Sunshine, I’ve Been Working On the Railroad, and Goodnight Irene.
I’m frequently asked for specific programs –– Irish songs for St. Patrick’s Day, patriotic songs for July 4 or Memorial Day –– and even more specifically, for historically-themed programs such as railroad songs, Erie Canal songs, etc.
And I try to vary my repertoire seasonally, going from Let It Snow and Winter Wonderland, to April Showers, Summertime, Autumn Leaves, and so forth.
While the core of my seniors’ repertoire has remained fairly unchanged for years, I’m always adding and subtracting at the margins.
I’ll include some repertoire suggestions as an appendix at the end of this article.
Managing The Performance
In my opinion, the more audience involvement, in the form of chorus singing, clapping, foot tapping etc. that I am able to arouse, the more successful I feel.
My objective is not just entertainment, it is participation, since music is said to reach parts of the brain that remain responsive even when other types of social interaction are impaired.
Looking into the audience, and seeing lips moving to the lyrics even when the “singing” is inaudible, tells me that listeners are getting something from the program.
Research indicates that active involvement enhances music’s neurological benefits, and that music can access memories that are not accessed in routine social interaction –– one reason that it’s often used therapeutically in seniors’ facilities.
Remember the Staff!
While I want to entertain audiences, I always remember that it’s the staff that I need to please; after all, they are the ones who will (or won’t) ask me to return.
Positive contacts prior to a gig, a written or verbal “Thank you” afterwards, and accommodation to the specific needs of a particular venue, go a long way toward building an ongoing relationship.
And, of course, reliability: showing up on time, prepared, and providing a predictable, professional program.
Over half the seniors’ performances I give every year are for a half-dozen places that book me multiple times: sometimes monthly –– I’ve played a particular residence the first Tuesday of each month, for 12 years –– sometimes more frequently –– as of April, I’ve already performed at one nursing home ten times this year –– sometimes three or four times over 12 months.
One way a performer can ingratiate him/herself with staff is by readiness to fill in on short notice when another performer has to cancel; I have been awakened by a phone call asking if I can be at a gig in 45 minutes, and have taken the job, certainly earning Brownie points, and consideration for future gigs.
For further reading, see the article How NOT To Get Bookings
I find it important to keep good financial records, and to manage “accounts receivable.” I report all music income for tax purposes, as Schedule C personal income; I keep track of and report music-related expenses, mileage, etc.
I receive IRS 1099’s from the seniors’ facilities for whom I perform frequently, and on occasion issue them to other musicians who join me for jobs where I’m the primary “contractor.”
Others may choose to treat their music, dance, or other artistic activities less formally, especially if it’s not their primary vocation, but I would caution that many facilities will require an IRS W-4 form, and keep records of payments to “independent contractor” musicians.
Over the course of 15 years or so of playing professionally at seniors’ facilities, it has been necessary on several occasions to follow up and solve payment issues. Recreation staff members who do the scheduling, may not be painstaking in submitting payment requests to their financial offices, and you may realize after a month that no check has shown up in your mail.
Staff turnover, frequent at seniors’ facilities, leads to problems along the “learning curve.” To further complicate matters, many for-profit facilities are part of national chains, and your payment comes from “Corporate” in another state.
I keep spreadsheets of my gigs, including information about date, time, location, mileage, payment receipt, and a contact name and phone for follow-up if needed.
Do I Need Insurance to Perform in Senior Centers?
Recently, I was asked to submit proof of liability insurance, before being given bookings at certain facilities.
My basic homeowner’s liability doesn’t include “outside” performance for profit. Since up to now this has happened only once or twice, I haven’t acquired performer’s insurance, but it may become more of an issue.
The American Federation of Musicians, the musicians’ union, offers insurance to its members, and has formed Local 1000, specifically for folk and traveling musicians.
I have also been asked, as a condition of playing for a local government, to obtain a waiver of workers’ compensation insurance –– again, a one-time occurrence –– but this only involved obtaining and completing a form that exempted me from workers’ comp coverage.
Problems and Pitfalls With Senior Entertainment
Playing for seniors ain’t for everyone. There are inherent factors leading some to find it not to their liking.
A few that come to mind:
Since I’m not a writer myself, I’m extrapolating, but in my experience, seniors prefer material with which they’re familiar. Songwriters I know, who also do seniors’ work, usually don’t do original material for these gigs. There are some songwriters –– Alan Power comes to mind –– whose “day job” is working with seniors, and who have written songs on that subject; their songs may be well-received. For the rest of us, I would choose songs that people in the age group for whom I’m performing, presumably have heard before.
“They fell asleep!”
Yeah, that happens. Remember, many seniors’ jobs are scheduled in the early afternoon, right after lunch. As I cruise deeper into my 70’s, I appreciate more the afternoon nap, and a warm room, soft chair, full stomach and soothing music may lull some listeners to Dreamland. Can’t let it bother us.
One of the aspects of advanced age can be dementia, in mild or not-so-mild forms, and one of the aspects of dementia can be inability to read social cues, or adhere to behavioral norms. If this leads to aggressive acts, it can tax the performer’s resources to keep the program going and reach other audience members. Experience will help in handling this, as well good staff support –– which leads to the next topic…
Where’s the staff?
Staff members who provide routine care and supervision at residences, are underpaid and overworked, in many cases. Some may see the entertainment program as a “break” for themselves, and may leave the performance area inadequately supervised. If that gets coupled with inappropriate behavior, or with physical risks for some of the seniors, it becomes difficult to deal with. I’ve seen my share of falls, arguments, disruption etc. without adequate staff response.
I find myself reprising the same 25-plus-or-minus songs for years. Seniors’ audiences as a rule don’t mind repetition. In many cases, they don’t remember, from one visit to the next, what was played the last time. It’s up to the performer to keep him/herself fresh, find new material, keep interested and motivated enough to deliver a good show each time out.
Playing For Seniors Can Be Very Satisfying!
I find playing for senior audiences extremely gratifying overall.
Seniors often express their gratitude to performers, compliment them fulsomely. Staff and family members also show their appreciation.
The performer is providing a real service, and contributing to the health of the audience, as well as entertaining.
There’s little pressure to be “show biz” or to crank up the volume or the stage persona. Competent, professional performance is welcome, and performers feel that they’re doing a good thing.
Over the course of years, establishing good ongoing relationships with various senior facilities, developing and maintaining a strong, flexible program of music (or dance, theater, storytelling, whatever) that’s suited to the needs and preferences of seniors, honing the craft until it becomes second nature –– it’s a place where art, service, holistic therapy, and intergenerational care intersect.
Can’t do better than that.
This article was originally written for a 2017 presentation at the New England Folk Festival Association (NEFFA) by Allen Hopkins and Jan Maier.
Illustrative Examples of Repertoire
You Are My Sunshine*
Hey, Good Lookin’*
Don’t Fence Me In*
Swing Low, Sweet Chariot*
He’s Got the Whole World In His Hands*
King Of the Road
Dream (Everly Brothers)
In My Merry Oldsmobile
Oh My Darling Clementine
Those Were the Days*
So Long, It’s Been Good To Know You*
Side By Side
Que Sera Sera
Dream a Little Dream of Me
It Had To Be You
Five Foot Two
My Blue Heaven
Chattanooga Choo Choo
I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now
Shine On, Harvest Moon
Once In a While
Let It Snow
Once In Love With Amy
Old Folks At Home
Place In the Choir
I’ve Been Working On the Railroad
Medley: You’re a Grand Old Flag/Yankee Doodle Dandy/God Bless America
She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain
This Land Is Your Land
Example of a St. Patrick’s Day program
Toora Loora Loora*
When Irish Eyes Are Smiling*
My Wild Irish Rose*
Black Velvet Band
Rambles of Spring
Boys Won’t Leave the Girls Alone
Whiskey In the Jar
Jug of Punch
Si Beag Si Mor
South Wind/Girl I Left Behind Me
Example of a holiday (Christmas/Chanukah) program
Deck the Halls*
Little Drummer Boy
Children, Go Where I Send Thee
Hot Buttered Rum
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
Twelve Days of Christmas
Jolly Old St. Nicholas
Frosty the Snowman
Santa Claus Is Coming to Town
Rock of Ages (Ma’oz Tzur)
What Child Is This
Kalimba (“thumb piano”)
About The Author
Allen Hopkins has played folk music in the Rochester NY area for nearly 50 years, including bluegrass, blues, Celtic, klezmer, old-time, and contemporary “folk.” He plays a variety of stringed and free-reed instruments, has an oversized accumulation of guitars, banjos, mandolins, concertinas etc., and teaches at the Hochstein School of Music and elsewhere.
He is a co-founder of Rochester’s Golden Link Folk Singing Society, organizer of the Flint Hill Folk program at Genesee Country Village and co-producer of its annual Fiddlers’ Fair, and helps administer two local concert series, Tunes By the Tracks and Rochester Folkus.
Allen has served on staff of Folk Music Week and Traditional Music & Dance Week at Pinewoods Camp in MA, as well as staffing many folk weekends and local festivals, including 23 consecutive years at the New England Folk Festival (NEFFA). He specializes in folk and popular music programs for seniors, playing over 150 gigs annually.
About The Blog
The Educate and Entertain blog provides articles, tips, encouragements, and how-to’s for regional performers (in any region) interested in making a great full-time living in the arts.