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Playing Music at Retirement Communities

When I was a kid, I hated piano recitals. I think most kids do. It seems to be one of those things everyone reluctantly, like a necessary evil. But it doesn’t have to be this way!

Like it or not, performance is a very important part of being a musician. Practicing at home will only get you so far. Performing regularly should be a high priority for any musician who’s looking to continue improving their skills. Being able to play for others is an important aspect of musicianship, and can also be very rewarding.

I believe that a work of art, music included, is not complete until it’s shared. However, the way it’s often done, recitals are more like a systematic form of torture than the sharing of talents. Let’s work on changing that!

Finding Performance Opportunities

For many musicians places to perform can be hard to find. If you’re a student you probably get to play one or two pieces in a recital once or twice a year. If you’re not a student, you’re often limited to the occasional party or community event.

There are likely people in your area that would love to hear what you have to offer. They are also known to be some of the most forgiving audiences you’ll come across.

I’m talking about retirement communities.

Whether it’s memory care units, assisted living facilities, or independent living for the elderly, all of these communities are likely to have scheduled activities. They are often on the lookout for more entertainment and usually love music.

These communities also often have a budget for entertainment. If you’re good enough they will pay you to share your talents with them.

If you’re a teacher, a student, or simply a musician, I highly recommend you read this article and consider sharing your (or your students’) talents with the elderly. If you’re a student, send this article to your teacher, or organize your own recital!

Why Retirement Communities

A group of elderly people sitting at a bench

In Western society the elderly are often overlooked. Whether it’s fear of our own impermanence, or simply a lack of understanding between generations, for whatever reason young people don’t usually give much thought to those who came before them.

This is very unfortunate, as often those who have lived longer have a lot of insight about life. And even if they don’t, as human beings they still deserve to be seen, heard, and reminded that they matter.

It can also be easy to get sad and resigned toward the end of life. One’s body is less and less capable of doing the things it once did. Eventually there are less and less options, less and less reasons to get up in the morning.

Performing good music is like giving a gift to the listener. When someone brings this gift to an elderly community, it can often make their day. If it’s the kind of music they really enjoy, and you play well, it could even make their week or month! Wouldn’t you like to be someone who brings such gifts to this population?

An Audience In Need

Aging hands
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People of retirement age are often limited in what they’re able to do and where they’re able to go. They often become bored doing the same things and seeing the same people day in and day out.

When musicians, especially young people, come to perform for them, it often makes their day. They are so happy to see new, smiling faces and experience the talents those new people have brought with them.

Everyone Matters

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At regular recitals most of the audience is not there to enjoy the music. Most of them are there to support one performer they know, and tolerate the rest. Some of the ruder people arrive late or leave early after the person they know has finished performing!

Performing for a group that isn’t primarily made up of friends and family of each performer means that the majority of the audience cares about each performer equally. They are happy to see what each new person brings to the show and are often appreciative of variety.

They Are Very Supportive

An elderly woman

Once when I was performing at a retirement community I overheard one of the residents say to another, “Her grandmother must be so proud of her!”

I imagine this must be what many retirees are thinking when they have people, especially young people, come perform for them. They are often extremely grateful afterwards and filled with words of praise.

This makes for a wonderful environment for new performers, especially those who might not be too sure of themselves yet.

I’m a huge proponent of positive reinforcement. The more positive performance experiences one accumulates, the better one will feel about their abilities as a performer.

This kind of confidence booster is great not only for one’s musicianship, but also for one’s development as a person in general!

Mixing Generations

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Too often in our culture generations are completely segregated. Children are in school, adults are at work, elders are in retirement communities, and the groups rarely mix.

I think this does a disservice for everyone because we can all learn so much from people at different places in the life cycle.

Of course we could all stand to learn from the wisdom accumulated with age by the elderly, but it’s important to remember that they can learn a lot from younger people as well.

How to Get the Gig in 4 Steps:

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1. Conduct a Google search of retirement communities in your area and get their contact information. 

If you live in a big city, you will have quite a few to choose from. Even smaller towns usually have at least one or two nearby. Make a list of as many as you can find.

Get all of their contact information, including address, phone number, email address. If they have this information for the Activities Coordinator, that’s what you should write down. Often the website only provides general or office contact info.

2. Contact their Activities Coordinator. 

The Activities Coordinator is the person in charge of booking entertainment. Quite often they will be thankful that you called. This way they don’t have to spend as much of their own time seeking out musicians.

I’ve found that a phone call is much more likely to get a response than an email. It can also make things go more quickly as you’ll be communicating in real time, rather than waiting between responses.

Stopping by in person is another option that can often be very successful. Some people prefer to do business face to face. Perhaps you can even play a little for them so they can see what you have to offer.

Sometimes the Activities Coordinator will want to know the quality of your musicianship before they agree to book you. This is one reason why stopping by in person can be a good idea. Another option is to create a sample video of your playing.

This can either be recorded at home, or a recording of performance(s) you’ve had in the past, or a combination. Usually the easiest way to share the video is to post it on Youtube. You can then share the link with them and let them decide if it’s something they want to bring to their residents.

3. Set a price. 

If you’re looking to get paid for this performance, bring it up early on. Otherwise they might think you simply wish to volunteer. Prices vary in different areas. I’ve found most retirement communities tend to pay their musicians somewhere between $30-$100 per hour.

When deciding what to charge, consider your level, experience, and what the communities usually charge in your area. If you’re not sure how much they usually charge, ask!

Be aware that there are facilities that do not pay musicians and rely solely on volunteers. These are often the lower-end places with lower budgets. Unfortunately these places often have residents that are in the most need of the soothing effects of music.

For this reason, even though they don’t pay, these are important places to perform. If you have the time and don’t need the money, I highly recommend sometimes volunteering your talents. Of course, it’s also important for musicians to be paid for their work.

A good compromise is offering one free performance on a regular basis, such as every month. You could either change the location each month or play at the same place each time if you feel it’s a community that really needs it. Who knows, it might just brighten the day of someone who might really needs it.

4. Schedule it!

Most retirement communities prefer afternoon concerts on weekdays. If that’s not possible for you, mid-morning, evenings, and weekends are also possible.

Keep in mind that if you are playing evening concerts, you will likely be part of the bedtime routine. This is especially true at places with lower-functioning residents like memory care units. This means they will probably want you to play soothing music that won’t rile them up right before bed!

If they like your playing, most Activities Coordinators will want to get you on a regular schedule. This could be every week, every 2 weeks, every month, every 3 months, etc. In this way you can end up having quite a few recurring gigs on a regular basis.

This means you’ll never run out of places to perform! Recurring gigs are a great way to keep your playing up to snuff. It can also give you opportunities to set goals for expanding your repertoire, but also means you’ll definitely want to have an organized practice plan!

Make Practice Time Easier By Planning Ahead!

Hands playing piano keys with a metronome and pencil nearby

Learn how to plan exactly what you need to do each day to accomplish your goals. Then all you have to do at practice time is sit down and play!

The Piecewise Practice Planner will help you make meaningful progress every time you practice, even with as little as 5 minutes per practice session.

Best of all, it’s completely FREE–to opt in, click the button below!

If you need help figuring out what to play, check out this post: How to Create a Concert Program.

Some Things to Consider

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When it’s for a student recital I highly recommend making it a free concert. This will make it much easier to book just about anywhere since budget will not be an issue.

It also adds to the idea that our musical talents are a gift we are sharing with the audience. When performance is looked at from this angle, it can often greatly help with issues of stage fright.

Here are a few more variables to consider when planning a performance at a retirement community:

Type of Facility

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There is a range of different types of facilities geared toward serving residents at particular levels of independence, from those that are quite high-functioning to those who need 24-hour care.

It’s important to be aware of the type of facility at which you’ll be holding the recital, and prepare accordingly.

Memory Care

A lonely-looking old man

For example, memory care facilities are some that are in the most need of entertainment and new, different experiences. They also often have quite tight budgets. For this reason they are a great choice for a student performance, as long as the performers know what they’re getting into.

At their best, memory care residents come alive with live music. I’ve had residents who are normally quiet and withdrawn light up and sing along with my music and those who only speak in indecipherable mumbles suddenly speak clearly and coherently.

I’m sure you’ve seen at least a few viral videos to this effect. It’s amazing to see what music can do in these moments. However, it’s not all sunshine and miracles.

At their worst, these same residents can be loud, unfocused, distracting, and even disruptive. It’s not unusual to have someone pacing around the room chattering or moaning. Once when I was in the middle of a Liszt Concert Etude a resident stood up and dropped his trousers!

Of course there are usually caregivers nearby who are quick to attend to any issues (as was the case with the pants-dropper), but it’s important to let your students know about these possibilities so they won’t be surprised.

Make sure your students are up for the challenges the facility may present. If they’re not, it might be best to start them at a community with higher-functioning residents.

Pianos in Disrepair

Old-looking piano keys
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I’ve grown accustomed to playing on instruments at varying levels of health, but less experienced pianists, can be quite put-off by a piano that’s in bad tuning, or that has something wrong with the action or regulation that causes the keys not to function optimally.

If you’re playing somewhere you’ve never been before, be sure to go in and check out the piano before the day of the performance if at all possible so you know exactly what to expect and can prepare accordingly.

Reception Afterwards

A pile of heart-shaped cookies

Many recitals have some kind of reception afterwards. When I was a kid my piano teacher encouraged every family to bring some sort of sweet treat to share so we all got to enjoy a cookie buffet reward after going through the (torturous) recital process.

Having such a reception at a retirement facility can potentially increase many of the benefits I listed earlier.

It increases the entertainment value because not only do the residents get to hear the music, but then they get to talk with the musicians afterwards. Socializing is something else that can be quite lacking for many when they are limited to a life in a retirement facility, so this opportunity is truly valuable to them.

 It also gives more opportunities for the performers to hear how grateful their audience was to hear them play. If everyone simply leaves after the performance, it’s possible they’ll never know just how much the residents appreciated having them there.

However, here again there can be pitfalls. First of all, it’s important to check with the facility to make sure it’s ok. It needs to work with their schedule, there needs to be an appropriate space for it, and it needs to be ok to share treats with the residents. How horrible would it be for the performers to eat their own treats in front of the residents and not be able to share with them!

It can also be a little bit awkward and intimidating, particularly at facilities with lower-functioning residents who may be bound to their wheelchairs and literally unable to move about the room and “mingle”.

In such cases, it’s important to be prepared to do the moving around and initiating conversation with residents so there doesn’t end up being a segregation of performers on one side of the reception and residents watching silently on the other.

If this isn’t something you or your students are interested in, or if it’s not possible at that particular facility, you can always hold the reception somewhere else, or skip it altogether.

Supporting Communities

Human silhouettes spelling the word "Love" with their hands
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I love it when things can be done for the mutual benefit of all. When student performances are scheduled at retirement communities, everyone benefits.

The musicians get a supportive audience to play for, the residents get new experiences with new faces and musical entertainment, and the retirement facilities get an opportunity to add value and variety to their residents’ lives that they didn’t have to seek out on their own.

In 1977 former Vice President Hubert Humphrey said: “The moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”

Let’s all do our part to raise the standing of our collective morals. Improving the quality of life for the sick and the elderly is a great way for musicians to do that. What a wonderful practice for students to be introduced to early in their musical development!

Giving The Gift of Music

Hands holding a gift box
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I hope I’ve convinced you that retirement communities are great places to perform and should not be passed up. Not only are you getting a chance to hone your performance skills, but you also get to give a wonderful gift to people who are hungry for it. And as a bonus, you might even get paid for your efforts!

Heidi has been involved in music in one way or another for most of her life. She studied music composition in college, has taught piano, voice, composition, ear training, and guitar, and has worked as a piano tuner and technician. Before the pandemic she loved playing concerts at retirement communities, bringing the joy of music to those populations. She is currently working on learning more about the connection between music and healing.

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2 thoughts on “Playing Music at Retirement Communities”

  1. Dear Heidi, I have enjoyed your new blogsite and this was an excellent article. I’m so glad you wrote it, and hope some young people will take it to heart and follow through. They will receive as much from it as they give! My husband, Don, and I have been singing two Sundays a month (of course, not now with the corona virus). When we couldn’t fill the January recital spot, Cheryl asked what I might could do. I told her the only thing I could do is come with my pre-recorded background music and equipment, set it up, and see what the people thought of it! She was game, and you know what? It has been a big hit! So now we do the 2nd and 4th Sundays at 11 am. Don, my husband, is not a great singer, but he’s a good sport, and he has enjoyed the experience. We have had several memorable moments already. I miss my old friends and hope this virus situation clears up soon. I also took this same set-up to St. Andrew’s Assisted Living on Valentine’s Day and intend to do a monthly concert there, too, after this virus business is under control. I sure am hoping you will be able to do your concert in April! I am SO looking forward to hearing it and seeing you as I have really missed you and hope all is well!!

    1. Hi Claudia, I’m so glad you enjoyed the article and that you’ve been having such a great time performing at retirement communities! Unfortunately my performance in April has been cancelled, but I’m hopeful it can get rescheduled once things settle down. In the mean time, stay healthy and take care! We’re so lucky as musicians that we have something we can enjoy even while practicing social distancing!

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