Lil Rev & his Yiddish Mentor Paul Melrood circa 2010
Nursing Homes, Gigs, and The Working Musician:
While my friends jokingly call me "the king of the nursing home circuit in Wisconsin!" It's a badge I wear with pride and after more than 24 years of performing for our elders all across the U.S. I can say wholeheartedly that it has been a most gratifying endeavor.
If you are interested in bringing some joy and light into the lives of those who'll really appreciate it, and in many cases, therapeutically need it, then you are the perfect candidate to perform for our seniors. If you are patient, caring, outgoing, funny, witty, warm, playful, knowledgeable, respectful, a good listener, endeared to our elders, or just love to share what you know with folks, than you are ready to take on the nursing home circuit! No! You needn't possess all of the traits that i just mentioned, however it doesn't hurt to ask yourself, what do i bring to the table as a performer that this population will appreciate?
To help some of you along on your own journey, i would like to focus this post exclusively on what you'll need to know, in order to be successful as a performer for the chronologically gifted.
1) How Long Will I Be Asked To Play For? Most Nursing Home, Senior Centers, Retirement Homes, V.A. Hospitals, Assisted Living Centers, Independent Living Homes and Day Centers will book you for just one gig at a time, generally consisting of a one hour performance (occasionally, you'll find an activity director who really likes you and wants to book you for the whole year all at once.) Thus, you will need to make sure that if you are new to the paid world of performance, that you have a full hour long set worked up that you can lean on. In my 24 years of performing for this population, i can count on one hand the number of times i was hired to play longer than one hour, it just doesn't happen unless it is a very special event like a family picnic or BBQ.
2a) What Kind of Music Shall I Play? To be honest, if you are outgoing and have good stage presence you could probably get away with playing almost anything. With that said, however, you should plan on having some sing-along favorites in your back pocket, or if you are strictly an instrumentalist, at least some melodies that people will recognize (i.e. Beatles, Take Me Out To The Ball Game, Home on The Range, Standard tunes that everyone knows like Elvis, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, a few blues, a few jazz tunes, some country, classic rock, etc.).
2b) Is There Anything Else I Should Do Besides Sing And Play? The residents always love it when you talk to them, both from the stage and before and after the show, however during your show, don't be afraid to ask them questions, crack a few jokes, tell a story, share some music history, and engage them.
2c) How Shall I Dress? You might think, well its just a nursing home gig, i suppose blue jeans and a t-shirt are fine; but these folks appreciate a performer who looks nice, is clean shaven, dress slacks, a tie, or bow-tie, vest, suit-coat, dress, skirt, nice blouse, etc. In sum, dress for success! Your appearance is important and you want to make a good impressions if you expect to be invited back.
Also, activity directors all network with one another and if you are unkempt, don't expect your phone to ring off the hook! You needn't spend alot of money on performance attire (it is a tax-write off you know!). I do all my shopping for nice slacks, vests and sport-coasts at Goodwill, St. Vinnie, and Second Hands stores.
3) How Much Should I Charge? It depends. Some activity directors have a substantial budget and others are barely operating on a shoestring. The low end is $50.00 bucks and the high end is $500.00 at some of the finer high end retirement homes. On average i ask for $100 to $150.00 and usually get it! Some of these places, don't have any budget at all and might welcome a newbie performer who is simply looking to try out his or her act at a neighborhood retirement home.
If you do manage to get paid, and begin to perform on a regular basis, then you will begin to see that this isn't no chump change i am talking about! No you won't get rich, but you will be providing a valuable service to your community, gaining valuable performance experience, making lots of good connections and learning alot about the world from the many residents whom you will become acquainted with as the years roll by. It is mighty fine work!
Legal Talk: If you are new to this, perhaps you should consider opening an account with your music business name so you can write off expenses like gasoline, costume, instrument supplies, sheet music, instruments, etc. Get a book to keep track of your mileage, food deductions, etc....You will be paid in check form most of the time, they will ask you how the check should be made out. Log all of your income, write down the check number, date, who it is from. Do things by the book and find a good accountant. Some performers like to have Liability Insurance in case they were to have an accident they won't be held accountable or wind up getting sued because their amp fell over on some little old lady.
What Else Will I Need? In addition to a costume, your set list, and an instrument, you may want to invest in a small portable acoustic amp that will allow you to provide a small measure of sound reinforcement where ever you go (I recommend http://www.roland.com/products/en/AC-60/.) While some of these facilities have a P.A. and or a mic, they are in my experience always inferior, or inadequate. Come prepared and you won't be let down. I would recommend that you invest in a good dolly or hand truck of some sort to shelp your instruments, amp and merchandise (if you have any). I recommend a company called Kart-A-Bag, http://www.kart-a-bag.com/ as they are American made in Joliet, IL, sturdy, tough and will last years and years over anything else i have every seen.
You may also want to bring a bottle of water, a music stand (if you need one), a small watch to keep track of time, business cards (you never know who is going to be there who might want to book you), and a good positive attitude-n-smile. Remember your job is to bring some happiness and light into these places. These folks deserve someone who can shine a little sunshine on their day. Trust me, you'll expect the same once you've rode a thousand miles in a wheelchair.
How Do I Book Gigs At A Nursing Home? In order to book a gig at a nursing home, you will need to decide how far you are willing to travel, how you will get there (if you don't drive) and how much you are worth. Are you a newbie, who is just breaking into the industry (then ask for $50.00) or are you an established, highly polished player (then ask for $100.00). Once you have done that, find a yellow pages, open it up to retirement homes, or nursing homes and start calling. When they answer ask for the activity directory. Don't call mid-afternoon or around lunchtime. Early morning or late afternoon is when you are most liable to catch em' at their desk. Once you get the activity director on the phone, introduce yourself and say...."Hello. My name is __________ (insert your name), i am a local ukulele player with a diverse repertoire of old time favorites including rock n roll, broadway, folksongs, country, etc... That's right make yourself sound good, sell yourself, and be friendly. Tell them you love working with seniors and anything else you think they should know.
Next, they will ask you how much you charge. What i do is tell them what i normally get ($150.00) and then i ask them what does your budget allow for. That way, if they can't pay you what you believe yourself to be worth, you can always come down, but you can't go up!
Here is a typical 12-15 song Nursing Home Set List:
1) Yellow Submarine
2) Hey Good Looking
3) Hound Dog
4) Instrumental Tune (Tequila, Pipeline, Walk Don't Run, Wildwood Flower, etc)
5) Music Jokes
6) Folsom Prison Blues or I Walk The Line
7) Blue Suede Shoes
8) Five Foot Two Eyes of Blue
9) Eight Days A Week
10) Sea of Love
11) Good Night Irene
12) Poem, Story or Original Song (they love new music too!)
13) Don't Fence Me In
14) On The Sunny Side of The Street
15) Til We Meet Again
Hope this helps you all out! If you have more questions about the highly rewarding art of performing in retirement homes please email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Most importantly, go out into your communities and find a way to connect with our elders. Find a mentor, interview folks, write about interesting people you meet, make a new friend, honor our seniors and look to them for the wisdom they possess. These are the folks who built this great nation, they were everyday heroes, teachers, firemen, businessmen, veterans, nurses, leaders, homemakers, grassroots volunteers, etc. etc. just seek and ye shall find!
This post was created on 5-19-12 (C) Lil Rev/Fountain of Uke /
All Rights Reserved/Reprint Only With Permission