Performing music for seniors – often at retirement or nursing homes, is a unique experience with its own set of challenges and rewards.
As a matter of fact, the entire experience is different than what you might be used to.
The booking is different, your repertoire will be different, and of course, the audience will be much different as well.
And while you’re not going to be dealing with drunk hecklers at a bar, you may end up in some unique situations that a normal performer wouldn’t be prepared for.
My goal with this article is to highlight these differences, and lay out a road map for you that will paint a full picture of what you can expect, as well as how to tackle the unique challenges that performing music for seniors can bring.
Because hey – the pay is nothing to laugh at, and the audiences you’ll perform to really do value the music!
Finding Places To Perform At
Before we go any further, I wanted to mention that we’ll be primarily focusing on venues that cater to seniors with some form of assisted-living.
- Retirement communities
- Senior care centers / nursing homes
- Medical facilities for long-term care.
These are handled a bit differently than other places where you could otherwise perform for senior citizens, such as churches or social clubs that cater to the elderly.
This article will also be applicable whether you are singing or playing an instrument.
Anyhow, determine how far you feel comfortable traveling for a single performance, and consider making a list or spreadsheet with all of these venues for easy reference. If fuel costs and transportation time becomes significant, you may also wish including the distance to the venue on this spreadsheet, as it will help you with determining any extra surcharges later.
Contact information for each venue can usually be found online. You are typically looking to connect with the venue’s recreational coordinator, which may also be referred to as their ‘activities coordinator’, ‘activity director’, ‘recreation therapist’, or just ‘recreation worker.’ These are typically the people in charge of arranging events with outside performers and gaining approval for everything.
Other than Google, your city’s website, or independent websites like Caring.com can provide lists of senior care facilities to potentially reach out to.
Getting Your First Senior Gigs
How difficult it will be to get your first bookings, is heavily dependent on the amount of other performers in your area already catering to seniors.
Assisted-living facilities often rebook the same performers on a recurring basis. While this is obviously beneficial for you if the staff and audience enjoy your performances, it also means that many of the slots (and budget) available may already be allocated to performers that have performed well previously.
That being said, there are a few tips that can help:
1. Do Not Focus Only On Holidays
Facilities book heavily around major holidays like Christmas and the 4th of July, and many musicians tend to focus heavily around these events as a result.
Of course, this also means that there are many long stretches of the year that do not receive as much focus. And although venues may request holiday-centric setlists during the holidays, there is also a demand for regular work as well.
2. Develop A History Of ‘Special Audience’ Performances
Although talent and skill is important when performing for the elderly, recreational coordinators also value performers that are pleasant to be around, and can maintain their composure while performing at their facility.
We will go more into specific problems that may occur when performing for seniors later, but remember this – some of the people living there may be mentally impaired and otherwise may not adhere to social cues. Experience performing to audiences with special circumstances (for example, prisons, hospitals, centers for disabled people, etc.) can help you secure that initial booking.
3. Schedule Ahead
Assisted living facilities may have their recreational calendar completed months in advance. Therefore, it’s important to reach out well in advance and let them know what days and hours you are available.
Most facilities prefer to schedule these events in the early afternoon – around 1 PM. If you are able to be available around this time, that is a huge benefit – as many musicians that are also working a day job will usually not be available around this time.
4. Be Reliable – And Ready To Fill In
The easier you make the coordinator’s job, the better things will be for you. Unfortunately, not every performer makes things easy.
Cancellations are at some point, an inevitability for all of us. Let coordinators know that you would be happy to fill in for another performer if a slot opens up – even if it’s on short notice.
5. Have An Internet Presence
In this day and age, having at least a basic website is a necessity for any serious, performing musician.
This does not need to be very complex or take a lot of time. It is possible to make professional looking websites for only a few dollars, and it doesn’t require a lot of technical knowledge either.
Many bookings will be done by email, and a simple website showcasing your experience can go a long way. Coordinators are looking for talent, but also credibility and security in their choice to book you. A website can help to showcase all three of these.
6. If Nothing Else Works, Consider Performing For Free The 1st Time
I know, some people will be rolling their eyes reading that.
Your talent and your time has value, and you should be appropriately compensated for that.
However, it’s also important to look at the long-term picture. Senior care facilities often book the same people on a recurring basis. If you have to do the first show for free, but you end up performing once a month for the foreseeable future for good pay, I would still consider that a win.
You don’t need to volunteer for free right out of the gate, but it’s something to consider as a possible option.
Payment, Taxes, And Legalities
As just mentioned, you deserve to be compensated for your talent, your time, and all the additional expenses incurred by performing for the venue.
Most seniors’ centers generally book musicians for one hour of performance. On top of that, you have to account for time and money required to get to the venue, time spent setting up, talking with people there, handling bookings, practicing your setlist, etc.
Therefore, you do not have to feel guilty for charging what you are worth. Facilities have money set aside specifically for this type of entertainment, and are happy to pay it for the service you are providing.
Generally, a 1-hour performance usually goes for $75-150. However, that is only a generalization. There are facilities that won’t budge above $50, and there are facilities that are happy to pay $250 or more. You may consider lowering your rate for venues that book you on a recurring basis.
Find what you’re happy with, and don’t be afraid to stick to it. Facilities do have the money to pay you appropriately, even if they say they don’t. However, factors like your location, the average cost-of-living, the number of other performers in your area etc. can affect both what you should charge, and the price the facilities are willing to pay.
Additionally, note that senior care facilities will report the income they pay to you to the IRS, and you will be given a 1099 form so you can properly report your earnings. If you are used to taking money ‘under the table’, you may wish to raise your rate to account for the taxes you’ll have to pay on the income.
To close out this section, I also recommend creating a spreadsheet with your performances, including information such as the venue you performed at, the date, and whether or not you have been paid. Some facilities may delay payment unintentionally, and you’ll want to follow up with them about it. Staff turnover can also further complicate issues. Maintaining a simple spreadsheet can ensure you are properly paid for each performance.
Senior Citizen Performance Tips
Now let’s talk about the actual performances. Each one of these tips are incredibly important, and can have a large effect on how your performance is received both by the staff and the audience. If you’ve never performed in a senior care center or retirement community before, these will serve as a great set of guidelines to follow.
1. Proper Time Management Is Key
Venues treasure performers that can show up on time, remain patient when things take longer than usual, and aren’t in an immediate rush to leave.
Performances are typically booked in 1-hour blocks. However, some facilities may ask that this be split up for two separate performances, in two different areas – requiring you to set up and take down your equipment twice.
Arrive at the venue early, with enough time to take care of everything and without feeling rushed. Many facilities run on tight schedules, and poor time management may lead to your performance being cut short, or something else in the resident’s day being affected. Not every room will be set up the way you want it (for example, a piano may be placed in a poor position) and it’s important to have time to make any necessary adjustments prior to your performance.
By the same token, patience is also incredibly important. Everyone may not be ready when you are, and at a place with so many people with a diverse set of needs, complications and unforeseen issues can arise. Obviously, it’s imperative that you remain calm, patient, and pleasant when working in senior care facilities.
2. Know The Room In Advance – And Plan Accordingly
One question you’ll want to ask about is the size of the room, and the number of people that will be in attendance. You may find yourself performing to as little as 6 people in a tiny room, to as many as 100 or more in a large open space.
Your needs both in terms of preparation, as well as equipment you will need to bring to the venue will differ depending on the audience you’ll be performing to.
Amplification may be necessary for larger rooms. For small to mid-sized rooms, a small portable amp will work just fine. For larger rooms, a dedicated PA system such as the Fender Passport Conference S2 is a great investment and will be more than enough for any senior care facility you’d ever perform in.
Note that many seniors are hearing-impaired, so it may be reasonable to use a little bit more amplification than you would otherwise think is appropriate. When in doubt, consult staff for clarification.
3. Ask Important Questions Beforehand
Other than room size and the size of your audience, there are other important questions to ask beforehand. Some examples may include…
- How do I enter / exit the building?
- What kind of music is preferred?
- Is it alright if friends or family come with me to watch? (Too many people may cause discomfort for the residents.)
- Is there anything that you feel I should know, that I’ve forgot to ask?
If you have anything planned in your performance that would be considered new or unusual, it is best to ask about this in advance. You are performing for the seniors, not the staff, so you don’t have to worry about spoiling any surprises.
4. Give Some Thought To Your Setlist
During holidays and other large events, the facilities may ask that you play music centered around that theme.
But what about the rest of the year?
Generally speaking, you’ll have the best response by focusing your setlist primarily around songs that the audience already knows and likes – especially music that was popular when they were young. This isn’t to say that they aren’t open to original material, but songwriters may not find the best reception with this type of performance, and originals shouldn’t make up a large percentage of your setlist.
The most popular songs will be heavily dependent on the age of your audience. While you often can’t go wrong with popular music of the 1940’s and 1950’s, some musicians are venturing further into the 60’s and 70’s as well. Telling short stories about the songs can help maintain audience engagement and improve reception for new material.
Additionally, scan your audience while you perform to gauge reception. Happy faces, singing along, and dancing / tapping of feet can be great indicators that your performance is resonating with the listeners.
5. Encourage Audience Participation
Remember that you are not only providing a musical performance – you’re providing an entire experience for the residents at the homes.
This means that you’re not only being paid to play music, but to create an enjoyable experience around your music itself. One of the best ways to do this is to encourage audience participation in any way that you can. Some examples of participation may include mouthing of words, tapping of feet, smiles, singing / humming, and of course positive statements made by listeners. These are all great signs that your audience is engaged and enjoying the music.
However, there a few things you can do to further encourage participation and foster engagement, such as:
- Asking easy questions, that do not require much thought.
- Telling stories, both personal stories and stories about the songs.
- Statements of encouragement (for example, ‘If you know this one, feel free to sing along with me!’)
Active participation in music increases activity in different parts of the brain, which is why it’s often used therapeutically in nursing homes.
When talking, be sure to pay special attention to your articulation, saying things clearly so they can be easily understood. Rushed speaking and stumbling over your words will make it difficult to hear your message, and may cause frustration for seniors.
6. Make Time To Talk With Others
Most people will generally enjoy your performances, and some people may want to talk with you to express their appreciation and admiration after the show.
When scheduling your day, try to plan some extra time to talk with both the staff and the residents, even if it is only for a few minutes. Remember that many residents may not have a lot of outside visitors, and the extra time you take to talk with them can truly mean a lot.
Staff take note of your general demeanor just as much as your musical talent. If you can be remembered as a genuinely nice person, you are more likely to be invited back, and chosen first for special occasions. Facilities also network with each other, and may recommend you to others.
In other words, it pays to be nice and to genuinely care about everybody there.
7. Consult Staff Before Bringing Gifts
Some performers like to bring gifts to the residents when they visit. While this a wonderfully kind thing to do, you’ll want to make sure to consult staff before you do this, as they will ensure that there aren’t any potential conflicts to worry about.
For example, you wouldn’t want to bring candy to someone who is diabetic.
Potential Issues That May Occur
As rewarding as performing music for seniors can be, there are certain issues musicians may face during their performances. These shouldn’t turn you away from the idea of performing for seniors, but they are important to keep in mind.
1. The Setlist Can Be Repetitive
This is more of a personal issue, but an issue none-the-less.
As a general rule of thumb, most senior performances will consist of many of the same songs, without much variation. Although some people may enjoy the routineness of it all, it can also become a bit tedious due to how repetitive it can be.
Seniors often won’t remember what songs you played at the last performance, especially if it has been a while since your last visit. Even if they do, they are generally happy to hear the songs they love played again and again. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t ever mix up your setlist, but it’s important to remain positive and happy enough to enjoy the performance each and every time.
2. People May Fall Asleep
Many of these shows are scheduled in the early afternoon – with around 1 PM being the most common time. You can expect at some point, some people may fall asleep.
This is nothing to take offense to, and does not at all reflect your level of talent or how interesting your performance is. It’s simply a reality of performing music for seniors.
3. Inappropriate Behavior
Given the age of the audience, it is understandable that there may be behavior at times that most would consider inappropriate. Seniors suffering from illnesses such as dementia or Alzheimer’s may not respond to normal social cues.
They may also speak their mind a bit more freely. Although you can never please everyone with every performance, it can be disheartening if someone vocalizes their feelings loudly.
It is also not uncommon for two seniors to get into arguments during the middle of your performance.
4. Staff Are Not Always Available
Unfortunately, staff may not always be available to step in and handle issues. Many of them work very hard and for long hours, and may mentally ‘check out’ a bit during your performance, if not tending to other tasks. It can be a bit uncomfortable when issues occur, and staff doesn’t step into help as quickly as you may like.
Fortunately, these issues become easier to navigate with experience.
Performing music for seniors requires a different skill set than most musicians are used to. However, the rewards are plentiful – both financially, as well as emotionally.
You are doing a real service for these people. The music you provide is beneficial not only for their ears, but for their minds and their souls as well. Although it may become a routine task for you, this is something that many seniors look forward to and continue talking about after you leave.
I hope that you’ve found this article helpful. If there are any questions that I can answer, please do not hesitate to leave a comment below.
Thank you for reading, and we’re wishing you the best!