Senior Center Gigs

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The discussion below is taken from a thread launched by "mgbchuck" on the PSR Tutorial Forum.  Click here to go to the original thread.

mgbchuck
03-06-11 03:15 PM

Howdy! I have read some interesting information on the forum about several of you who have regular gigs for the Senior centers and nursing homes. I want to start looking into this more seriously now. .... I play in a little three piece group right now, play the "animal circuit,"and I would like to look at doing a single at the senior centers. I am not a great lead singer, mostly a good back up singer, but I can get by if I have to. I am using a Tyros II (love it) and have about 100 registrations stored with songs and a few midi files.

My question is, I have no idea how to set up for these gigs, song selection, set lists, how many vocals, instrumentals, telling jokes, audience participation, how to start the first set, how long are the gigs, taking breaks. I don't have a handle on it. I have played gigs with bands since the late 60's, but I am at a loss of how to put it together. How does this differ from playing a club? I have read all the information from Gary about promotion and marketing and I feel comfortable with that. I just have to have my "act" put together so I have a good product the first time I go out. I need to look seriously at this because it might help me pay the bills, not the "extras" anymore.

I would appreciate any advice you can give me.

Thanks,

Chuck Lyons Akron, Ohio

travlin-easy
03-06-11 4:05 PM

Chuck,

The senior circuit is a fun way, at least for me, to make a living. I get to meet some wonderful people who really appreciate my performances, I get to go to work in the middle of the day so there's no rush hour traffic to contend with, and if I wanted to, I could work 7 days a week, two to three jobs a day.

Keep in mind, though, that there is no retirement program, no benefit package, no medical coverage, you pay all your own expenses. The pay scale is nearly the same as it was a decade ago, so you must keep that in mind as well.

There are several do's and don'ts in the senior circuit. Keep these in mind at all times and you'll have more work than you can handle.

1. Never tell jokes. Someone in the crowd, or a staffer, will probably be offended by the joke and it will be the last time you work at that facility. And, the word get around to other facilities.

2. Never discuss politics or religion with anyone--residents or staff.

3. Always arrive early enough to set up your gear and have a backup plan should a vital piece of equipment fail.

4. Schmooze with the residents. Ask if they have a favorite song they want you to perform, tell them you're glad to see them, etc... It goes a long way in making their lives better and they do talk with the ADs on a regular basis about the entertainers.

5. Dress for the occasion. You would be amazed at the number of performers I know that show up looking like they just crawled out of a wine bottle. During the winter months I wear dress slacks, highly polished shoes, a satin shirt, matching satin tie and a contrasting silk vest. My hair, at least what remains, is always neatly trimmed, combed and the mustache is trimmed as well. During the summer months it's black dress slacks, highly polished shoes and a colorful Hawaiian shirt that is sharply pressed.

6. Always carry your pocket calendar with you. There are lots of occasions where an AD will ask if I have a certain date open for a special party, open house, etc... If you have your book with you at all times you can provide them with an answer, and more often than not they'll book you on the spot. Then it's just a matter of sending them a confirmation.

7. Always provide the AD with a professional invoice--not just something scribbled on the back of a business card. Use Quick Books or a similar program that will allow you to create custom invoices that can be tracked by number or date should there be a problem in getting paid.

8. As for the performance itself, you must first and foremost be a reasonably good singer. I, and most of my colleagues in this part of the world, are good vocalists and we play very few, purely instrumental songs. Sure, you can do a polka medley, and maybe a medley from Fiddler On The Roof, or some Irish Tunes, but by and large they want to hear you sing their favorite songs. If you are a marginal singer at best, I suggest going to the local community college and taking a six-week course on voice and articulation. It will really go a long way in helping you along in this business.

9. Try to book your jobs at least 6 months in advance, and if possible, a year or more in advance. Most of the ADs have a budget to work with, and it's often not very large. If you book a year in advance they're usually more than happy to comply, and you know exactly where you will be performing in March of 2012.

Now, lets look at the monetary aspects. Most of the jobs pay $100 to $150 per hour, depending on your locale and your reputation. Don't sell yourself short and play for less than $100 an hour or you will soon find that you're not making enough to survive on. All those expenses that were paid by your employer(s) in years past are now being paid by YOU. YOU ARE NOW THE EMPLOYER--that's why we call it self employed.

If you perform once a day, that translates to $700 a week gross income, which is about $36,400 per year. In today's world, that's lot a whole lot of money for working 365 days a year. Yep, you'll have to work every holiday, birthdays, anniversaries, etc... Take a day off and you don't get paid.

Your largest business expense will be the cost of transportation. The cost of gasoline is skyrocketing as we speak and will likely hit $4.50 to $5 a gallon by summer. If you have a mini-van you'll be able to weather this gasoline gouging storm, but if you still drive a Hummer you had better be getting $150 an hour or more just to make up the difference. Last year, driving a mini-van, my gasoline expenses alone were close to $4,000. Add to that tolls, tires, maintenance and miscellaneous repairs and you're looking at 5 to 6 grand just for transportation.

The added benefits of performing the senior circuit are spin-offs in the form of private parties. If you have developed that singing voice and have a good reputation it's not unusual to pick up a couple dozen private parties a year from folks that are either visiting loved ones in Nursing Homes and Assisted Living Centers, or referrals from other musicians that cannot take the job because of scheduling conflicts. The private parties are usually 3 to 4-hour jobs, take place in banquet halls, restaurants and private homes, and the pay scale is about the same at $100 to $150 an hour. Therefore, you can figure on making $400 to $500 or more for a 4-hour private party.

During private parties you get to take some short breaks--but let me emphasize the word SHORT! Anything longer than 10 to 15 minutes an hour is too long. Don't take advantage of the situation with that old routine of 40 minutes of playing and 20 minutes of break an hour--in the real world that no longer goes.

I hope this information is beneficial to everyone that is considering performing the senior circuit.

Good Luck,
Gary Cool

 

DonM
03-06-11 5:44 PM

I might add a few things to Gary's great post.

Play mostly upbeat songs. They need to have their spirits lifted.

You can play a Gospel song at the end if you wish, but rest assured most nursing homes have LOTS of free Church music played for them. And that's good, but it's hard to get paid for it.

Play songs that they remember from when they were in their 20's-40's. If they are 75-85 now, then their prime days were 1950's to 1970's. Not too many really want to hear Big Band or songs from the 20's and 30's. At least around my area. Of course they will enjoy a little of anything that is really well done. I never stray too far from songs that were MONSTER hits. They will remember them, sing along and maybe dance if they're able. It is a truly rewarding experience, in ways other than monetary.

They are old, not stupid, and they can recognize when something is good, or if you are BS-ing them.

An hour is plenty long enough. They have a Bingo game later, then supper at 5:00 and most go to bed before dark.

Be CERTAIN the AD or someone qualified stays in the room with you. You are not a sitter, you're an entertainer. There WILL be someone who gets up, approaches you and will fall into your rig if someone isn't watching. The music makes them do, or at least they THINK they can do, things they couldn't ordinarily do!

Now, retirement homes are different. They may be younger, more active and even more discerning.

Hope this helps.
DonM

DrakeM
03-06-11 7:34 PM

How many sets are the Nursing Homes booking per performance?

If it's only an hour .. are you making the one hour set have a theme? Or are you just getting there early to find out what the people want you to play and make the set up on the spot?

I'll be retired in two years and might try this venue out.

travlin-easy
03-06-11 7:34 PM

There are times when the facility has certain themes--Hawaiian, Jimmy Buffet, country, big band, happy hour (yes, some have weekly and monthly happy hours), monthly birthday bash, etc.. For those events there are certain songs you'll be playing. The same holds true for holiday events. For example, next week I have 7 Saint Patrick's Day parties in 5 days. Keep in mind, though, you would put them asleep with an hour of Irish songs. Therefore, 8 to 10 traditional Irish songs, Danny Boy, Irish Washer Woman, Harrigan, etc.. is more than enough, and mix them with some of your regular, upbeat songs that you would normally perform during non-holiday events.

Nearly all the Nursing Homes, Assisted Living Centers, and retirement communities book just one hour jobs. For much of the hour try to keep the songs fairly upbeat, with only an occasional ballad thrown in, but no gloom and doom songs. The main reason to get there early is to make sure all of your equipment is functioning properly. I usually arrive about 30 minutes prior to the performance, setup time is about 10 minutes tops, then I put on an MP3 for a bit of background music while the assistants and AD bring in the rest of the residents.

And, like Don said, be sure there is a staff member in the room at all times while you are performing. They would all love to get out of their seats and dance, but very few can even walk without assistance. If the AD or staffer is paying attention and you see someone getting out of their chair, be sure to get the AD's undivided attention and point out the problem. I have been to places where the staff left the room and I actually stopped playing because no one from the staff was in the room.

Good Luck,

Gary Cool

mgbchuck
03-06-11 8:22 PM

Thank you, thank you, Gary and Don. I have printed out the information you have listed, Gary, and added it to the marketing information that I have picked up from you on the forum. I will follow it to the letter. I think the first thing I will do is get some vocal lesson and get evaluated from a professional coach. I have done some leads on songs but mostly country up tempo songs. They seemed to work for me, basically Alan Jackson stuff.

I know what it is like to work in the "real world." I ran my own photography studio for 20 years during the 70's and 80's. Worked 7 days a week with very few vacations and lots of bills to pay. I had up to 5 people working for me at one time, so there was an endless amount of benefits I had to pay out! Any way, right now, anything that I can do will be better than no money coming in.

Once again, thank you for taking lots of time to post the information. I will take it to heart!

Thanks
Chuck Lyons Akron, Ohio

DonM
03-07-11 3:48 PM

Chuck,

If you get to Dayton, look up Bill Corfield. www.billcorfield.com

He has been doing Nursing Homes for some time, and probably learned most of what he does from Gary.

DonM

mgbchuck
03-08-11 4:06 PM

Hey, Don, thanks for the site. I went on and checked him out, very impressive!

Thanks,
Chuck

Lynn Rae
03-08-11 6:03 PM

If anyone has the time, check out the link to Bill Corfield that Don added in his post. I listened to Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow on his demo CD on his website. He's really awesome! It will be worth your time.

Lynn Rae

Afton72
03-08-11 6:13 PM

Hi,

I thought he sounded VERY impressive too. Backing & voice are so vibrant.

Alan

Leading Edge
03-09-11 4:19 PM

Gary,

Can you please explain what a Jimmy Buffet and a Happy Hour are in a seniors' home please.

Thanks

Vic

travlin-easy
03-09-11 7:51 PM

Happy Hour at some senior locations is no different than happy hour anywhere else. Some retirement/assisted living locations where I perform have their own nite-clubs, cocktail waitresses, waiters in tuxedos, huge bars, lots of dancing and cheap drinks for happy hour.

Jimmy Buffet parties are parties that usually take place in the summer months, often outdoors on beautiful, enclosed patios where the residents are served Margarettas with all the trimmings. For those that have alcohol restrictions because of medications, the Margarettas are served virgin. Same holds true for Pina Colatas. During most of the performance, I perform upbeat Jimmy Buffett music that is interspersed with upbeat Caribbean music and songs by a host of artists such as Harry Belefonte. The attire is usually shorts and colorful Hawaiian shirts, and of course, sandals. You would be amazed at the number of 75 to 85 olds that you'll see in a conga line while you're playing Hot Hot Hot.

Attached are some photos of one the many locations where I do these types of parties. (Click on photo to enlarge.)

Outdoor locationindoor location

Cheers,

Gary Cool

Bill in Dayton
03-10-11 7:44 PM

My ears were burning, lol...

wink

First off, I'd say take heed of the stuff Gary wrote. I agree with virtually all of it and point you towards his longevity as proof he's found a good approach.

Here's some of my own thoughts, which may or may not differ from Gary's. (There's more than one way to skin a cat...)

1) Keep a good variety in your song selection. Unless hired to play a particular style of music, cover the waterfront with everything from Big Band, to standards, to country, to oldies, to 60's/70's rock, to seasonal, to gospel stuff. A "something for everyone" approach is a solid one.

Example: I played Tennessee Waltz, Play That Funky Music and His Eye is on the Sparrow consecutively in my show yesterday morning.

2) Appearance: Look professional, but be careful that you don't come off as putting more effort into your clothes than you do your act. I typically go "business casual" polo shirts/khakis, dress shoes. Its perfectly fine. (One of the other full time one-man band-ers in SW Ohio is known for looking sharp but putting on a very average, somewhat dull hour of music. Don't be that guy.)

3) As Gary said, allow extra time when getting to gigs. I get set up, check in with the AD to see if there's anything special I need to know about, and then float through the audience looking for requests. Which leads me to #4...

4) We're NOT there to give a concert. Period. We're in someone's home. No more, no less. Share your story/life with the audience. Tell them about your kids, tell them how your wife is mad at you for forgetting to take out the trash, etc. Talk to them like you would people you've known for awhile.

The music is the primary reason we're with them, but IMO, we're there to stimulate them. Three ways I shoot for every performance is:

* Intellectually - Play games with them, name this tune, trivia related to musical eras, tie it to a musical theme.

Example:

I give you the first name of a big band leader, YOU tell me his last name....

I say "Tommy or Jimmy..."
They say "Dorsey!"
I say "were they cousins, brothers or father and son?"
They say, "brothers!"
I say, "Who can name for me another set of famous brothers?"

* Physical stimulation - Get them to respond physically to most of your songs. Watch their feet more than anything else. Clapping, dancing, etc. are all obviously good signs they're having fun.

* Emotionally stimulate them. Gospel songs, WW2 ballads, patriotic songs, etc. can evoke some powerful memories and emotions for them. While I don't advocate trying to have your audience weeping, if I see 1-2 people a show with a tear in their eye, that means I'm touching them. Nothing wrong with that at all. Just don't end with that kind of thing in general.

You achieve all three of those goals every performance and you will succeed.

5) Use dynamics. Avoid having everything the same volume, tempo, etc.

6) Regarding Holidays ... Other than Christmas, I rarely play more than 3-4 seasonal songs TOPS during my hour. Some obscure Irish tune may be fun to play, but its probably boring to most in the audience. Hit them with the biggies, do most of your regular stuff and keep things moving.

7) Don't become predictable. I have a general set list for my nursing home accounts that is about 40-50 tunes long, which I use as a guide. I never know what I'm going to play first when I walk in. As I set up and feel the vibe in the room, I decide what to start with. Generally, its almost always something medium tempo to "ease" them into the hour show. I don't clobber them with something huge nor do I start off with a slow tune.

Add new stuff constantly. There's acts around Dayton and I'm sure in Gary's neck of the woods where their set list never changes. Residents notice, Activity Directors notice, etc. Not good.

Try not to play "Nursing Homes songs." 99% of the people that want to hear those are already dead.

cool Money. I'll present a different viewpoint than Gary's. If you walk into your local nursing homes as a new guy and demand $100 an hour, you probably won't get it. There are profound regional differences and Ohio is not the high rent district. Our cost of living isn't what it is in the DC/Baltimore area either. A pricing policy I found that worked well in Dayton was to shoot for as close to $100 as I could get. I'd go as low as $75 when I started and I offered volume discounts for 6 or more shows a calendar year. I quickly shot up to 400+ jobs per year which gave me a decent income, gave me plenty of opportunities to hone my skills and make new contacts. Multiple shows in the same area on the same day are key to making this work as a full timer.

After 15 years of doing this, my wages now average over $100. Funds are limited, and every AD has a horror story about trying a new guy and paying them X dollars and he wound up stinking. Your first goal is to develop a client list and a great reputation. Give them no reason to not call you first.

As far as private parties, I do a lot of them. They're not as much fun to me as the NH's are, but still cool to see people dancing of course. Price wise, I'm in the $300-$500 range for weekend evening. Animal Club dances go for less, as you know from your experience. I can usually pull $250-$300 a night from those accounts. I draw people to these clubs and that justifies my wage.

9) Quality. From day one, I've approached this work as I would any other gig I've ever taken. I used to take in a full PA (I now use a Bose L1), I use a high quality arranger (Tyros 2, like yourself), etc. I sound just as good in the nursing homes as I do in any club, banquet hall or hotel ballroom. There are guys who walk in with little tiny speakers and a low quality mixer and don't sound so good. What sounds best to you is up to your ears of course, but its part of your presentation that gets noticed.

10) Billing. Be prepared that many of your accounts will NOT pay you on the day of the event. Often, they're not even allowed to turn the check request in until the services have been provided. Getting a check in those instances can take anywhere from ten days to 90 days. Plan accordingly. As long as the client is adhering to their stated payment policy, we can't gripe. If they don't, then we can, gently, lol...

11) Advertising/marketing. (Full disclosure: I have a 4 year degree in marketing.) I never had a demo tape, never had a promo package, etc. I DO have business cards. Tapes/promos get tossed into a big pile more often than not and never appealed as "unique" enough for me. My approach was to stop by a facility either right before or after lunch or after 3:00 pm and asked to see the activity director. (These are usually down times when AD's aren't involved in morning meetings, care conferences or other activities.) I'd introduce myself, give her a card and briefly describe what I did. I would then offer her a short free sample, on the spot right then. I'd suggest if time permitted, show me your piano, round up some residents and let me have them for 5 minutes. If they like it, then we have something to talk about. If they don't, I'll leave and never bother you again.

It never failed ... ever.

Too often what an entertainer is like in "real life" compared to those demo tapes and press packages is totally different. With my method, the AD sees you willing to prove your skills under adverse circumstances. It shows them quickly whether you're a good fit or not. I do have a website, that includes my performance schedule. My clients book directly via the website and it very popular for them, efficient for me.

(I've had people comment about the wisdom of posting my schedule on line, with regard to other performers using it as a resource to try and pick up more work. I know for a fact at least one competitor in SW Ohio has used my site as a source of leads. I really don't care. If they're good-then great-more good entertainment for the residents. If they're not so good, it won't effect me anyway.)

12) Attitude. I don't know the original poster whatsoever, so this is just a general statement not directed at anyone on this forum whatsoever.

If you find yourself basically "getting in and getting out" of these type accounts and don't develop a heartfelt affection for your audiences, then quit. Do them and the rest of us a favor and find something else to do. Nursing homes are NOT an "easy gig to pick up some extra cash." These people are in their end of days, terrified of what awaits them and lonely beyond all words. Respect them. The songs we play for them today may be the last songs they ever hear. Its not an exaggeration. If you return every other month to a facility, I promise you someone in your audience two months ago has passed away. Learn names, remember them as best you can each visit and give a few of them some personal moments of attention. I routinely pay my respects at visitations after many pass away. It seems to me to be the right thing to do. They've come seen me for all these years, I can go see them one last time.

Being around this long people talk to me and some of the stunts other entertainers try and pull make me sick. Stay out of the residents rooms, don't ask them for money, don't sell CD's without express permission from the client, don't sell anything to an Alzheimer's patient ... EVER! Don't try lip syncing your performance. (Yup, its been tried, lol..)

All of that said...

I have never had a more personally fulfilling experience than I have entertaining residents of Nursing Homes/Retirement Communities. Animal clubs are a distant second place. Restaurant jobs/corporate gigs are miles behind this. I have met some amazing people through the years, who have awed me with their dignity, bravery and kindness. I will likely be a hot mess when I'm in that state, but for now...I adore my work. I am passionate about it.

If there's anything I can do to help you, drop me a line at corfieldb@aol.com

Thanks for reading, good luck!

Bill in Dayton

Leading Edge
03-10-11 9:27 AM

Gary,

Thank you for your clarification on Happy Hours and Jimmy Buffet Parties. I guess us English and the Americans are divided by a common language sometimes. The AD was a new one on me as well but that question has been answered in Bill's post.

Bill,

What a great post. Thank you for going to the time and trouble to post all your interesting thoughts on gigging in retirement homes. It was a brilliant read.

Between Gary and yourself this posting should be headed 'Everything You Ever Needed To Know About Seniors' Gigs'.

Vic

Bill Grosse
03-10-11 9:39 AM

Bill,

Thank you for this thoughtful and revealing post. cool

This is one for the Main site "Professional" header.

Bill G

travlin-easy
03-10-11 10:48 AM

Bill is one of my best students. wink

Gary cool

Dave
03-10-11 11:11 AM

One of the best discussions I've seen on the forum in a while. 16 years of doing this for a living and I can't find much to add. To those who are contemplating joining the ranks, do it! It's all about the music and the people, and while it takes a special calling to do this you will never get more satisfaction out of performing for anyone or anyplace. These guys know what it's all about.

Good luck,
Dave

maxmiller91
03-10-11 11:40 AM

Thanks everyone for your contributions to this post, most inspiring.
Gary and Bill: Your heartfelt article/s leave little to the imagination in things to know about for anyone contemplating this line of musical performance.
Bill - On your demo and other songs, are you playing only the Tyros 2 or using another keyboard as a controller and are you using only styles as backing? Outstanding sound at any rate.

Maxine

Bill in Dayton
03-10-11 11:46 AM

Hi Maxine:

Thanks for the compliment...

If I recall correctly, those demos were done using only my Tyros 1. I recorded them in one pass with the vocals sung live. (Basically, recorded how I perform them normally. I'm terrible with double tracking, bouncing, etc., never figured it out.)

I play over styles. I set my keyboard in full arranger mode. Basically chord with either hand, depending on what I want musically. I don't use MIDI's.

maxmiller91
03-10-11 12:02 PM

Thanks, Bill, for this extra insight and your prompt response - a testimony to one of the reasons for your success in your musical career.

Maxine