I am a musician who plays at nursing homes on a regular basis and the stories I have experienced would make a great movie. Over the past 15 years I have worked full time as a nursing home entertainer and some of the things I have seen were very memorable, to say the least.
In this business, you are on call everyday and holidays tend to be extra busy. I remember one Mother’s Day in Brooklyn where I was wheeling in my equipment on a hand truck, including my keyboard, stands and sound system, when I overheard a woman in the waiting audience say to the man next to her, “Oh, there’s the man who is going to do the show today.” He very quickly replied, “Didn’t you see the equipment he has? He’s here to clean the carpet!’
Other times, it can be dangerous. There was this one time I was doing a strolling program with a guitar on a Sunday afternoon. I was playing my usual mix of standards, show tunes and audience participation tunes when I started to play “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On.” A woman got up out of her wheelchair and chased me around the room waving her cane at me. She did not approve. She said, “Don’t let me hear you playing that music on the Lord’s Day. I’m not gonna tell you again!”
Most of the time it is not like that though. I’ll never forget the time I did an MPTF show in Manhattan and there was a woman in the room with severe Alzheimer’s and dementia. Most of the workers there said they never remember her being able to speak. Well, no sooner did I start playing “There, I Said it Again,” when she seemed to come out of her confused state and start singing along perfectly. She remembered the lyrics better than I did! It’s times like this when it is very rewarding to be able to do this work and be able to reach and connect with people that seemed to be lost, bringing them back to reality, if only for a moment.
Some people tell me they don’t know how I can do gigs like that. They ask me, “Isn’t it depressing to play for people who are so sick, sometimes terminally ill. How do you do it?” When I hear comments like that, I have to laugh. It’s just not true. There is joy in doing this.
One day I was doing a show when I came across a very cranky old woman who was very funny. She kept looking at me with a very disappointed look on her face. She asked me, “Do you know how to write?” Of course I said yes, to which she replied, “Why don’t you get right on out of here, then?” I later found out that she only likes Nat King Cole. The next time I saw her I serenaded her with “I Love you for Sentimental Reasons” and we’ve been friendly ever since! We, as musicians, are lucky to be able to make a living doing something we’ve loved doing all our lives, bringing a little bit of joy and memories to people who many have forgotten about. Now what’s so bad about that?
Mark Doyle has been a member of Local 802 since 1993. Members can submit stories to Allegro@Local802afm.org.