Once Upon a time, Long Island music school graduate Eva Swan found herself singing to a nursing home audience of senior citizens. Instead of pain, confusion, or lethargy, she looked out and saw eyes filled with curiosity and anticipation. Some of her audience mouthed the words to American Songbook standards, others almost danced in their wheelchairs or seats. It was as if a group of what had been subdued older people, suddenly emanated light. The young woman discovered her life’s calling, a meaningful contribution enhancing the twilight of thousands of strangers. That was 1900 plus shows ago.
Swan moved to New York, got together performer/waiters from Ernie’s, the Upper West Side restaurant where she worked, and produced a concert at a nursing home on West 106th Street whose name she found in a telephone book. She offered and the facility gratefully accepted. It was that simple. Keeping an upbeat atmosphere at nursing homes, senior centers, senior residences, and hospitals is a daunting responsibility. Encouraged, Swan made more phone calls, began to accrue a Rolodex of volunteer artists, and spread out across the city. Vocal Ease was born.
With the help of an altruistic co-vice president at ARK Restaurants (Ernie’s was in the ARK family), the young woman applied for not-for-profit status and was seeded money for corporate filing and operation expenses. (The corporation still donates to what is now a 501(c) 3 status organization.) A Board of business people and entertainers was assembled. Councilwoman, now Manhattan Borough President, Gale Brewer, contributed discretionary funding and, since 2008, has graciously loaned Vocal Ease the use of her home for an annual holiday party honoring participants.
Taking a flying leap, Swan quit her job. One imagines her living on Ramen Noodles. (What was then hand to mouth has become a modest living.) As Vocal Ease’s only employee, she learned grant application by trial and error – this is like scaling a glass mountain, personally lugs around sound equipment – blessing Uber drivers and doormen, and manages logistics/scheduling that would daunt the minister of a small country. When talent refers to her as a drill sergeant, to a person, this is followed by “as she must be.”
“We’re there to make them happy. If they need to fall asleep (this doesn’t last), sing along, or get up and dance…it’s about giving them what they need,” Swan affirms.
Vocalist Kristopher Lowe comes from a musical theater background. When he answered an ad in Playbill and started to perform with the venture 16 years ago, he admits to having been wary. “I didn’t know how to break the fourth wall.” The artist credits Vocal Ease with inadvertently offering an opportunity to learn the skills of cabaret intimacy, not to mention songbook repertoire. In the process, sensitivities shone. “That tall guy” is now often requested. Ninety-eight year-old Irene Patrillo, who still lives alone, has dropped in to several shows at different senior centers following him. (Programs have a list of available upcoming events on the back.)
Eighty-six year-old LaVerne Gaither saw her first Vocal Ease show at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital when she was recovering from a stroke. Once she got well, the responsive octogenarian would sometimes return to the hospital just to attend other concerts. “You wouldn’t think she’d want to go back…” Swan muses grinning. A recent poll of seniors who travel to shows at multiple locations reached 100.
Karen Oberlin, who became aware of her when Vocal Ease received a MAC Award, calls Swan “heroic.” The vocalist had performed for seniors before, but discovered impromptu sing-alongs require getting used to. When a woman joined in stumbling through lyrics, however, Oberlin instinctively left the stage and held the resident’s hand while they finished the song together. This is the kind of compassion volunteers display.
“My teacher Barbara Lea had Alzheimer’s. She seemed completely vacant at the end, but when we sang songs she’d performed, Barbara sang along,” Oberlin comments. “There’s science to that. Music reaches a part of your brain when nothing else can.” Alzheimer’s associations confirm the premise that music associated with personal memory helps reach and engage even as memory fails.
Board Member/Vocalist Brian Sogol watched his grandmother disappear into Alzheimer’s. “Nothing she ever did or could do would be wrong in my eyes…Someday I could end up in one of these places. Belting a song could be my moment of glory.” After a holiday concert, a wheelchair-bound woman motioned him over asking whether he knew “Ma’oz Tzur.” Being a former Bar Mitzvah boy, Sogol not only knew the song but sang it to her in Hebrew. People gathered in the lobby. Her family watched speechless. “It was not a Tony Award winning performance, but very moving to her.”
Lauren Stanford’s mother is a retired hospice chaplain who spent considerable time working in nursing homes where the singer was encouraged to entertain patients. To the young performer, joining Vocal Ease was organic. Jeff Harnar’s mother is in an assisted living residence in California where he does a concert whenever on the west coast. “It’s way to be of service,” he tells me. “Music has healing power.” Recently he and longtime MD/pianist Alex Rybeck performed at a senior center in Silver Springs, Maryland, where Rybeck’s parents live. Like many artists who donate time and talent, all have personal experience with the immense impact an organization like this has on the lives of geriatric citizens.
In the course of a year, Vocal Ease visits 70 different places, 35 of them public senior centers open to seniors in the five boroughs. It currently presents about 12 shows a month, bringing joy to approximately 6500 people. Think about that.
Appreciative fans recommend the organization to other venues. Where once Swan would have to reach out, she now fields calls hoping to enlarge audiences rather than adding locations. Most facilities have decent pianos, but if necessary, Vocal Ease provides a keyboard. Its persevering founder carries assorted extension cords with the complacency of those who habitually tote bottled water.
Swan tells me that age, ethnicity, and extent of illness influence program choices. The Corsi Senior Center has a predominantly Latin audience. Here, she wants material to be at the least accessible and often familiar. A concert there featured “Guantanamera” and “Quando, Quando, Quando.” Some vocalists perform in Spanish.
At New York Harbor Veteran’s Hospital, the group offered a roster including familiar pop songs of the period during which patients might’ve served. These included “Downtown” and “Love Potion # 9.” For the 305 West End Residence, Vocal Ease concentrated on selections from the youth of its elderly attendees with selections like “It’s De-Lovely” and “Come Rain or Come Shine.”
In New York, the empathetic Swan moves through a Vocal Ease audience connecting with people one on one. Harnar has been known to sit on laps. Lowe relates the story of a woman on Coney Island who rose from the back slowly making her way to the stage as he sang “Night and Day.” She reached him, put out her hand “and spun me into dancing.” This kind of interaction is gloriously common.
Involvement is not always obvious. People who watch expressionless, perhaps adrift in memory, often come vividly alive when it’s time to applaud. Many seniors have medical history. Some have aphasia. One vocalist recalls a literally catatonic man who started to tap along to a melody.
There’s next to no patter. The coordinator says she learned her lesson early when midway into a 15 second welcome, she was interrupted by a woman at the back shouting, “Just sing!” Though dates are secured with facilities far in advance, she learned to wait for artists’ commitments, sympathetically aware that paying work might arise. This means turning on a dime. Imagine the paperwork.
“These are essential performances – just piano and microphone, no lights. We sing right to them. Every time I get off my duff and onto my bike to do one of these, I leave feeling inspired.” (Performer/Board Member Steve Ross) “The other day, leaving a Vocal Ease concert, I ran into Marta Sanders and told her where I’d been singing. And now you feel like a million bucks, don’t you? she responded. (Jeff Harnar)
“One of the beautiful things about Vocal Ease is how it brings together two groups of people that need each other. All over NYC are singers looking for outlets to practice their craft, and all over the city are homes for the elderly, filled with music-lovers who are no longer able to get out and take advantage of the concerts, shows and cabarets they used to attend. During a show, you may inspire someone who can barely talk to sing along. Or even get up and dance. The power of music to make people feel good and transport them cannot be underestimated.”(MD/Pianist Alex Rybeck)
Vocal Ease holds auditions in March/April, but anyone interested in performing with the group can send Swan recent videos or MP3s.
This is an eminently worthy organization. Have a there-but–for-the-grace-of -God moment and participate. Hosted by Broadway/concert//cabaret star, Rebecca Luker, the third annual fundraiser, chock full of talent, will be held at Feinstein’s/54 Below (254 West 54th Street) on Sunday, October 29th at 2pm. Tickets are $35 -$50 -$75 – $100. ALL include an open bar. The venue will not be serving food. Click for the website for the Vocal Ease Benefit at 54Below.
“I happily accepted Eva’s invitation to MC the benefit at 54/Below. Vocal Ease is an amazing organization. The joy and music it gives to our elderly population, folks who can’t easily get out and attend a concert or show, is so valuable. I’m honored to be a part of this wonderful group of people. Bravo Vocal Ease!”
I second the exclamation.
Photos courtesy of Vocal Ease
Opening Performer: Hechter Ubarry
Rebecca Luker photograph courtesy of Stacey Swain Mgt.