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Weekly Alibi The Rest Home Circuit

Musicians Bring Live Music to Elderly

By Dennis Domrzalski

JUNE 21, 1999:  It starts slowly when Cabin Lance and Thom Parrott start playing their guitars and singing. A few feet in the audience start tapping, then there's a pair of hands or two that begin clapping. Then the smiles come. More feet tap. More hands clap. Then someone starts singing along. A few more voices join in. And maybe a few people get up and begin dancing.

The dancers don't do flips or twirls. They can't. Sometimes it seems as if they dance in slow motion. The people's clapping isn't the loudest you'll ever hear. And they might not remember all of the words to the songs. But it doesn't matter to these people. Because whether their bodies are ravaged by cancer, their minds thwarted by Alzheimer's disease or their bodies worn out by simple age, the people in Albuquerque's nursing and retirement homes are hearing live music thanks to Lance, Parrott and the Association of Volunteer Artists and Musicians.

Back in February, the 47-year-old Lance, who has been around Albuquerque's music and club scene for decades and who once ran for mayor on a legalization of marijuana platform, had an idea.

"My goal is to put live music in every rest home in the state once a week," Lance, who looks like an old prospector, said recently over beers. After kicking the idea around with Parrott and others, Lance decided that he would take some time out of his street corner musician gigs and work toward achieving his goal. He and others got on the phones and called nursing and retirement homes, asking if they could come and play for free for the residents. They filed with the state of New Mexico for nonprofit status, and the Association of Volunteer Artists and Musicians was born. Since February, Lance and Parrott have played more than 25 times at nursing and rest homes in the city. They're hoping to make their efforts and their organization permanent.

For Parrott, who is in his 50s, the situation has a double benefit. The elderly people get to hear live music, possibly for the first time in years, and he, Lance and other musicians who have sort of aged their way out of Albuquerque's club scene, get to play to an enthusiastic audience.

"The audience loves it. They are really a very appreciative audience, the older people," Parrott said. "A lot of these people can't get out.

"I'm in my 50s now, and a lot of musicians in their 50s don't have a lot of places to perform. The bar scene is aimed at people in their 20s, and they don't want to see a lot of people their parents' age up there on stage. It seems like we have found an audience that appreciates us. We have never gotten negative feedback at all.

"You perform for an audience that smiles at you and has a good time. It is kind of a therapeutic thing. I feel better about myself when I go play. I feel like I have performed a meaningful function."

Lance also feels like he is doing something worthwhile, as opposed to merely seeking fame and fortune.

"This isn't about money; it is about people," Lance said. "It's music for people, not for profit."

For Lance, it is playing for people suffering from Alzheimer's that is particularly satisfying.

"All they have is a big-screen TV for entertainment," he said. "They're confined and they might not know the names of their kids. They may think it is 1932 when we play, but they really enjoy it, and you can't buy that with a TV.

"They want entertainment. They need entertainment. Their lives aren't over. They just got old."

Audience Participation

Lance and Parrott play and sing music from the '20s, '30s, '40s and just about anything else their audiences request.

It's not just a receptive audience that makes it fun to play in the rest homes. It's the people they meet and the surprises they get, Lance said.

At one home they met an old woman in a wheelchair who said she used to sing. After inquiring further, Lance and Parrott discovered that the woman had actually recorded songs, although the last time was apparently in Manchester, England in 1927.

Then there is Professor Paul "Pat" Thomas, 89, who decided to make his own music with Lance and Parrott.

"We were playing one gig, and a 90-year-old guy came up afterward and said he wished he had a washboard to play," Lance said. "The next time we showed up he had a washboard and played old Dixieland stuff."

The first time that Lance and Parrott met Thomas was on Valentine's Day this year when the two played at the Vista Del Rio home at 1620 Indian School Rd. NE. At their next performance at the home, Thomas, who is a retired sociology professor, had his brass washboard and thimbles for his fingers and played along with the two.

And Thomas played again with the two on June 4 at a 3 p.m. performance in Vista Del Rio's third-floor cafeteria. For Thomas, being able to play with Lance and Parrott is a bit of a blessing. Years ago he played his brass washboard, which was actually used for washing and which Thomas got from a lady who lived on Lake Erie in Ohio, in a Dixieland jazz band at Depauw University in Greencastle, Ind. Until Lance and Parrott came along, he hadn't played the washboard since 1982.

The June 4 performance at Vista Del Rio showed how popular live music is at the rest homes.

At starting time about 17 people, several of them in wheelchairs and many using walkers, were in the cafeteria. But as the show continued, with its mix of bluegrass, popular tunes from the '30s and '40s and what Lance calls "hillbilly music," more than 40 people filled the room.

Some could dance. Eighty-one-year-old Howard Greenwood was the star of the show. With arms that still looked thick and muscular, Greenwood two-stepped by himself while urging others to join in. Carlos Manzanares, 87, and Toni Fischer, soon to be 90, got up and danced with each other around the room.

A woman in a white cowboy hat couldn't get up to dance. She was in a wheelchair. But that didn't stop Greenwood from taking her hands and dancing with her. The woman was all smiles. She began pushing the wheelchair forward with her feet. Soon, she and Greenwood were in the middle of the floor, and even though she was in a wheelchair, the woman was dancing.

Manzanares' enthusiasm for the live music was absolute. "I love it," he said. "It's a darn good program. I used to square dance, round dance, waltz and polka."

Vista Del Rio Activities Director Janetta James said that Lance and Parrott first played at the home on Valentine's Day this year. The two musicians had contacted her about playing. About 50 or 60 people showed up for that first performance.

"The residents fell in love with them," James said. "They're very gentlemanly and very sensitive to the residents. The residents love them."

Normally, Lance and Parrott play for 30 to 45 minutes. But at 4 p.m. that Friday they were still playing and Greenwood was still dancing around the floor. During a break, Parrott announced, to some applause, that just that morning the Association had officially received its nonprofit status from the state.

At 4:15 p.m., Lance and Parrott ended the show with "Goodnight Irene." Almost everybody in the audience knew the words. Many left the room singing. The crowd seemed to wish that the show would continue. Parrott gave a big hug to his mother, Margaret, 80, who is a Vista Del Rio resident. The lady in the cowboy hat in the wheelchair wheeled up and thanked the two. Professor Thomas said thanks as well.

It isn't just the elderly that the two men play for. Recently they played at an annual barbecue dinner at Casa Esperanza, a home away from home for New Mexico cancer patients and their families. The private, nonprofit center can house up to 28 families at a time.

For cancer patients who spend most of their time fighting cancer, a barbecue and short concert can be a welcome relief, said Casa Esperanza Director Eileen Cook.

"Cancer can be so devastating," she said. "The patient spends 95 percent of their energy fighting it. They're emotionally spent." So the home uses activities such as art and horticultural therapies to help heal wounds and focus on positives."

Music, she added, can also be therapeutic. The energetic performance by Lance and Parrott was proof.

The men began the show inside, providing a lively atmosphere as the party started and as people began to eat. As guests and staff spilled out into a courtyard to enjoy the weather, Lance and Parrott followed. They played guitars and sang old jazz and '60s hits.

The performers' enthusiasm flowed to the audience. Laughter and dancing spread across the courtyard. People seemed to be having fun. On this evening there were reminders of why these families were gathered together. Some people showed visible signs of their illness. But for one night, with the help of the music provided by Lance and Parrott, people didn't seem to be dwelling on the struggles they faced.

The two men have also played three or four times at the Manzano Del Sol home near Lomas and San Mateo Northeast. Sometimes the two musicians get an audience of 50 to 60 residents, and the performances are "wonderful," said Manzano's Assistant Recreation Therapy Director Chad Boutte.

"They are providing music to our residents that is familiar to them," Boutte said. "The response is great. It is a great organization. The volunteers are very dedicated and very talented. We are fortunate to have this organization visit us. They are available as much as we like. I can't praise them enough. They are a great service to us and especially to our residents. We are definitely going to continue to use this service."

Truly a Volunteer Group

The Association of Volunteer Artists and Musicians really is a volunteer group. Office space, a desk, a typewriter and a telephone have been donated to the group by Lorraine Duran of Duran Realty.

Booking and secretarial duties are handled by Cindy Hinson, who works as a travel agent at her regular job and who is also a landlord in the UNM area.

"It really strikes a chord with Alzheimer's patients," Hinson says of the group's musical efforts. "They [the residents] remember things that they had long forgotten. My grandmother was a resident at one of the homes. She just loved it when the musicians came out. It was the high point of her week."

Lance is looking for other volunteer musicians to play in the homes, and he will need them if he is to reach his goal of putting live music in every rest home in the state once a week. Since many musicians have "regular" daytime jobs and since many of the organization's jobs are during the day, it might be hard to find them. But Lance isn't deterred. "I need people, not cash," he said.

But the group will take cash. Although the service is free, many of the rest homes have an activities budget, and the group will take money when offered, Lance said.

Parrott's long-range goal for the organization is to help support musicians in their old age.

"If we can develop this enough and get a good economic base behind it and some community support, we would like, eventually maybe, to provide a little economic help for some musicians," Parrott said.

"A lot of musicians spend their lives, maybe 20 or 30 years, trying to develop a career and trying to make something meaningful happen and they wind up in poverty. It's fairly common for someone to give themselves to performing arts and get to be 50 and 60 years old and be broke. There's no job security. You're not paying into Social Security. We have got an awful lot of talented people who have given themselves to careers and who find themselves in difficult economic positions. We hope to find work for some of those people. If we can get some grant money, we can pay some of the performers when the venue is not paying."

For Lance, though, simply performing for the elderly might be reward enough. A two-year stint in the Army, a mayoral run, publicity and a life of making music might have led to this effort.

"The rest homes," he said, "this might be the sum total of why I have done all of this. I had always hoped for mass appeal, acclaim and CDs, but this is a total win."

But there is a downside to playing for the elderly in rest homes.

"At one place an old lady in a wheelchair said she liked music," Lance recalled. "Three weeks later we went back and I asked where she was, and they said, "She's gone.'"

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