Fewer than a dozen elderly people gathered in the Courtyard of Loveland elder-care facility to sing songs and enjoy one another’s company. Musicians Courtney Hartman and Taylor Ashton had a performance at a traditional venue in the evening, but the afternoon was dedicated to bringing the joy of music to residents.
The two, who were on tour supporting their latest album, Been on Your Side, had paired up with a program called Detour, a project of the Colorado Music Strategy. The goal was simple: Together they could bring music to elder-care facilities across Colorado.
Days would be spent playing elder-care facilities along with Fort Collins-based senior-care music specialist Hanna Doreen Brown, and then the duo would play traditional shows in theaters in the evenings.
The experience, say Hartman and Ashton, was just as fulfilling for them as it was for the residents. Spending time with facility residents became the folk duo’s favorite part of each day.
“In response to when we talk about this, people have been like, ‘Oh, you angels,’ or, ‘It’s so great you’re doing this’ – as if it’s some sort of a burden on us to do this,” says Hartman. “I think that’s a cultural view of that generation, when we actually have so much to learn.”
At a second performance at the Courtyard of Loveland, Hartman and Ashton played a mixture of their own music and requests; residents giggled, ribbed one another with jokes, sang and clapped, and savored every successful call for one more song.
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There were considerably fewer tears than at the first performance, but in turn, there was rarely a moment that didn’t include rounds of laughter.
Hartman and Ashton participated in the fun as much as anyone else; they joked with one another and the audience, they played songs they knew listeners would care about, and they happily indulged people who just wanted to be within earshot of the action.
When the residents took a break for lunch, Hartman and Ashton followed, with permission, to the dining hall to continue.
Between bites of mashed potatoes and salmon for lunch and sips of root beer floats for dessert, Hartman and Ashton continuously directed their attention to new faces and different parts of the room as they performed classics such as “Dream a Little Dream” and visited with residents who didn’t make it to the courtyard.
“It’s been such a joy; I’ve cried almost every time we’ve been,” says Hartman. “We’ve had moments with folks that are just amazing. There’s a different value of our music in that space. I hope it can be something that a lot of touring artists can do and be a part of, and for there to not be a weird cultural stigma around putting music in nursing homes.”
“It’s been amazing,” says Ashton. “It’s been so cool to have the shows in the evening, but in the afternoons, to have this other kind of musical activity that has a completely different goal than the type of music-making that, as musicians, we’re conditioned to aim for.”
Been on Your Side is a beautiful and charming collection of acoustic folk music tailor-made for intimate theaters and audiences. Their music has chemistry, as each musician ebbs and flows to accommodate and accentuate the other.
But throughout their nine-day tour to elder-care facilities, people clamored for oldies, held loudly whispered chit-chats during songs, and even took time to shut their eyes.
For better or worse, elderly residents and staff members at care facilities spend countless hours with one other and in near-constant interaction. To switch things up and have a performer visit, or even have an artist’s new CD to listen to, can make for necessary breaks in day-to-day life.
“I thought they were great. All three of them just have too much talent,” says Kremmling Cliffview Assisted Living resident Charlie Kinter. “They seemed to be touched like every other performer. Sometimes we have visitors like this two or three times a month, and sometimes we don’t have anybody. It’s just a matter of circumstances and their availability to perform for us. We’re a captivate audience, and that’s no lie."
The music offers a psychological benefit to the residents.
“It’s not only for their self-esteem, but music needs to be spread around to be played for the masses," says Hartman. "Music is an instigator, you know. You can’t live without it. It helps with the attitude of the people. Instead of sitting here being a bump on a log, they can get involved, and care.
"People were asking for the hymns this afternoon, and you can tell it makes them feel a lot better," she adds. "We started playing hymns, and a few of the people here were just lost in heaven.”
There are parts of being an artist that seem to instigate a bit of a wrestling match between the reality of being a traveling musician and the optimism of going to elder-care facilities in the afternoons. But the impact of the Detour remains evident in Hartman and Ashton’s reflections on music, their own original work, and how playing it and sharing it connects everyone in some way.
“I think when you’re playing for a whole room of people, you can kind of sometimes forget what happens between you and one other person in the room,” says Hartman. “When you’re just playing with ten or so older folks and you can sing a whole verse and look into someone’s eyes the whole time, and you get to see them light up toward the end, that’s different.”
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“I think it means more to them for us to share what we’re doing with them,” says Ashton. “If we're singing 'She’ll Be Coming ’Round the Mountain' and there's someone who heard that when they were eighteen or nineteen and now they’re ninety, that sort of shoots this beautiful golden thread through their entire life. It’s kind of electrifying.”
As Hartman and Ashton finished up their rendition of Johnny Cash's “Ring of Fire,” they lingered for a bit near the back door of the dining hall, almost searching for one last reason to stay.
“One last song?” Ashton asked his partner with a grin. As if he already knew the answer, he began to play another.