Patricia Hammond’s sentimental journey

When this mezzo-soprano sings, the old and the infirm, the young and the hip, all are transported

A sentimental journey

Photograph by Cole Garside

In the recital hall of a well-to-do retirement centre in midtown Toronto, Patricia Hammond is working a tough crowd. Many in the mezzo-soprano’s audience are clustered at the back, and some have nodded off. During Handel’s Ombra mai fu, one man answers his cellphone in a blaring tone: “Hello? . . . I’m at a concert!” When Hammond sings When the Red Red Robin, another man labours down the aisle and pokes a woman in the front row with his cane, reminding her loudly of a bridge game; she rises to her walker and leaves.

As the show goes on, the 38-year-old singer starts weaving her way among her listeners. She serenades a blind man in her warm, clear voice, and he clasps her hand tightly in both of his. During the Cuban song Yours, she approaches a shy listener sitting by himself; he retreats at first, but then, with a big smile, starts leading her in an energetic sort of seated tango. Gradually, the audience at the Briton House comes out of its shell: a woman stands up to sing La vie en rose with Hammond’s pianist, and by the end of the show, many are clapping along.

Hammond tends to have this effect on people. The B.C.-born singer, who is making a name for herself in London, England, where she is frequently featured on the BBC, has an unending supply of stories about her 12 years of touring Britain’s retirement homes. In Wales, she recalls, a man who hadn’t spoken for at least five years suddenly began singing along. In a home for criminally insane men in Northern Ireland, a “massive goth” was beset by racking, “transformative” sobs, his mascara running down his face. Even a seemingly uneventful concert can prove galvanizing: two days after a concert that she thought “nobody had really appreciated,” she learned that one man in the audience, a taciturn former construction worker, had felt memories of his mother’s singing come flooding back as Hammond performed. Afterwards he cried with happiness, and the next day he passed away.

The singer’s work supports Oscar Wilde’s claim that “music is the art, which is most nigh to tears and memory.” It also bears out an idea now gaining ground in eldercare: that music can help draw out people who seem otherwise cut off from the world. In his 2007 book Musicophilia, neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote about “the extraordinary tenacity of musical memory . . . much of what is heard during one’s early years may be ‘engraved’ on the brain for the rest of one’s life.” Sacks provides commentary in a recent video by the U.S. non-profit group Music and Memory, which features a 94-year-old man with dementia who brightens up and becomes coherent after listening to an iPod loaded with songs from his youth. Hammond’s long-time pianist Judith Flint has witnessed similar reactions when they play: she says home-care staff have told her some residents have responded to the performances “in a way they haven’t responded in years.”

In the U.K., Hammond’s star is rising: she’s represented by a company whose director signed British jazz-pop sensation Jamie Cullum for Universal Music, and Iron Lady producer Damian Jones is developing a feature film based on her experiences in old-age homes. Her new album, Our Lovely Day, which will be released in Canada this fall, brims with the kind of nostalgic classics that are attracting a new crowd of twentysomething Brits. Like her, they wear vintage clothes and eschew conventional dance clubs in favour of faux speakeasies featuring ’20s dances.

The singer’s repertoire consists mainly of popular songs from the late 19th-century through the Second World War; their artful simplicity sounds fresh to her younger listeners. In the elderly, they trigger memories—as they do, in fact, for her. Tucked into a corner table at a Toronto concert venue before a recent show, the animated singer recalls that when she was a child in the ’80s in Gibsons, on B.C.’s Sunshine Coast, “all my friends were octogenarians. I didn’t relate to other kids at school.” Her parents had a large collection of 78-rpm records, and elderly neighbours along the beach would share their favourite songs with her.

“I would get sheet music from a neighbour, and there was always some amazing story that went with [each song], about poverty, being in a strange country—all sorts of things. I’d go home and bring this tatty old piece of sheet music to life as best I could. I remember bringing my piano teacher one”—Irving Berlin’s 1925 song Always—“and she said, ‘That’s schmaltz.’ I knew that she didn’t mean anything good. That gave it an additional allure.”

In 2000, after studying classical singing in Vancouver, Hammond moved to London, where she sang as a soloist in choral concerts, played an organ in a church, and appeared with early-20th-century revival groups such as Albert Ball’s Flying Aces, where she got the nickname “the Canadian Nightingale.” She also signed up with charities like Music in Hospitals that arrange performances in retirement homes for “therapeutic benefits.”

Hammond has been performing for the elderly since she was 11, when she and her piano teacher played for a hospitalized neighbour. “I was very scared,” she recalls. “I looked out the window the whole time . . . and something took over, and singing became a kind of escape from the situation—a way of transforming the room.” Later, in Vancouver, she would perform at long-term care homes with her voice coach, who was “a bit contemptuous” of her parlour songs. “He said that escapism isn’t something you should be about. I still fight with that [idea].”

Sometimes when Hammond sings, she sees “everybody mentally leave the room. They’ve all gone to another world, to other people, and they’re not there anymore. At the end of the song, it’s an empty room.”

Such a reaction is the opposite of what most performers try to elicit, but it can be a positive one. According to Bruce Devereux, a recreation manager at the Christenson Village retirement centre in Gibsons, “That social connectedness she can make, combined with the power of music to that generation, brings a lot of people back to [an earlier] era. It can be sad, but that’s okay.”

Often the memories are brighter. On a day tour of Toronto retirement homes—rather posher than the ones she’s used to playing in south Yorkshire or the like—she has a visibly cheering effect. At Hazelton Place, resident Kathleen Darcy is prompted by the Second World War ditty McNamara’s Band to spring up and dance a vigorous jig in her leopard-print shoes; afterwards, she’ll explain that she misses her native Edinburgh, where “just even walking down the street, we’d start to sing.” After the concert, a spry 95-year-old dashes up and with watering eyes tells Hammond that Moon River reminded her of wandering through Times Square with her husband of 71 years, who died four months ago.

At the second stop, in the resort-like courtyard of the Bradgate Arms, May Richardson, in her 90s, says Hammond’s songs remind her of travelling to Detroit from Windsor as a teen to see Guy Lombardo: “For me, it’s time travel.” Occasionally it’s more difficult to define what effect her performances have: when Hammond offers her hand to one silent resident with unfocused eyes, a bib on her chest and a carer by her side, the woman squeezes so hard that she bends Hammond’s ring. Says Devereux, “When Patricia holds somebody’s hand, looks them in the eye, and sings, it [produces] a powerful wave of many different things. For one, she’s saying to that person, ‘You’re valued. I’m taking my talent and sharing it with you.’ That for some people is pretty overwhelming.”

In the fall of 2008, Hammond sang for her father. The last stages of bladder cancer had rendered him inarticulate with pain, but he visibly relaxed with the music. “It was like I’d been taught the only language that could have worked at that moment.”

Around that time, Hammond also visited a former neighbour, a singer who had been her “most important friend as a child. She taught me how to express, how to give, because I was so freaking shy, and she’s such a giving person and now was in a bad stage of dementia.” At first, the woman didn’t recognize Hammond. “She was constantly agitated, saying, ‘Take me away. Can we go?’ She was scared. I started I Love You Truly, and she sat down and relaxed. Suddenly this little voice came out, and then she was singing in a full voice, and she said, ‘Oh Patricia, you were always so talented.’

“People keep saying, ‘Oh, you’re so nice. Aren’t you wonderful? You’re like the Florence Nightingale of song, and your reward will be in heaven.’ No, it isn’t—it’s here. It’s now, and it’s every time I do it. It is a two-way street. Every musician should do this.”

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