Olympia singer trades concert stages for elder audiences, reviving memories with song

Elizabeth Hummel of Olympia once performed at Lilith Fair, singing for thousands of people on the main stage with Sarah McLachlan.

Twenty years later, most of Hummel’s audiences are a lot smaller and a lot older, and the singer-songwriter has never found more meaning or more joy in performing.

Her purpose: to share music and friendship with elders living in nursing homes and other senior residences. She still gives public concerts, but most of her work happens in elders’ rooms, where she sings and plays for audiences of one or two.

“I believe in the power of music, but it surprises me how powerful the experiences are, especially for people with dementia,” she said. “They wake up. Parts of the brain that remember music aren’t as affected by Alzheimer’s, and so music gives them great pleasure and joy.”

More and more research is confirming the healing power of music. Last week, the National Institutes of Health and the National Endowment for the Arts awarded $20 million to the Sound Health Initiative for research into music’s potential for treating neurological disorders and into the way music affects memory.

On a recent afternoon, Hummel sang to residents in the Convalescent and Rehabilitation Center at Panorama in Lacey, walking from room to room with her guitar and ukulele.

The sessions — half concert, half visit — were brief, but her listeners were, without exception, changed by the songs, whether they were neofolk originals or such standbys as “You Are My Sunshine” and “Amazing Grace.”

From their beds or wheelchairs, they sang. They bobbed their heads or tapped their feet. Sometimes they cried. Nearly always, they smiled.

“She does magic around here,” said Panorama activities director Deb Becker. “People love her.”

“She’s good,” said Panorama resident Gary Oberbillig. “She’s more than good. When Elizabeth sings for us, it does a wonderful thing in terms of our memories. It puts it all back together for us.”

Hummel had learned the song “The Bailiff’s Daughter of Islington,” about a young man who’s parted from the woman he loves, at Oberbillig’s request. He and his wife, Molly, shared smiles as they listened:

“Oh, farewell grief, and welcome joy,/Ten thousand times therefore;/For now I’ve found mine own true love,/Whom I thought I should never see no more.”

In another room, a woman sat up in bed to listen to “Tennessee Waltz” and soon began singing, swaying, waving her hands and smiling. Even after Hummel left the room, she continued singing.

Hummel came to this work as a volunteer in 2016, shortly after she lost her job with the state legislature.

“I was determined that this terrible thing was going to be something good for me, but it was hard,” she said. “I decided that I needed to do some volunteer work to take my mind off of myself and give to other people.”

She worked as a volunteer for a year, singing in nursing homes and for people receiving hospice care, and then began earning her living through playing for seniors, though she continues to volunteer time as well.

Besides the private concerts, Hummel plays regular group concerts for residents and families at Panorama, Olympics West and other senior-living facilities.

“What she does with the group brings people together,” said Sandra Hays, who regularly attends Hummel’s concerts at Olympics West in Tumwater, where her late husband Bob Hays lived. “She welcomes people and invites them to sing along. She’s part of the community.”

Bob Hays was a regular at Hummel’s monthly Olympics West performances, and she sang for the Hayses in Bob’s room not long before he died in January.

“When she played ‘Michael Row the Boat Ashore,’ that was the first time he really sobbed,” Sandra Hays said. “It gave us a chance to grieve together. He knew he was dying, but he didn’t really want to talk about it.”

As Hummel’s music transforms others, it’s transformed her, too. She describes the work as a calling and even a ministry.

“It’s been life changing for me,” she said. “I can see the positive results on a daily basis.”

She sees the people she sings to as friends, rather than clients, and those friends have inspired songs, including two included on the latest album she recorded with her band Waterwitch, and so many essays that she’s planning a book.

“I could write those vignettes every single day if I could deal with typing that much,” she said. “There are so many moving, beautiful things that happen.”

Elizabeth Hummel

Though she spends much of her time working with elders, singer-songwriter Elizabeth Hummel continues to record and do public performances, mostly with Waterwitch, a collaboration with partner Brian Castillo and guest musicians.

Upcoming concerts

• 7 p.m. Oct. 19, Carlyon Beach Clubhouse, 2719 Island Drive NW, Olympia. $10-$20 donation suggested.

• 8 p.m. Nov. 15, Octapas Cafe, 414 Fourth Ave. E., Olympia. $10.

Recent recordings

• Waterwitch’s “The Light Inside You,” released in May, includes two songs — “The Stars of Orion” and “In the Moment” — inspired by and written for elders Hummel has met through her work. Listen at music.elizabethhummel.com/album/the-light-inside-you.

• “I Love You Merlene,” a single, is about a 103-year-old woman who’s always loved to sing. Listen and read the story behind the song at music.elizabethhummel.com/track/i-love-you-merlene.

More information: elizabethhummel.com, elizabethhummel@yahoo.com