Musicians put heart into songs

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Carol Sorgen

A passion for music has defined Ted Zlatin’s life, from his days playing in a teenage band, to a career that has covered every aspect of the music business, from promoting records to selling pianos.

Now retired, Zlatin is using that same passion to bring the joy of music to older adults throughout the Washington/Baltimore corridor through the Music and Art Traveling Heart Show.

“Music and arts have shown the power to touch a heart and soul, bring back a memory, evoke an emotion, inspire feelings and stimulate the senses,” said the 62-year-old Zlatin, who grew up in Baltimore and now lives in Howard County.

The vision of the Traveling Heart Show, which Zlatin established two years ago, is to enhance quality of life for area seniors. Two of his inspirations are his own parents, ages 92 and 89. “They are why I’m doing what I’m doing,” Zlatin said.

“We strive to bring out emotions with an interaction of musicians, artists, performers, video and audio to find a way to touch their hearts,” said Zlatin.

Meet the performers

Four professional musicians make up the band: Otis Stroup on keyboard, Jamie Hopkins on bass, and Tim Ghiz on drums, with Bruce Thomas as the vocalist.

Zlatin himself doesn’t perform, but serves as the band’s executive director, setting up gigs and raising funds, as the Traveling Heart Show is a nonprofit group.

Some members of the band have a lot of experience performing for older audiences. Stroup, for example, has long performed with his wife, a flutist and singer, at nursing homes. “It’s a crowd that I love,” Stroup said.

There’s ordinarily a “barrier between musicians and the audience,” he said, but when playing for seniors at a community “there’s a lot more singing along. I don’t think we perform for [these audiences]; we’re sharing music with them.”

Stroup has been a mainstay in the Baltimore/Washington metro area, playing for more than 20 years at restaurants such as the Rusty Scupper in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor and the Café de Paris in Howard County.

Ghiz has been playing drums professionally for 43 years, including traveling across the country with numerous shows on the road. He particularly enjoys performing for the Traveling Heart Show’s audiences because “I like playing the jazz standards that older generations appreciate a little more.”

The great standards of the 30s and 40s that the band now performs were the top 40 back in the day for their audiences, Ghiz noted. “You can see their faces light up,” he said. “That’s a lot more rewarding than playing for people trying to pick each other up at a bar.”

But Ghiz also has a more personal connection with some of his audiences. He said he long served as a caregiver for his father, who had Alzheimer’s.

“I saw when I put swing music on for him, that would cut right through the memory loss. He’d have a big smile on his face, unlike with television or even visitors,” he said. Ghiz sees that sense of recognition in some members of their audiences as well.

Passion runs both ways

Hopkins is a full-time musician, teaching bass and guitar, performing on bass and singing. He has been performing since the age of 13, and also composes and makes recordings.

He notes that when musicians play in a restaurant, they are more in the background, whereas Zlatin has his band “put on a show” for their audiences. As a result, their performance “is possibly the highlight of [their listeners’] day or week. I’ve never been in something that makes that much connection,” Hopkins said.

It generates a special enthusiasm in the band. “We really do care about the people. Other places, I’m like, ‘When is this over? Where’s my money?’ This is actually fun!”

Hopkins, whose nickname is “White Lightnin,” plays a 21st century instrument called an electric upright bass, or EUB. It’s very compact, basically the neck of a bass set on a tripod, so “it sounds like a bass but doesn’t look like one. I drive a Miata!”

Thomas, the vocalist, first took to the stage at age 3. Over the years, he said, his vocal style has been influenced by such artists as Al Jarreau, Frank Sinatra, Al Green and Miles Davis, not to mention his own father, Ralph Thomas, a professional singer.

Thomas once was a full-time singer himself, but he went back to the “real world” after the birth of his daughter. He started singing again two years ago, performing at restaurants and nightclubs, as well as with Traveling Heart. In his day job, he’s a branch manager with Options for Senior America, a personal home care organization.

 Thomas likes to look for people in the audience with whom to connect. “It could be the person who already has a sparkle in her eyes, or on the other hand, it could be the person who sits with his arms folded and needs a special touch.” Literally.

Hopkins said Thomas “makes it personal. He goes out and shakes every single person’s hand, puts his arm around them, takes an extra mic around and they sing along.”

Thomas agreed he’s a strong believer in both the power of music and the power of a simple touch on the shoulder. “I just want the audience to accept what I can give them,” he said.

Before establishing the Traveling Heart Show, Zlatin consulted with physical therapists and psychiatrists who work with older adults to get ideas on how to make the show not only entertaining but as beneficial as possible. The advice he kept receiving was to make the performances interactive.

“That’s what we try to do,” he said. “We not only want them to have fun, but to get involved.”

That could mean anything from singing along to dancing, clapping, shaking marimbas, mingling with fellow seniors, or “whatever comes along,” said Zlatin.

He plans, for example, to bring high school kids to performances at senior centers and nursing homes so the generations can interact. In the future, he wants to add videos and art work to the presentations.

“It’s a gumbo of different activities,” Zlatin said, adding that he hopes to do a rock festival for seniors at some point, too. “As we get older, we’ll probably start adding the Beatles as well,” Zlatin laughed.

A nonprofit ensemble

The Music and Art Traveling Heart Show is set up as a nonprofit corporation, seeking donations, contributions and grants to help it reach as many older audiences as possible. The shows are offered on a regular basis at senior centers and retirement communities throughout the region, often as an open house for families to enjoy.

“Family members love watching the interaction and involvement of their relatives,” said Zlatin. He receives enthusiastic feedback after performances from both audience members and program directors, many of whom comment on the sessions’ upbeat and enjoyable nature.

Hopkins noted that when children or caregivers come with some audience members, “They say, ‘Wow! That person hasn’t reacted like this in a long time.’”

According to Marian Oser, a program specialist at the Baltimore County Department of Aging, the Traveling Heart program “engages audiences. [They] can’t help but get involved in the fun,” she told Zlatin.

That’s the kind of response Zlatin likes to hear. “The passion we bring to each performance with the engagement of the participants will help us to achieve our mission to enhance the quality of life for senior citizens through music and arts,” he said.

The Music and Art Traveling Heart Show will perform at the Beacon’s 50+ Expos on October 30 at Ballston Common Mall in Arlington, Va., and on November 6 at White Flint in N. Bethesda. Admission is free.

For more information, visit www.travelingheartshow.com, or contact Zlatin at travelingheartshow@gmail.com, (410) 499-9777.

With additional reporting by Stuart Rosenthal