With her beautiful voice, singer Patricia Hammond could make millions in record sales. Instead she devotes a lot of time to bringing joy to care home residents. Sharon Griffiths talks to her.

SINGERS are used to performing in concert halls, theatres, churches, and chapels. Canadian mezzo Patricia Hammond can do all that all right. But she also performs in more unusual surroundings – the overheated, close-carpeted lounges of residential care homes, where some residents heckle, others ignore her but sometimes the response is wonderful and moving, a genuine communication through music that can be very emotional.

“There’s a way of singing so that tears won’t interfere with your technique," says Patricia, who’s needed that talent on a number of memorable occasions.

This week will be fairly typical for Patricia, who’s lived in this country for the past ten years.

Tomorrow she’ll be singing in St Mary’s Church, Arkengarthdale, as part of the Swaledale Festival. The programme include songs of landscape by Handel, Vaughan Williams, Elgar and Poulenc among others.

It’s also the world premiere of a new work by composer Michael Brough of setting of poems by local residents.

“They’re wonderful,” says Patrica.

“So atmospheric. The words tell of the landscape, hillsides, dry stone walls, sheep, their wool caught on wire, and it’s all there in the music.

It really conjures up a mood. I’ve never been as far North as that part of Yorkshire, but I feel I already know what it’s like from the words and music.”

Patricia’s repertoire is wide and varied. She is an oratorio soloist – lots of Bach, Haydn, Schutz – but has also recorded French chansons and has just spent two evenings singing ragtime as part of the centenary celebrations for the Brixton Picture Houses – before singing a mass and then a Bach cantata on Sunday.

She is wonderfully enthusiastic about them all.

“I love whatever I’m doing. I always think ‘It doesn’t get much better than this’. Then I do the next thing and feel just the same about that.”

But alongside the classical work she has a passion for old songs, from the middle of the 19th Century to the middle of the 20th. The songs our parents and grandparents sang, heavy on sentiment and nostalgia and redolent of more innocent times. Her new CD includes titles such as We’ll Gather Lilacs, Smiling Through, Drink To Me Only and A Nice Cup Of Tea.

“They’re wonderful songs, so full of nostalgia. And they’re still very popular, people love them, yet it’s decades since some of them have been recorded.”

As well as a great voice, she sings them with style, panache and humour and gives them back the spark they must have had when they were newly written.

Many of them are songs she sings in her concerts at care homes.

And that’s another part of her varied life. For the day after her recital in St Mary’s church, she’ll be in a sheltered housing complex at Reeth to give a short recital there.

“When I was growing up in a small town in western Canada, these were my dry runs before going in front of a real audience. Now I often sing in care homes. The audience often have no idea we’re coming and never know anything about me. It’s difficult to know which songs will work and which to avoid. The pianist and I have to bring along an enormous bag of music, in case they want swoony Vera Lynn or peppy Gracie Fields, or there might be a large Scottish contingent.

If there have been a lot of deaths then maybe songs of love and loss could go down badly. Or perhaps that’s exactly what’s needed.”

At first, out of tact to the large number of widows in her audience, she left out the last verse of “Smiling Through”, which goes “And if ever I’m left in this world all alone, I shall wait for my call patiently”, only for the entire room to start up where she left off and sing that poignant verse with feeling.

“It’s every widow’s favourite part of the song. I never leave it out now.”

It’s not just the pleasure of a good sing song – always therapeutic in itself – music strikes a chord, literally and metaphorically. Quavery voices join in with songs from their youth that they might not have heard for decades. Once a man slumped in his wheelchair joined in with a powerful baritone, singing song after song – Love’s Old Sweet Song, Danny Boy, Avalon – as the room filled with nurses and carers.

Only afterwards did someone tell Patricia that the man hadn’t spoken for five years. A small miracle brought about by music.

As her father lay dying, Patricia sang to him – the only communication they could have. “Even when everything seemed so hopeless and all normal ways of interacting so meaningless in the face of death, music still reached my father.”

And when she got back to London after the funeral, it was the old people in the retirement homes who understood and comforted her.

Music has the ability to reach the places that mere words can’t. It can awaken memories, spark responses, inspire communication or just simply give a great deal of pleasure. Two organisations – Music in Hospitals, which does just what it says, and Lost Chord, which organises concerts and recitals mainly for dementia sufferers – have long known the power of music on mind and body.

“They do such great work that I’m always surprised that people don’t know very much about them, which is why I’m glad to do it and talk about it.”

There’s a small risk that she might become better known for that than for her classical work. “Oh that I should be so famous that that could be a worry!” says Patricia.

But with a voice like hers and a repertoire so varied, she soon could be.

• Songs of the Landscape, Patricia Hammond (mezzo soprano) and Michael Brough (piano). World premiere at St Mary’s Church, Arkengarthdale, tomorrow, 5pm. Swaledale Festival runs until June 11. swaledale-festival.org.uk, patriciahammond.com

The world's a village in Durham

DURHAM will be playing host to its first World Village Market. This unique street market, with a festival feel, will feature exotic world cooking, home-made, healthy and traceable foods together with ethically traded, hand-made, ecofriendly arts, crafts, clothing, jewellery and accessories from all over the world.

The event is taking place in the Market Square from Thursday to Sunday and promises a feast of exotic foods for visitors to try – from Thai noodles to Spanish paella, Greek olives to French cheeses as well as a selection of local and British food.

To add to the festival atmosphere, there will craft demonstrations and live music including Bongo Bert’s Drumming Workshops, where visitors can join in the fun.

For more details, visit marketsquaregroup.co.uk

Walk off the weight

IN their latest eBook – The New Walking Diet: Walk Out, Work Out, Weight Off – Maggie Humphreys and Les Snowdon encourage people of all ages to become more active by walking regularly. Maggie and Les, who are originally from Middlesbrough, are authors of Step It Out and five other bestselling books on fitness walking, as well as the creators of walking.org, an online resource for fitness walkers.

More than 40 surveys worldwide now recommend walking as the best exercise for people of all ages and levels of fitness to become active and stay active. The New Walking Diet provides graduated plans to enable even the most unfit person to get back on their feet again in 30 days. An enthusiastic cook, Maggie also provides a 30- day healthy eating plan, full of delicious, low-fat recipes to help you lose weight and maintain your new, healthy lifestyle.


Poetry please...

POETRY and pints is an informal evening of readings by Barnard Castle writer and poet Emma Guyll, pictured, in the first floor bar of the Georgian Theatre, Richmond, on Monday, June 6. Entry is free and you can take along your own poems to read or any favourite poems by other poets. The bar opens at 7pm and you can call 01748- 825252 for further details.