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Sounds for seniors

Louie Richmond, a former public-relations guru in Seattle, has retired and returned to his first love: the cello. He plays at retirement homes and has just signed on as music director at Village Concepts University, which engages residents of the assisted-living chain in classes for credit. (Ellen M. Banner/The Seattle Times)

After a life in PR, Louie Richmond’s latest pitch is musical outreach.

Most people know Louie Richmond as the quick-witted public-relations man behind a number of Seattle-area hotels and restaurants.

For years, he was the face of the Alexis Hotel, then the Sheraton Seattle before opening his own firm, Richmond Public Relations — a place he eased out of last year and into retirement.

Before any of that, though, Richmond was a musician. A cellist. He started playing when he was 6, majored in music, then performed and taught for years before changing careers and entering PR (though he did help start the Seattle Chamber Music Society’s concerts-in-the-park series along the way).

Retirement has allowed Richmond to return to his first love, this time engaging those just a little bit ahead of him in the dance of life.

He has volunteered to be the music director for Village Concepts University, a pilot program that allows residents of the Village Concepts assisted-living chain to earn credits by taking classes. Everything from music to science and technology, political science and agriculture. There’s even an internship program, where residents volunteer off-site. So far, four of Village Concepts’ 16 campuses are participating.

Village Concepts University started last year and was inspired by research that shows that an educational model involving course study and credits can enhance brain cognition and physical and emotional growth in the elderly — as well as offset depression.

This week, Richmond, 73, will hold his first class at Village Concepts, focusing on Bach and his cello suites.

“I guess I’ve come full circle,” Richmond said the other day in the living room of his Blue Ridge home. “All the people who knew me all that time never knew I was a musician. It was never a part of the conversation.”

Now, it is all he wants to talk about, to do.

It all started several years ago when Richmond agreed to accompany a friend who was playing piano at a Christmas party.

The friend’s mother was a resident at The Summit at First Hill. When she died, the friend donated a piano to the retirement home in her mother’s name and invited Richmond to accompany her when she first played it for residents.

Richmond did, and kept going back, then added the Kline Galland Home in Seward Park to his play list.

“I wound up loving it,” Richmond said. He has been playing there every other week for the last five years and last year was named Volunteer of the Year.

“This was a highlight for a lot of people,” he said without ego, “and for some, the only chance to hear a live concert.”

He has played at the bedsides of those too sick to get down the hall to see him play.

One woman, a former cellist, gave him all her sheet music.

Another resident asked that Richmond play the Bach Cello Suite No. 2 at his memorial service.

Tracy Willis, the director of corporate development for Village Concepts, praised Richmond’s relationship with the residents.

“He really understands the importance of not just performing, but engaging with residents,” she said. “We’re so used to playing for people, and not considering their feelings about what they are seeing or experiencing.

“So we’re bringing residents into the process.”

Richmond not only plays, he talks about Bach and what was going on in his life at the time he composed his cello suites — and what was going on in the United States at the same time.

“That makes it more relevant to people,” Richmond said, and more accessible.

“I think, ‘Why is classical music so staid? And how can it be more relevant to people, more entertaining?’ “

“Clap when you want to clap,” he tells audiences. “Ask me questions.”

It helps, he said, that he’s 73.

“If I was in my early forties, I don’t know if they could relate to me.”

So often, he said, people talk down to older people, or they assume they can’t hear and talk too loudly at them.

“One woman said, ‘You treat us well. You don’t play silly music.’ I treat these sessions as if they were paying money.”

Bach wrote six cello suites; Richmond performs four.

“I’m saying to myself, ‘Next year, I’ll do the fifth.’ That way, I’ll always have something to look forward to,” he said. “I have goals. The great thing about music is that you never get there.”

He is grateful to have an audience along for the ride, listening, engaging and encouraging him. He hopes he does the same for them.

“I have an obligation to the composer, first, to play it well. Then I have an obligation to the audience.”

“I do it because it’s the right thing to do,” Richmond said. “And that sounds so cliche-ish. But there’s no other answer.”

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