I met Gene Sartain at Tenth East Senior Center, a facility that Heart & Soul performers visit regularly. He was accompanied by his Irish flute, a guitar, and a small, elderly dog named Rita who he had rescued. The three of us sat down, and surrounded by residents, we chatted about Heart & Soul, his travels, and what it means to give back.
Gene has been with Heart & Soul since its inception in 1994. As of 2009 he had played 216 shows with the organization, but at this point he’s stopped keeping track. In addition to performing, he served on the board for several years, getting the sense of the “inner workings of this very altruistic organization.” Over the years he’s been a part of several different bands, starting out as Old Dog New Tricks, transitioning to The Gene Pool, and now, “I’m just me,” he says.
Gene starts all of his shows fifteen to twenty minutes early, and he never plans his set list before he arrives. A virtual pied piper, he plays jigs and reels on his flute as the crowd gathers, and together he and Rita break the ice so that everyone feels comfortable before fully jumping into the show. He has three three-ring binders full of songs, ranging from early swing tunes like Ain’t Misbehaving and All Of Me, through the Beatles and up to modern tunes like Elle King’s Ex’s and Oh’s. The reason for this is so that no matter what audience is in front of him, he can play the show that’s best suited to them. He cautions musicians to leave their egos behind them when they perform, and instead be open to what the audience needs.
The residents that Heart & Soul visits live isolated from the rest of society, which is why he makes it his mission to provide them with more than music. “It’s important to connect with these folks. They don’t just want music – they want a connection. They’re hungry for words, eye contact, and to be noticed.” However, the residents aren’t the only ones who get emotional fulfillment from a show. He describes his work with Heart & Soul as being “emotionally and spiritually growthful.” When I asked about a favorite experience with the organization, his reply was “Tuesday,” before going on to describe playing with a group of residents in a memory care facility, singing, and a bird that chirped along – but only when he played the flute. “It was a magical experience,” he concluded, giving Rita a scratch on the head.
His life has been filled with travel, including teaching music in a high school on a reservation in Montana and working for the government in China (which he brought his guitar along for,) before heading to North Dakota to teach, and finally returning home to Utah at the behest of his children. Despite his adventures taking him far away, Heart & Soul has been a continuous part of his life. “I hope, long after I’m gone, that Heart & Soul has longevity to it,” Gene says, relaxed in his chair. After being a part of the organization for so long, he’s an authority on the subject. With all that he has contributed, his attitude is still one of gratitude. At the end of the day, he says, “It just feels good to give.”