Performing for seniors nourishes this singer’s soul

Mark McDonell loves his job.

Smiling over a warm drink in a Kingston coffee shop in November 2018, the talented father of two talks with awe about his work as a professional musician.

“I don’t take it for granted,” he admits gratefully. “I’m from a small town and I didn’t have a lot of money growing up. Now, I get to travel to different countries and perform. I’m 48 years old and I keep wondering when are people going to find out it’s all smoke and mirrors.”

A professional singer and guitar player since high school, Mark is the face of AMBUSH, a popular Ontario band.

Known for their new country sound, the band has played to sold-out crowds from coast-to-coast.

“We’re very busy as a band,” he admits, referencing the band’s rise to fame in Canada since he arrived in Kingston approximately 20 years ago. “We’re going to Canadian Forces Station Alert next week to perform for the troops. We’ve done some crazy stuff.”

Garry and Mark pose standing against a wall smiling, Mark holding his guitarNowadays, Mark divides his time between performing for big crowds and singing for smaller groups such as residents of retirement and long-term care homes.

“It’s kind of interesting,” says Mark about performing at the homes with just an acoustic guitar and speaker. “The band has had a lot of big shows, performing in front of thousands of people. My performances at the retirement and long-term care homes are smaller and more intimate which is very rewarding. Music is a healer.”

Growing up in a musical family, Mark began playing with his father for seniors in Perth when he was just 10 years old. He is now doing the same with his son.

“The old folks love the kids. It’s like I’m not even in the room,” he says with a laugh about the reaction his son receives when he plays the drums.

Lowering his voice, he talks about the pleasure he derived when he played for his mother-in-law, Nancy Langs, when she was battling cancer. 

“A lot of patients would gather outside her hospital room when I performed for her,” he says quietly. “A lot of the classic country songs I’m singing now for residents is what I was singing for Nancy.”

Before her death earlier this year, Nancy leaned down and told Mark, “Keep doing this.” 

Those three words left a lasting impression on him.

“I find it low-key, but I leave the homes feeling more fulfilled as a musician,” he says with honesty. “It’s just giving back really.”

Opening with the song, You Are My Sunshine, Mark talks about his enjoyment performing for residents and staff while accompanied by Nancy’s 78-year-old husband, Garry.

“He’s my roady,” says Mark with a chuckle about his father-in-law. “He would prefer to be out doing something, rather than being home alone. He loves to see the reaction of the people. He loves these shows. I have never gone into a home where the reaction hasn’t been fantastic.”

Speaking on behalf of two retirement and long-term care homes in South East Ontario, Brett Gibson of Gibson Family Health Care notes, “Mark and AMBUSH are a highly recognized band in this area. They attract people from all over to their concerts. For them to approach us to want to give back to the senior community shows what type of people they are. It’s a unique partnership that has grown and our residents eagerly anticipate every concert when they have a chance to be AMBUSHed.”

Mark grins when he hears the feedback.

“I try to make them smile and laugh,” he says kindly about his popular show for seniors. “I truly, truly enjoy it.”

Carveth Care Centre and Helen Henderson Care Centre are grateful for the time and talent of Mark McDonell and AMBUSH. 

In photo: Garry Langs and Mark McDonell