A Day in the Life of a School Performer

Are you interested in supplementing your income as a performer? Curious about what it would be like to do daytime gigs in schools?

Well, here’s exactly how a typical day went for me last week . . .

(And how much I earned in the process.)

doing gigs in schools - dave ruchAs mentioned elsewhere, I literally stumbled into school performing back in 1995, and I now find it to be among the most satisfying things I do as a musician.

On a good day – which most of them truly are – the teachers value what I do, the kids eat it up, and real learning occurs. (I learn things too.)

I’m also able to make a solid middle-class living doing this.

So, here’s how my Tuesday went last week.

Getting Ready

The Night Before

I needed to be out of the house by 6:15am on Tuesday, so Monday night was the time to make food for the day, set up the coffee, lay out my clothes, gather all the instruments I’ll need for the gigs, grab my confirmations, make sure I have good addresses for the schools, etc.

The Day Of

Tuesday 5:30am The alarm went off. Yikes. I don’t always need to get up so early, but in this case my morning gig was 3.5 hours from home. (Smarter people might consider going the night before.) I purposely scheduled the show for 10:30am (as opposed to 8:45am) so I could wake up at home and still have time to get there and set up.

6:10am In the car and on my way to the first school. I love this drive time, alone with my thoughts, podcasts, music, breakfast, coffee, and any work I need to be thinking about. On this particular drive, I learned some lyrics, listened to rehearsal recordings for some summertime festival gigs I’ll be doing, put together a game plan for an unusual concert I’ll be doing next week, and then got caught up with the news and various podcasts I listen to.

School #1

9:40am Arrived at School #1, safe and sound. This is a school I’ve been coming to for years, and a really special relationship has developed with the students. They’re super happy to see me again (and vice versa), they remember stuff from the last time I was there (even if it was 18 months ago!), and it’s just a great time. There’s also something really magical about kids in small-town school districts like this one – they just seem more like the kids of “old” in terms of their innocence and willingness to try anything you might ask them to do.

So, I checked email in the car, then went into the school at about 10am to set up for a small concert on Colonial America for just the fourth grade, who happen to be learning about the 13 colonies this year – maybe 65 students in a cozy music room in the back of the building. Great fun. I LOVE working with small groups and single grade levels (dialed right into their curriculum, no PA system, lots of individual attention and interaction). It doesn’t always happen this way, but when it does, I’m always grateful.

dave ruch performance for kids

10:30am The show begins. It’s 45 minutes long, which is just about perfect for a group of 4th graders. An hour can work too, as long as you keep them REALLY engaged. I started with a fun song that tells a great story and involves an instrument the kids can’t get enough of (jaw harp), then I delivered some educational content about Colonial times, quizzed them a bit to see how much (if anything) they’ve already learned (which informs how I will approach the rest of the program), then taught them a song in Dutch. From there, we talked about slavery and I taught them to “hambone,” we looked at the banjo as an African instrument, I demo’d it, hit them with a song I wrote about the 24 colonial trades with lots of humor and built-in guessing games, invited six of them up on stage with me to play some Iroquois rattles as we sang and discussed the effects of colonization on the Native Americans, and then we finished with a colonial dance song into which I inserted the names of their teachers.

A great time was had by all!

Now, I suppose I could have come in and just played music and “lectured” on Colonial America, but there’s a high likelihood I wouldn’t be invited back if I did that. It also wouldn’t have been as much fun, and the kids wouldn’t have learned nearly as much. We all learn best when we’re having fun. So, it’s all about keeping them involved in the presentation.

Earnings from School #1: $750 ($400 for the show + $50/hour round-trip travel time/expense)

School #2

11:30am Back in the car and on my way to School #2, a drive of just under an hour through some beautiful countryside. This was a school that is also a 3.5 hour drive from home, so it was nice to schedule a visit when I was already going to be out in the general neighborhood – I was able to offer them a nice discount that way too. Ate lunch in the car, listened to music, arrived at the second school around 12:20 or so, checked and responded to emails again on my smartphone, then headed into the school for two afternoon concerts.

Once again, I got to be with small groups of ~60 students per concert (sometimes it’s 300), doing one program for 2nd grade and one for 4th grade (sometimes it’s one big show for Kindergarten-8th grade!), in the school library (sometimes it’s in a big loud boomy gym), no PA (I frequently need to set up and run sound for these shows), and topically dialed right into the school curriculum (a concert on neighborhoods and communities for second grade, and Erie Canal songs for 4th grade). This too is a school I’ve been to multiple times in the past, but not as consistently as the first school – so, some of the teachers know me, but I was a new face to the students.

playing concerts in schools

1:15pm The “Songs from our Communities” concert for 2nd grade kicked off with an “icebreaker” song having nothing to do with the topic but everything to do with getting the kids singing, responding to me on cue, and generally having fun. From there, I told them what the show was going to be about, defined a few terms we’d be using, busted out that contagious jaw harp again and asked them to listen for clues in the next song (is it from a “rural” or “urban” community?). Next, I told them a relatable, funny story, sang a call-and-response song with funny lyrics, did a quiet singalong with hand motions (hand motions make any song more fun for younger students), invited students up to play some rattles, and finished with another fun song.

Oh, and in between all the music, we were reinforcing simple ideas about communities, such as that they change over time, they’re filled with different people who have different wants and needs, and they require basic responsibilities from their members.

The kids had a blast, and might have even learned something! Smiles on teachers’ faces always really make my day too, as they love nothing more than to see their students engaged in the learning and having fun.

2pm The third and final show of the day. I won’t bore you with all the details of this one, but suffice it to say that 4th graders across New York State learn about the history of the region, and the Erie Canal is a significant story here. This show has been very popular because, again, it ties directly into what the schools are already teaching. I bring lots of great songs, historical information, and old and unusual instruments (bones, spoons, washboard, etc), and try my best to strike a great balance of fun, participation, and authentic learning.

kids at a school concert with dave ruchOne thing I SHOULD point out about this particular show is that the students had not learned anything about the canal yet. (These shows often get scheduled months ahead of time, with teachers taking their best guess as to what time of year they will be immersed in a given topic.) This is really handy information to know, since I designed the show to complement what the students typically learn in class rather than to teach the subject from scratch. So, a quick question to the teachers ahead of time got me the information I needed, and I adjusted as best I could to make the show more of an “intro” to the topic. This happens all the time – just something to be aware of.

So, this show was also a blast. It’s rare that every single show in a given day is a “home run” – I do anywhere from one to four concerts a day when I work in schools, and it’s fairly typical that one of them will feel a bit less effective than the rest for whatever combination of reasons. But this was a great day all the way around.

Earnings from School #2: $800 (a discount off the regular price of $950 if I were coming from home)

Homeward Bound

3:05pm Back in the car. I was pretty fried, but really happy with how the day went. Listened to news, checked in at home, responded to emails (at the rest stop, of course), and just vegged out to some music.

6:30pm Back in my driveway where it all began, and home for dinner.

Totals Earnings and Stats for the Day: 494 miles driven, two meals eaten in the car, 185 students and 15-20 teachers seen, two school buildings, three shows, 12.5 hours away from home, two hours and ten minutes “on stage,” $1550 earned.

Want to Do Daytime Gigs in Schools?

I recorded a two-hour webinar recently covering the whole gamut of school performing, from choosing a theme and designing a show to working with different age groups, pricing your shows, marketing to schools, booking procedures, and more. A replay video is available for purchase right here.

dave ruch how to do daytime gigs in schools


About The Blog

The Largest Online Gathering of K-5 Classrooms for Connected Educator MonthSince leaving a white-collar marketing job in 1992, Dave Ruch has been educating and entertaining full-time in schools, historical societies and museums, folk music and concert venues, libraries, and online via distance learning programs.

Along the way, he’s learned a great deal about supporting a family of four as a musician.

The Educate and Entertain blog provides articles, tips, encouragements, and how-to’s for regional performers (in any region) interested in making a great full-time living in the arts.

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9 Responses to A Day in the Life of a School Performer

  1. Rich Bala

    Hey Dave, Great post, especially the detailed info (I LOVE details!). A couple of questions:
    1) What would you charge as a duo? Would it be double the amount? As you know, I do lots of school work with Jonathan Kruk, and I wonder if doubling the fee would make it “cost prohibitive”.
    2) Did you start off charging that amount at those schools, or did you raise the fee gradually over the years that you’ve worked with them? You say that you’ve worked with them for many years, and I was wondering if you’ve always charged the same every year, or gradually built it up over time.
    Thanks!
    Rich Bala

    • Dave Ruch

      Hi Rich – I don’t think I’d double the rate as a duo, especially for doing grade-level-specific programs like you guys do. I kind of feel like I’m on the upper end of what might be affordable for schools to spend on an individual grade level or two (as opposed to something that would benefit the entire student population).

      As for rates over time, they have definitely increased. I started at $300 per program + $25/hour of round-trip travel time. I’m now at $400-500 per program + $50/hour of travel time. That change has been taking place slowly and sporadically over the course of a twenty year period.

  2. Brad

    Brilliant Dave
    Thanks for the transparency.
    Inspiring and helpful.
    warm regards
    Brad

  3. Steve Featherston

    Excellent blog post … I like how you went right the “nuts & bolts” of things with real-world examples.

    Thanks again!

  4. Brian Richards

    Hi Dave,

    Great article really sums up the life of a school performer. I have been in this business for over 25 years and am always interested in the marketing end and new ideas! Specifically I would love some ideas and advice on piggy back bookings. I like you always try to book other shows in an area I will be in if it is over 100 miles or more from my home. I have never had much luck with this. I usually contact them with a 3 step email sequence and offer the program at my regular fee because the other group is already paying the travel costs.

    I have had some success of offering to share the travel expenses if the school that originally booked me finds other programs for me…that has worked occasionally. I think one of the biggest problems is that often the school that books me contacts me with little lead time so when I contact the other prospects they aren’t open on the day I’ll be there.

    Any thoughts or resources you could steer me to?

    Thanks,

    Brian

    • Dave Ruch

      Hi Brian – it’s great to compare notes with a fellow school performer. I’ve done lots of the same, offering my standard/no-travel rate if I’ve already got an anchor gig that’s paying my travel, or alternately splitting travel expenses between two schools. If school #1 books us on fairly short notice, I’d don’t know if there’s any good answer there for scaring up another gig with the possible exception of reaching out to schools that desperately want you but haven’t been able to afford a visit in the past. I find that they are willing to schedule on really short notice because they’re motivated by the opportunity to have you. My MO in general is to send lots of emails out at once, and as inquiries start to come in, I immediately begin trying to put a few of them together on the same date based on location. It doesn’t always work out so neatly, but often it will.

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