NOTE: We just had a two-hour webinar on performing in schools where we covered what schools want, how to put a show together, pricing, marketing and more. The replay video is available for purchase at the Performing in Schools: How to Create and Book Your Show page.
I’ll never forget my first performance for a group of school kids.
It was January 1995, and at the time I was what you would call a “gigging musician.”
My normal routine back then involved rolling out of bed sometime between 9:00am and Noon (depending on how late the night before had been), perhaps teaching a few guitar students during the day, and then playing out that night in a bar where the band might start at 11pm. Or 11:30pm.
(Famously, the bars in Buffalo NY where I live stay open until 4am, so everything tends to start a bit later…)
I had received a call from a musician friend who said “hey, we’ve got this trio that goes into schools doing Erie Canal music (what?) and we just lost our third member. Do you want to do a few gigs with us?”
Needless to say, I had no idea what Erie Canal music was, and even less of a clue about performing in schools, for kids.
Me: “Um…sure. What time’s the gig?”
Him: “8:30am. You’ll be home by 10.”
Me: (long pause…..)
Did he say 8:30am, as in 8:30 in the morning?
How That First School Gig Went
So I boned up on the material quick – – there were about seven songs to learn, and some speaking lines too.
(What? I need to actually say things to the audience?)
We arrived at about 7:30am and loaded into that brightly-lit Catholic School gymatorium, and I just had no idea what was about to happen.
We set up the PA system, rehearsed a few things, I took some time to go over my speaking parts in my head.
And then, the kids – – all 250 of them – – began filing in to that large, boomy, uninviting room.
Big kids, little kids, LOUD kids.
I think it must have been every grade level from Kindergarten to 8th. Quite a span of ages.
They took their seats on the floor in a somewhat orderly fashion as the principal made her way to the stage to greet us and, ultimately, introduce the show.
Off we went….
That first show was definitely a blur. The songs were new to me, the comedy and schtick and scripted nature of the show were completely foreign, and I learned a whole lot real quick about how NOT to talk to a room full of kids (i.e. don’t do what I did).
But when I came out on the other side of that performance, I was left with a very definite feeling.
I LOVED IT. I absolutely loved it.
The kids had so much fun. They were wide open and eager for more. They laughed. They moved on cue. They might have even learned something!
And the best part?
They didn’t need a single beer before they warmed up to us.
I pretty much decided then and there that I wanted to be doing a whole lot more of this, and because of some issues I’d been experiencing with tendonitis, it was also a very logical career move to start pursuing 45-minute gigs that pay really well and don’t involve tearing my arm apart from overplaying.
So here’s what I did…
It’s pretty amazing to think about what a turning point that gig was for me.
From that moment forward, I made it my goal to figure out how to work in schools as much as possible. I’ve spent twenty-plus years doing exactly that.
It was worth it.
The hours are hard to beat, the work feels really meaningful, and I’ve been able to make a great living doing it.
I hope that some of what I’ve learned along the way will be helpful to you.
(You might also be interested in the article “How to Get Gigs in Libraries.”)
How to Work a LITTLE in Schools
Do what you do and spread the word
I think there’s room for just about every performer in every genre to get the occasional school gig without really changing much of anything about what you do.
Sometimes you’ll find a music teacher, for instance, or an administrator, who feels strongly about providing students with cultural experiences outside of the mandated school curriculum. There are plenty of educators who believe in this approach, and of course, all the research backs up the importance of the arts to a well-rounded and sane society (to say nothing of all the academic benefits of an arts-rich curriculum).
The problem is that it’s becoming ever more difficult for schools to justify losing the sacred instruction time each teacher needs in order to get through their curriculum and prepare students for the multitude of tests and assessments they’re faced with.
Sadly, the days of “art for art’s sake” seem to be mostly behind us in K-12 education, at least for now.
However, that shouldn’t stop you from making connections with the appropriate people within your regional schools and letting them know about what you do. They may have an event or a “tie-in” that you weren’t even aware of that makes you the perfect fit for a booking.
If there’s any kind of label or authentic category you can put on what you do, you might consider adding that to your materials. It will give schools (and libraries, and other venues) something to “latch onto” when considering you for a booking. For instance, if you’re a string quartet, could you call yourselves an “American String Quartet,” or a “Pan-European String Quartet?” Maybe the school will be having an “Americana Day” or an “International Festival” in the coming months…
How to Work a BIT MORE in Schools
Do you already perform for kids?
If you’re somebody who already provides fun and engaging performances for kids outside of educational settings, there is definitely still room for you in the schools.
Whether you’re a juggler, storyteller, musician, dancer, or three-wheeled-unicyclist, your show might be perfect for one or more of the following school events:
- Fun Day
- End of the Year Picnic
- Friday afternoon before school breaks
- Evening Family Events
- Celebrations for a job well done (Reading incentive programs, etc.)
For these occasions, the school may be looking for something “fun” with no specific educational theme. Your contact person for these kinds of gigs could be any number of different people – principal, PTA/PTO/Parent Organization, one specific teacher who’s in charge of the event, etc. Best to ask.
How to Work EVEN MORE in Schools
It’s not about you, it’s about them!
The more time I spent in schools, the more I began to notice what it was that they were interested in.
On my way from the auditorium stage to the main office or the loading dock, I’d see signs on the wall that looked like some of these:
There are school-wide initiatives that most schools take on every year, and these can last from a few weeks (reading incentive programs) to a month (diversity or multicultural month) to an entire school year (character education, healthy choices, drug-free living, etc).
Remember the performing group I mentioned at the beginning of the article?
Well, they’re still around. They’re called The Hill Brothers, and over my twelve-year tenure with them, we wrote several new shows to address some of these themes head-on.
It was actually a blast trying to figure out how to make these topics interesting, humorous, fun and musical for kids, and in the process, our bookings went through the roof!
The group did over 300 shows during one very memorable (and tiring) school year alone.
The demand for such programs has trailed off perhaps a bit since then, from what I can tell (I have moved into other areas myself.)
However, artists who have created programs around these topics are still getting booked regularly.
Because they’re offering something that speaks directly to the needs of the school.
How to Work a LOT in Schools (this is what I do most…)
Integrate with the grade-level curriculum
I surveyed 700 elementary school educators recently about the role of the arts in their classroom teaching.
Granted, these were 700 teachers who had registered their classes for a live online concert I was giving, so perhaps they were predisposed a bit to warm feelings for the arts.
Still, their answers were really interesting.
Q1: Do the arts help make learning fun and relevant for your students?
- Yes – 96%
- No – 3%
- Not Sure – 1%
Q2: Would you like to be using more music in your teaching?
- Yes – 92%
- No – 8%
OK, so far so good! This is very promising.
But now, here’s the big one…
Q3: What’s the #1 thing keeping you from using more arts in your teaching?
The choices were “Budget,” “Time,” “Not Sure How To,” and “Don’t Care To.”
What do you think they said?
517 of those 700 teachers (a whopping 74%) gave the same answer:
Lack of time is the #1 thing keeping educators from using more arts in their teaching.
The reality of teaching today
As mention earlier, educators are under a tremendous amount of pressure right now, and have been for some time. In fact, I can’t tell you how many teachers have told me they’re warning their own college-aged children to go into any field except education.
By and large, educators are pro-arts and would love for their students to be getting more. They understand not only the intrinsic value, but also what the arts do for student engagement, motivation, and processing of information.
They just can’t give up the instructional time.
So what do we do?
Here’s what we do:
We create performances, workshops, and/or programs that dovetail directly with things they’re already teaching in the classroom.
This is it. This is what’s enabled me to keep my calendar filled to capacity with really satisfying school bookings each year.
Offer the schools something so valuable to their teaching that they will go out of their way to make it happen.
Here’s an example
I’ve always been interested in history and culture. I’m also a musician.
Through my experiences doing Erie Canal music in schools with The Hill Brothers, I learned that 4th grade is the year that all New York State students study local and state history.
Great! What else do they learn about besides the Erie Canal?
By talking to some teacher friends, I was able to get a copy of the old “Scope and Sequence” curriculum guidelines that schools were following back in the late 1990’s.
A big old xerox of the entire thing.
In that document, I could see exactly what social studies and history topics were being covered at each grade level from K-12, and within each unit of study, I could drill down to discover exactly what content the students were charged with learning.
Here’s an excerpt from the modern-day equivalent of that document, now called the New York State K-8 Social Studies Framework, from the 4th grade section:
What we can see very clearly here is that in fourth grade, one of the first units the teachers will cover in the fall (4.2) is on the Native Americans who inhabited the area before European contact.
Ding ding ding! I’m really interested in Native American history.
This is where my first curriculum-related program was born. It was going to be just for 4th graders, and filled with interactive music and history to illuminate Haudenosaunee life.
I called the show “The Native Americans of New York State,” which is how the unit was titled in the old curriculum guide.
To whatever extent possible, use the exact same language that educators use when you title and describe your program. Since the teachers refer to this unit as “The Native Americans of New York State,” I called my program the very same thing, word for word.
I had a great time investigating traditional Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) music from old ethnographic field recordings, contemporary Iroquois singers and other materials, and boned up on as much Haudenosaunee history as I could specifically as it related to the aspects of Iroquois life students would be learning about in 4th grade. (4.2a, 4.2b, 4.2c above.)
Once I got my feet wet, I added a songwriting component as well.
Here’s a section of the original postcard I was sending out to 4th grade teachers to market the program. Notice how the whole thing speaks directly to the teachers, and the last line assures them of its relevance to their work:
Still today when I describe the program on my website, I use the following words (which might look really familiar from section 4.2a in the curriculum document above):
“Topics covered include the Iroquois’ use of their surroundings to meet their basic needs for food, clothing and shelter, and the forced relocation of the Iroquois to the reservations.”
Can you see how irresistible a program like this would be for a teacher? Now they have someone who can come into their classroom (or auditorium, or gymnasium…) with an arts-based learning experience tied directly to what they’re teaching.
Their curriculum + your artform + active participation + rich content + humor + fun = the very best kind of learning experience.
Teachers know this, and they’re willing to find the resources to make it happen. (You can help with that too, but that’s for another blog post.)
Are You Ready?
I hope this has given you lots of food for thought. I’m going to leave you with a few ideas to pursue if you so choose.
Whether you already perform within a certain genre (French Canadian music, African drumming, Aboriginal storytelling, Russian dance, etc), or you’re wide open to inspiration in terms of topics, here’s what I would do:
- Perform an internet search for “(Your state) Social Studies curriculum by grade level,” or “(Your state) English Language Arts curriculum by grade level.” Other categories to try would include “Math,” “Science,” and “Languages other than English.”
- Find some topics in those listings that you are already passionate about and/or have some expertise in.
- Spend some time putting a well-researched and thoughtful presentation together. Try it out in a few schools, refine the program with teacher feedback, get some authentic quotes from those teachers who’ve seen the program, and then let every teacher at that grade level in the entire state know about it.
You’ll be in business in a big way.
If you need any final inspiration…
Consider this: my chosen content area (history/social studies) has been the least emphasized, the least tested, and therefore the least important of the major curriculum areas in American schools for over ten years now, as No Child Left Behind, the STEM movement and Common Core have successively shifted the focus towards math, science, technology and english language arts.
My work is in an area that could easily be considered the poor little step-cousin of the other subjects right now. Social studies content has even been folded into English Language Arts lessons of late.
And yet, I can’t keep up with the demand for my programs.
Why is that?
I think it speaks volumes about this approach: make yourself so valuable to the schools that they can’t help but want to have you.
I’d love your comments below.
About The Blog
Since 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.