For me, it all started very early – like 7:30am – one winter day in a horribly-lit Catholic school gymnasium. I was filling in for another musician who’d left town, completing a trio that went into schools doing educational concerts.
It was strange right from the start for a musician more accustomed to hitting the bandstand at 10 or 11pm. (The bars are open until 4am in Buffalo NY…).
We set up the PA, I practiced my newly-learned speaking lines (yikes!), and went over some music that was barely familiar as I wondered what on earth I’d gotten myself into (and how a room full of kids was going to respond to this show).
What initially felt like such an odd way to make music turned fairly quickly into something I couldn’t get enough of – the audience was “into it” right from the start (no happy hour necessary), the teachers were appreciative to have a show that was fun and at least mildly educational, I was learning several new “marketable” skills, and the hours were far more livable as I transitioned from bachelorhood to family guy with kids/wife/house.
Oh, and this – I was making as much money by lunchtime as I could bring in from a full day of teaching guitar/mandolin AND gigging out at night.
Twenty years later, school performing (or “arts in education work” as it’s sometimes called) has become not only my bread and butter, but the most rewarding type of work I’ve been involved with as a professional musician.
Have you ever thought about performing in schools?
I hadn’t. In fact, I remember a guitar student telling me it had become a really good career path for some musicians who wanted more of a home life. It just seemed too foreign and out of my experience, so I wrote it off.
If you’re in the same boat, here’s a quick primer to get your wheels turning. I’m also going to link to a free resource at the end of the article for those who’d like to take this further:
THINGS TO KNOW:
- Teachers are pressed for time right now, and many schools are low on funding to make these “extras” happen. In spite of all that, they understand that the arts engage their students in a way no classroom lecture can, and they want more. The answer? Tie your show into something they’re already studying.
- It’s all about engagement – you want your audience to not only take in what you’re doing, but become a part of it. The more you can accomplish that, the more return bookings you’ll get.
- Little kids (grades PreK-2nd grade) are silly and wide open – keep a fast paced concert happening with lots for them to do (hand motions, singing back to you, etc), and avoid open ended questions at all costs!
- Upper elementary age (grades 3-5) are really fun – they’re still kids, love to laugh, and have some really interesting ideas. They still enjoy singing in front of their peers (until somewhere around late 5th grade, on average), and love to guess at things and get involved.
- Middle school (grades 6-8) – you remember those years, right? Difficult for lots of kids. Everything is changing, and the LAST thing you want is to be perceived as “uncool.” Don’t ask them to sing back to you, or do much of anything, until you’ve broken the ice with humor or something musically riveting, or preferably both. Then they’re yours. Bring some of their willing peers on stage to make fools of themselves (there’s always a few…) and the whole vibe will transform for the better.
- High school (grades 9-12) – By 10th grade or so, kids start coming out of their concern about judgement and begin to settle into who they are. They’re intelligent, and quite possibly even interested in what you’re presenting. Treat them more like adults than anything else, and feel it out as you go.
How to get bookings?
Some performers mail brochures to the school principal or the main office. Others email the parent organization (PTO/PTA/HSA/etc) that may (or may not) be in charge of setting up “assemblies.” I like to tie my shows to grade-level curriculum and advertise directly to those teachers by email. Music teachers sometimes get involved in planning guest artist visits. There also may be artist rosters or arts in education organizations in your area that help performers connect with schools. Bottom line – like all the other work you do, there’s no silver bullet to getting lots of bookings. It’s a long, gradual process. Building your list of contacts is key.
How much to charge?
Whatever you need to make. It’s true that the less you cost, the more school bookings you might get. It’s also true that musicians who specialize in this kind of work are getting $500-1,000 or more for a single 45-minute concert. Some schools spend thousands on arts-in-education programs annually; others are lucky to be able to swing one $300 concert during the school year. Decide what you need to earn as a musician and state your price firmly.
Do You Have to Do “Kids Music?”
Absolutely not. You have to do music for kids. Big difference. There are ways to adapt lots of the material you’re probably using right now for a school audience – again, it’s all about bringing the audience into the music and helping them participate in it. Then, once you start zeroing in on making yourself more marketable to schools, you’ll likely want to put a new presentation together around some kind of theme that would be valuable to them.
I’ve put a much more in-depth resource together to help performing artists with this next piece – what to do in your school show, and how to market it. You can find that article here: How To Get Gigs in Schools
Do you work in schools? Interested in giving it a try? Let’s talk about it in the Comment section below.