We musicians like to think we’re free. After all, we spend much of our time creating amazing and beautiful sounds. But even in what feels like a creative flow, we can fall into the trap of tunnel vision that shuts down the perception of the marvelous musical opportunities that surround us.
Case in point: Dave Ruch was not always a full-time musician and performer. When he did go back to music, it was the usual bar-and-club scene. But then he stumbled into new audiences for old music – transforming his career.
Now Dave – whose work has been featured on American Public Media, in Emmy Award-winning documentaries, and on stages across North America and the U.K. – is a teaching artist and Public Scholar for the New York Council for the Humanities, who helps audiences of all ages connect with history and culture through music.
Dave reaches out to others who are searching for those “under the radar” gigs through his marketing blog “Educate and Entertain: A Great Living in the Arts,” and he also writes for The Huffington Post, CD Baby and Sonicbids blogs.
Q: Greetings Dave! Thank you so much for joining us here on Musical U. How did you begin in music? What were your early musical inspirations?
I started playing guitar in earnest at age 15 after a failed attempt at some lessons when I was 12 (and an equally unsatisfying fourth-grade year with a trombone!). In my teenage years, I was really interested in Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix, alongside the softer acoustic rock of artists like Neil Young and America. I discovered The Grateful Dead after that, along with all kinds of related American music forms (blues, jazz, bluegrass and traditional music), and it’s been getting more obscure ever since!
Q: I’ve had a similar journey, working my way back to the roots. And now you’ve made a career of it. Dave, there are so many after-work musicians that dream of a musical career. How did you move from being a hobbyist to a professional musician?
I had a bit of a crisis in my late 20’s after working a corporate job for about six years and never feeling like I fit in there. I quit my job not knowing what I was going to do with myself, but certain that white collar life was not for me. I had, up until that point, ruled out a career in music – mostly for all the obvious reasons – but reached this point where it was the only thing that made sense to me. So, at age 27, I went for it.
Q: Always a big step! I know you didn’t start out this way, so how did you begin working as an educational performer?
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.”
I stumbled my way into this career by simply making myself available and watching what was going on around me and following the path towards better-paying work that also satisfied me.
My normal routine back then involved rolling out of bed sometime between 9:00 am 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 11:00 pm. Or 11:30pm. (Famously, the bars in Buffalo NY where I live stay open until 4:00 am, 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 called The Hill Brothers 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?
Q: So how did that first school gig go?
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 7:30 am 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.
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.
Q: Fantastic! Most of your performances involve history in some shape or form. I especially enjoyed your recent appearance on CBS News singing about the Erie Canal. How did you become interested in historical music?
You know, that really was a byproduct of performing in schools. The first few shows I learned to perform with The Hill Brothers were history-based (Appalachian Music, and songs from New York State’s history), and that reignited my interest in American history and connecting it with the music of our past.
Q: What are some examples of your own favorite historical songs?
There are songs that talk about or “teach” history, and then there are songs that just are history in that they sustained people during a time before they had radios. It’s that second category of historical (or, traditional) music that I really love.
The music and the inflections were a bit different from place to place and culture to culture, yet some of it can be traced back to common roots in the British Isles, and then, of course, the African peoples arrive here in North America and add their sensibilities to it – that’s when American music really gets interesting for me.
Q: What skills are helpful to develop for the educational performer?
Number one would be how to hold and engage an audience of kids at various different ages. What works for Kindergarteners is entirely different from what works for 8th graders, and so on.
Once you’ve cracked that code (which really can only be done through trial and error, although there are certainly best practices one can learn), the name of the game is to connect what it is they are already learning about in school with your music in a way that makes you an indispensable tool for the teachers and they want to hire you over and over again. You’re the sugar that makes the medicine go down!
For those of you who are interested, I’ve produced a very comprehensive two-hour webinar guiding people through the process of developing an educational program and marketing it to schools.
Q: In your work, you have uncovered hidden gig opportunities, and showed others how to do the same. What are these “under-the-radar” gigs?
For me, that means venues outside of the usual clubs, bars, restaurants, and coffeehouses that most local and regional musicians cut their teeth in. There is a great living to be made playing music in non-traditional settings such as schools, libraries, historical societies, museums and other venues with outside sources of funding, listening audience, and guaranteed paychecks.
I’ve now written over 50 articles on the Educate and Entertain blog to help other musicians find these kinds of gigs.
Q: I confess I’m hooked! Recently after enjoying a school performance with my wife, I became one of your subscribers. What an experience, watching the children skipping down the halls singing the Native American songs we taught them! By the time we left that day, we were rock stars. What advice can you share about finding and booking “under-the-radar” gigs?
The best advice I can give is to take control of your own booking and develop a massive database of contacts you can reach out to throughout the year for bookings. I send thousands of emails every month to people who book shows in schools and libraries and music festivals, and that’s exactly how I keep my calendar full.
It’s a long, slow process to find and hand-pick the right people and get them into your email database, but it’s exactly how I’ve done it. It all started with one name and one email address!
Q: Sometimes the hardest part of a musical career is tearing oneself away from the practice room or the stage and learning the business skills. What are some of the off-stage duties and skills you have developed that move your musical career forward?
Ha! I wrote an article precisely answering that question. It’s called “What Do You Do When You’re not Performing?” Since most of the hours in our day are spent off the stage, how we choose to use that time is critical to our success.
Q: Of course, the opportunity to make more music is why we do it! Please tell us about one or two of your favorite experiences as an educational performer.
Wow – there really are too many to mention. In terms of working with kids, it always really fires me up when a teacher tells me that she’s never seen “Johnny” so engaged in learning – that he usually sits in the corner and doesn’t participate in anything. Music really is the universal language and gives kids a whole different way “in” to the learning.
As far as doing performances for adults, there have been so many fortunate things that have come out of my interest in historical and traditional music – a concert tour in England, an Emmy-winning documentary I was featured in, an ongoing stint as a “Public Scholar” for the NY Council for the Humanities.
Q: Wonderful, Dave. What further advice you have for musicians who are interested in following in your footsteps?
Hmm… don’t follow mine – follow yours! I stumbled my way into this career by simply making myself available and watching what was going on around me and following the path towards better-paying work that also satisfied me.
I think the very most important thing is to really treat it like a business. Like it or not, when you decide to do music full time, you are now a small business and an entrepreneur and it’s entirely up to you to make this thing viable. On days when I am not performing, I spend a full eight hours in my office cultivating more work. It’s just the mindset that I’ve needed to put in place in order to make this work.
In my one-on-one coaching sessions with musicians, I find this piece to be the one that usually needs immediate tweaking before we can talk about the strategy for getting more and better gigs.
Yes, Dave. We musicians are more than willing to put that kind of commitment into creating and making music. It’s a matter of transferring that kind of commitment to the business side of things. Thank you so much for being here with us today!
So much opportunity surrounds us when we open our eyes and ears to what’s out there! Dave Ruch chose music and found himself in an unexpected – and lucrative – career that he loves. Whatever your aspirations, stay open to discovery – of gigs, business opportunities, music… and yourself!
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