The Art of the Interview by Philip Johnston
Ok, so the prospective student is meeting with you for the very first time…now what? Our guide shows you the questions to ask—and it’s almost certainly not what you’ve been asking so far…
MUSIC TEACHING IS ONLY AS GOOD AS the people you get to work with each week. Like a trans-continental car trip, it’s the choice of travel companions that makes the difference between an adventure and an ordeal.
That’s what a studio interview should be for. A quest for great travel companions. Choose badly and you might find yourself stuck with a deadwood student.
The problem is that the traditional interview model is designed primarily to identify students with ability. That’s great for filling your studio with students who have excellent relative pitch, and can clap eighth notes. But I don’t need my studio traveling companions to have impeccable rhythm, or have a cupboard full of competition trophies. I need to know that the time I spend with them will be quality time, because I’m choosing someone that I’ll be spending 20+ hours with every year—the car trip equivalent of driving from Sydney to Perth.
That doesn’t stop me from helping them develop impeccable rhythm or win competition trophies. It just means that I’ll have a lot more fun along the way.
I don’t need my studio traveling companions to have a cupboard full of competition trophies. I need to know that the time I spend with them will be quality time.
So if your interview is not about running aptitude tests, what is it about? How can you turn that initial meeting into a powerful detector of Students You’ll Love To Work With?
Test #1: Creativity
One of the best ways to stop your job from becoming the same-old-grind is to have students who are able to genuinely surprise you—students who say the unexpected thing, who unveil the interpretation you never considered, and who have the knack of ensuring that this week’s lesson is entirely unlike last week’s.
For that reason, some of the questions I ask in interviews have nothing to do with music at all. Instead I ask them to tell me three things they definitely don’t want for their birthday. Or four things they wouldn’t expect to find in their fridge at home.
To that second question, some students will say “shoes” or “pencils”—household objects that belong somewhere other than the fridge. Nothing wrong with that. But the really creative students will blow the door off reality completely. I’ve heard at times:
• A 747 jet airliner
• Darth Vader
• A circus troupe of pygmy trapeze artists
Now you ask yourself. Who’s going to be more fun on the great car trip that is music lessons? The kid whose mind turned the fridge into a Big Top, or the other one who says “honey, because we keep honey in the cupboard, not the fridge, well, usually anyway, I think”
Doesn’t really matter what the question is, as long as it’s open ended, and something they are unlikely to have considered in advance. Float the scenario—you’ll learn a lot about the person in front of you from how they respond.
Test #2: Ability to follow verbal instructions
Since so much of lessons is about giving directions, students who are won’t go where you point can be particularly frustrating.
My favourite way to test for this is to chain together a length series of verbal-only instructions, and see how they fare. No demonstrations. No diagrams. Just words from me.
It doesn’t have to be about music. I might give them a piece of paper and a set of colored pencils, and then tell them that they’re going to do a drawing for me…in a minute. First of all, I’m going to tell them what to draw, and they’re not allowed to start until I’ve finished my request.
At that point, I might ask for:
• A big yellow border around the page, with red spots in each corner
• Four circles in the top part of the page, each circle to be a different color from the other
• The student’s name written in all capital letters under the circles. All vowels to be written in orange.
• In the space underneath their name, color it with red and yellow stripes.
I might run through the list a second time just quickly, but often I don’t.
Now I’m not looking for the student who gets everything right—(I’m not sure that I would get everything right were the instructions given to me!) What I am looking for is how they interact with me as they try to piece anything missing together. Do they repeat things back to me? Ask questions? Start before I’ve finished explaining, despite the fact I asked them not to? Insist on me running through the list at least one more time? Sit there silently and do the best they can, even when it’s obvious that they’re lost?
Again, I’m not looking for a particular outcome. But I will learn a lot about my possible travel companion by watching how they handle all this.
By which time, it’s on to the next test.
Test #3: Get them to teach you something
The nature of the interview process means that you’ll rarely be seeing the prospective student at their comfortable best—they’ve never met you before, and have probably just had a “Timmy, be on your best behavior” earful from their parents in the car.
…sitting them down and asking them questions as though they’re an unemployed jail escapee suitor for your only daughter is not the way forward.
Obviously you want to be screening students carefully, but sitting them down and asking them questions as though they’re an unemployed jail escapee suitor for your only daughter is not the way forward.
Unfortunately though, that’s often how interviews run—we ask questions, they answer, without a trace of a smile and their hands on their knees, as though posing for a Victorian photograph, and looking periodically to their parents with “help me” on their eyes. One tactic is to sidestep the “interview” style entirely, and turn the whole process into a lesson instead, but with one important twist: You’re going to be the student. They’re going to teach you.
Make a big deal out of swapping chairs with them—they get to sit in the teaching chair, you’re going to sit or stand wherever the student normally would. Their job then is to talk you through something. How to hold your instrument. How to tap the rhythm measures 24-28 of the piece that’s on the music stand. How to work out a good starting tempo for this adagio waltz.
As part of the process, you’ll be able to ask questions, not as an interrogator, instead in the guise of someone seeking clarification, or needing additional help. So instead of the interview style “Tell me what 4/4 time means”, you can point at the score and ask:
“These numbers here…I’m not so sure…I think they’re for my counting, but why do I need two of them?”
As the teacher, they’ll explain it as best they can, and you’ll end up with a great insight into their understanding of the issue. But more importantly, you’ll learn a lot about how easy they will be to work with. Were they patient with your questions? Were they able to explain it in another way when you looked confused, or are they limited to simply repeating the same phrases? Were they quick to volunteer information you didn’t ask for, or do you have to lead the witness throughout?
At the end of 5 minutes of being their student, you’ll learn more than you would have in 30 minutes of interview style questions.
Test #4: Giving them a chance to fix something broken
Another technique is to give them the score and play the piece for them…but not very well. Vary your tempos. Make your tone overly harsh, or your intonation suspect. Misread rhythms or ignore dynamics. Then, having played them this mess, ask them to give you advice to make it better—you’d fix whatever they talk about, but keep any broken elements that they don’t mention.
The whole exercise provides a powerful insight into which musical elements are on their musical self-help radar. Did they notice that you were gradually speeding up? Can they tell when you’re creeping towards a quarter tone flat? Or that your breaths between phrases are overly noisy?
Obviously you’re letting them know that you’re role-playing here—you don’t want them thinking that their new teacher actually performs like that. But once it’s clear that there’s a game afoot here, seeing you mess up like that is enormously disarming, helping warm up even the most uneasy of students.
Test #5: Their attitude to practice
You can fill your studio with resources, become a serial attender of pedagogy conferences and approach every teaching day with Walt Disney creativity levels, but if there are problems on the practicing front, the lessons will quickly die. The reality of this profession is that your job satisfaction—in fact, the ability to do your job at all—is dictated largely by how students work at home.
Given that, it’s worth finding out about how this prospective student is likely to approach the six days between lessons.
Show me your week
I’ve always been much more interested in how students practice than how much, (see The Practice Revolution) but with transfer students in particular, lessons start with you being at the mercy of established patterns. If the student has been doing all their practice in a single panic session on the morning of their lessons, you have to know that. Not because you shouldn’t accept them as students—I would have missed out on some of my best ever students if I had weeded out travel companions on that basis—but because it affects your agenda for the initial lessons.
…with transfer students in particular, lessons start with you being at the mercy of established patterns
So we sit down with a schedule, and construct a picture of their week. But here’s the thing. I don’t even mention practice. I just tell them that I’m interested in what keeps my students busy, and was wondering how their week pans out. The plan is to spend ten minutes filling in everything—when they get up, when they leave for school, when they do their homework, sports, dinner, computer game playing time…”practicing” is always carefully omitted from my list of examples. The question is whether it’s also omitted from what they write down.
This whole exercise is best done with a parent at least present, just to make sure that there is independent corroboration of the picture you’re being presented with.
Whether practice is missing from the picture or not, the next step is always the same. You’re going to ask them to show you how they could fit a lot more in. A lot more. I mean, crazy-get-out-of-here-you-must-be-kidding more.
Giving them a practice shock
The key here is to make the demands almost unreasonable—not because you’re really planning on insisting on that level of commitment, but because you want to see how they react when the request is made. Even if there’s no way you’d normally ask for this amount of work, there will be times when you might need to…I would know more about the person on whom I might need to place such a burden.
So I tell them. “Ok, this looks like a busy schedule! Here’s the thing though—let’s imagine I needed you to find an extra four hours each week of practice, and needed you to agree to that before lessons started. How could you make that practice happen?” I’m not actually all that interested in the details, but I am very interested in their willingness to consider each suggestion. They could get up earlier? Commit to linking practice to the size of their allowance? Practice twice on a Sunday? Practice during three of their seven free periods at school? Adopt an every-day-even-on-my-birthday policy?
My experience is that the leopards here declare—and then rarely change—their spots. Students who pull a face at the idea of getting up thirty minutes earlier are the very students who are likely to resist that idea if you ever needed it. Other students though will actually make suggestions of their own and approach the whole exercise with a spirit of “let’s do this”.
With practicing being such a major issue in any studio, such a student is getting a major tick from me—even if they currently were reporting less practice than some others I might have met with earlier.
Test #6: Concert in 10 minutes(!)
If you really want to know what it’s going to be like to work with a student, nothing beats, well, actually working with them.The “concert in 10 minutes” tactic is designed to give you a taste of what might be ahead were this student to come aboard permanently, and is especially good for brand new beginners.
The way it works is that you tell the student that they’ll be giving a performance in 10 minutes’ time—600 seconds to get the new piece ready. It’s something they’ve never seen before, but it’s short and carefully chosen to be something they could do…possibly…if they work spectacularly well.
So what could a beginner do in 10 minutes?
Don’t get too picky about posture, hand position or other details. Instead, you’re going to play a piece for them that uses the two notes on your instrument that are easiest for a raw beginner just to play. Play the whole thing for for them once—so they know what the finished produce needs to be—and then start the clock.
With the countdown now running, something wonderful has happened. You’ve become a team, and you’re both about to learn a lot about each other.
The big surprise
As long as both the student and parents are comfortable with the idea, I’ll often send parents out of the room at this point—the plan being that we’re going to surprise them with the performance.
…it’s up to you now to decide if you’d want this team every week. If you’ve enjoyed the past 600 seconds, chances are the the lessons ahead will be fun too.
For the next 10 minutes we’ll be working hard together to cook and then serve the student’s very first piece, all within the confines of a time limit that would otherwise seem crippling. The atmosphere is similar to those backyard renovation shows where the team needs to complete the makeover before the family returns from their holiday, with the ticking clock adds a compelling sense of urgency to all preparation.
At the end of the 10 minutes, you’ll have a student smiling because they’ve just played their very first piece (even if it was just three Cs and a D) Parents will be clapping and making isn’t-this-amazing noises to everyone in the room. Give your student a high-five, and tell them what a great job they did.
In the middle of all this congratulation , you’ll have developed a strong impressions of just how well you two might work together—it’s up to you now to decide if you’d want this team every week. If you’ve enjoyed the past 600 seconds, chances are the the lessons ahead will be fun too.
Test 7: Turnaround Times
Turnaround Time is the length of time it takes a student to get a piece from “never seen it before” to “ready to play for my teacher”…and then ultimately “ready to perform”. Obviously short turnaround times makes your life much easier, and keeps lessons and repertoire ticking along at a healthy pace (for hints on slashing turnaround times, see the Turnaround Time entry on pages 352-359 of Practiceopedia)
That transfer student in front of you might seem thoroughly charming, but you’re going to be less easily charmed if they take a semester to learn each two page piece. So it’s time to do a little fishing, to get a sense of just what their turnaround time expectations and skills are…just so you know you’re not in for years of glacial progress.
Invite a prediction
Ideally, the student will have with them a book of music they’ve been working on. Choose a piece in there that’s representative of the standard of the pieces they have been playing recently, but one that they haven’t seen before.
At this point, you’re not going to ask them to play it—instead, they have to answer a question:
“If I were to give this to you today, how long would it be before I could hear it from beginning to end?”
You haven’t said anything at this point about “fluently” “no mistakes” “from memory” or “up to tempo”, but their request for clarification on these parameters (or the lack of such a request) will speak volumes.
Once they’ve told you their estimated Turnaround Time ask them why they chose that answer. So if they had told you 5 weeks, then ask what each of the weeks would be for. What sort of shape would they expect it would be in after 2 weeks?
You’ll hear a guided tour of how they normally do things. Even if it seems overly slow to you though, it’s not game over—the real point of interest here is how they respond to the idea that they might consider working differently.
Throwing down a challenge
Having heard their estimation, now it’s time to see how they might respond to a shift in what they’re used to. If they told you 5 weeks, ask how they could achieve the same result in 2 weeks. What would they need to do differently? How much help would they need? Where would that help come from?
If they seem reluctant, or are overly quick to declare it “impossible”, have them imagine that the deadline exists because they have to perform the piece on national television in 14 days…to win $100,000. With that sort of motivation, most students would find a way, and you’ll learn a lot from the strategies they suggest—and even more from the things they don’t say. (See also the Marathon Week entry in Practiceopedia for more tactics for getting jobs done in impossibly short time frames).
However, some students will just continue to protest that it will take them 5 weeks no matter what…in which case a saying about old dogs and new tricks comes to mind, and you might be better off without this particular puppy.
Better now than after three or four unhappy years, and hundreds of hours in the car together.
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