(or, Why a music performance is similar to an interview)
The first position in my field that I applied for was before handing in my Hons. thesis, and I had started working before giving my defence. The first position I applied for after my PhD I was accepted into without an interview. The next applied for position I didn’t get, after that I gave a 70% performance in a post-doc interview and got the position, and recently I was knocked back.
Getting knocked back can take the wind out of your sails but learning from your mistakes and moving forward with positivity is much more productive. And today I tried again.
I’m not the best at interviews, but I’m not the worst either. After a long break from interviews I had my first big experience last year and I could have performed better.
I’m not alien to standing in front of a crowd and performing. As a singer I have stood on stage and performed Mendelssohn, Mozart and Mahler to audiences and the compliments by family, friends and colleagues have been most humbling.
The difference is that when I have performed Mendelssohn on stage, I have rehearsed, and rehearsed and rehearsed. I have taken the music apart, phrase by phrase, and note by note. I know when to breathe, when to pause, when to sing pianissimo and fortissimo. When I have given a lecture or a 12 minute conference presentation, I have prepared the slides, I know the content.
There is one big difference to performing on stage and performing in an interview. On stage you may have the opportunity to perform the piece all over again and make good your mistakes. In an interview you don’t get this chance. At all. But performances and interviews do have one major component in common – rehearse, rehearse, rehearse.
As I said, I am not perfect. And in an interview last year I definitely forgot many of the dos and don’ts. Rehearsing is just one thing you can do before an interview – who says you can’t rehearse the dos and don’ts as well? So I did. And this time was much better than the last time. I still forgot to mention many things, like the importance of acknowledging the roles of team members when working in a team. I still need to work on self-promotion a lot more – I am good at what I can do and I need to be better at telling people what the ‘can do’ is. So here are a few points that I am jotting down for next time.
- Do feel confident, but don’t go in over-confident.
Being confident is good, but over confidence can give the interview panel the impression that you think you have already got the job and their opinion doesn’t count. It’s the same in performing music. The audience wants to see you perform and expects a good result. But they don’t want someone who owns the stage and someone who disregards the other performers.
Despite meeting all the selection criteria in an interview I knew one other person being interviewed and I knew I was definitely the underdog. I stumbled over a few questions and gave some poorly worked out answers. However, I was offered the position. Some people who were not in that interview room thought that the interviewee that I knew should have got the job. That person also told people after their interview that they had got the job. In the end I was the preferred person the interview panel wanted to work with.
- Do show respect
The interview panel are on the interview panel and you are not. You may know none, some, or all of the people interviewing you. I get very nervous in front of people I know and I hate sounding like a know-it-all. But singing on stage taught me that you are there to entertain, to perform, and the audience is there to listen to you. So show them respect. If they didn’t want to be there, or have you there, they wouldn’t turn up and you wouldn’t have an interview. They have turned up to listen to you, and you need to perform at your best. Start by greeting them. Those you do not know, perhaps at the end of the interview ask them what their field of expertise is. Thank them for their time. If you are like me, you may forget these things due to nerves or stress. My voice teacher always reminded me to thank the pianist and bow to the audience. So remember to describe your talents, show what you can do, perform your best, and then bow.
- Do mock up questions you might be asked based on the selection criteria and the job description
If you have made it this far, your application hit the right spot. Go over what you wrote.
Be sure you can elaborate on points. Your interview may cover all, or some, of the selection criteria. I was asked a long worded question and I made the mistake of focusing on the end and forgetting about the start. Of course I confused the question, didn’t think through my answer, and the rest is history! What I should have done was write the question down. That way I could refer back to it. Don’t be ashamed to have your notes in front of you to draw from. I did this recently. I numbered the selection criteria down a page and beside each wrote some sentences for points I wanted to make. For many of the questions I found I didn’t need to refer to my notes. But for others I made the mistake of not jotting down enough where I needed more material to jog my memory. Always have enough.
- Be prepared for the unexpected
I remember performing a jazz piece and the pianist, a young student from the conservatorium, suddenly threw in some extra notes and much more fortissimo than in our practices. I wasn’t prepared for this and it threw me considerably.
A recent interview started with a question totally unrelated to the selection criteria which did catch me by surprise, so be prepared to answer about unrelated topics. Depending on the time available you can make your answers long, or short. These questions are not about the job in particular so you don’t want to waste precious time on irrelevant material. However, they may give the panel a rare insight into the depth, and breadth, of you.
- Do practice in front of a friend, colleague, on the end of a telephone line, blank screen or in front of a photo of people seated around a table. Face-to-face, video-link and phone interviews are very different from each other and can be difficult. Be prepared.
I always tried to practice my singing at home but my lovely dog would always start to howl as soon as I hit the high notes. Thus practice was relegated to the car and in front of my teacher. But I did practice and practice.
I have had only one experience of a video link interview. I had some advice before going in but the reality is nothing could have prepared me for that situation – not even singing live on a stage.
I’m a visual person; I read people’s faces, watch for their expressions and reactions and if there is a whiteboard or a piece of paper I can use to illustrate my point, I will use it. I also like to address the person asking the question directly. So talking to a screen for me was very uncomfortable. Sit yourself in front of a screen and answer questions to no one in particular (e.g. a photograph of people might help). Get used to hearing just your voice and seeing no expression. Record your answers and play them back. Just like a singer would.
- Do your research about the people you will be interviewed by. Do talk to people in the field of the position.
If I was learning a new piece of music I would do my best to find out more about the composer and the piece itself. You may already work with people in the same field as the advertised position. You may know people who you may be associated with through the position (e.g. industry). For example, a job in invasive species management may be working with people in the government and industry. By all means contact people before the interview and ask them what the position means to them. They may know about the position already and be instrumental in its birth. Ask them where the strengths and weaknesses are, what the priorities are. If you talk to people, they may say ‘When you get the job I look forward to working with you’. You haven’t got the job yet, so don’t make promises you cannot keep.
- Do have a question or two to ask at the end of the interview.
You obviously want the position so you must have questions about it. No question is too stupid, but you want to ask a question that will be in the mind of the interview panel for a long time. Jot down a few questions and have them in front of you ready to choose one that is appropriate.
- Do try to come to an interview refreshed and relaxed.
This one doesn’t always work for everyone and it certainly doesn’t work for me of late. I know I am not alone. My current work load is erratic, my sleep is deprived, and to change this situation is just one of the reasons as to why I am applying for jobs! If I was performing on stage my performance would be less than 100%. So I say try, but do stall the pressure and workload for at least a few days before your performance. The benefits will include a louder applause.
- And last, but perhaps it should be first – Do be positive
You will notice I did not write, ‘Don’t be negative’! Being positive cannot be underestimated. With all the challenges life has thrown at me (special needs child, short term contracts, unsuccessful job applications, failed grant applications, missed opportunities) being positive is one of the best ways to be able to move forward. I also think it is one of the best things I can bring to a position, besides the skills and experience I have. Always take that hard knock as a learning experience and always, always make new mistakes.
All image credits to Gary Larson.
This blog is dedicated to Gary Larson, who is tonic for the soul, Karli Toman, for fuelling my life such tonic, and Tony Blanks, who gave tremendous support and help to me before an interview