The informational interview is an excellent career building strategy for musicians since you can find out from an insider what it takes to build your career path, discover new and different career options and learn about the realities of working in the world of the arts. In addition to being a source of first-hand information that is not otherwise available, it is also a way to expand your network and make a quality connection with someone whose career you admire.
In my own career, informational interviews have not only provided me with in-depth information on various industry sectors but also have led to jobs, business referrals, speaking engagements and invitations to join non-profit boards. In addition, people whom I have interviewed have become trusted business contacts, as well as friends and mentors. That is why I have my students conduct an informational interview with someone whose career they admire and then write a paper with their reflections on the experience.
Here is a guide for musicians on how to set up, conduct and make the most of an informational interview
1. Choose the Person to Interview
A good place to start is with someone you already know, like a teacher or a mentor. Since faculty members at conservatories typically have active performance careers in addition to their teaching responsibilities, many of my students interview their teachers. Often, they find that the informational interview experience deepens their relationship. Other students interview a musician who is a few years ahead of them in their careers who may have studied with the same teacher or who attended the same school or festival, in order to get an idea of what lies ahead and what the career building possibilities are.
It is also possible to go outside your own network. One of my students this semester, a composer, secured an interview with one of today’s most revered composers. Other students have contacted famous performers who generously shared their experiences.
Graduates of the same university or conservatory are often happy to speak with current students. The musicians who have appeared on the career panels in my class have been extremely gracious to my students and have willingly provided interviews.
It helps if someone can make an introduction on your behalf but often this is not necessary if you explain to the person that you are interested in finding out more about her career path.
You may be surprised at how willing people are to speak to you. Just remember that these people were once novices like you and they remember what it was like to be at the start of their careers. Experienced professionals were often helped by their own teachers or mentors and they are eager to give back to the next generation. And people love to talk about their careers, especially when there is no pressure to give you a job!
2. Frame a Goal for the Interview
Once you secure your interview, it helps to formulate goals for the interview. What specific information are you looking for and what would you like to learn from this person? This will help you to gain the necessary information and use your interview time wisely.
For example, one of my students was interested in finding out how to start a private teaching studio and interviewed someone a few years ahead of her at Yale who has built a successful teaching studio.
Other students are eager to find out how a person whom they deeply admire got to where s/he is today and what steps one can take while still in school to create a successful career.
Yet another goal is to explore the various options that exist for today’s musicians and to find out industry-specific information like how to start and run an ensemble.
3. Set up the Interview
The next step is to get in touch with your interview subject and ask her if she would be willing to be interviewed about her career path. Make it clear that you are not looking for a job!
You can contact the person by phone or email as follows:
• Briefly introduce yourself and indicate how you got his or her name;
• Tell the person that you would like to set up an informational interview and what you would like to learn;
• Ask for a convenient time to meet or speak by phone.
Here is a suggested script if you are setting up the interview by phone with someone who you do not know that well:
Hello. My name is Vicky Violinist and I am a master’s student at the Yale School of Music. I met you at a master class at Yale last year and admire your work. I am very interested in finding out how to create a freelance performance career and would very much appreciate interviewing you to ask you some questions about your career path and how to enter the field. Would it be possible to set up a time to meet or speak by phone so that I could learn more about your experience and ask your advice?
If possible, meet the interviewee in person. My student composer was thrilled to meet the older composer at his home.
The next best option is a telephone or a video interview. Avoid email interviews since you will not have the flexibility to ask questions that may arise in the course of the interview. In addition, an email interview is not as likely as an in-person or a telephone interview to solidify your relationship with your interview subject.
You may offer to take the person out for lunch or coffee. If so, choose a quiet place. My students have reported that conducting an interview over a meal can be tricky if you are taking notes and have to negotiate laptops on small tables interspersed with coffee and muffins!
You can suggest how long you would like to spend with the person or ask him how much time he has. Typically, the interviews last from 30 minutes to an hour. One of my students spent 7 hours interviewing his subject because they already knew each other and had a lot to discuss!
4. Prepare for the Interview
Once you have set up your interview, conduct an on-line search of the person you are interviewing, visit her website and become familiar with her bio. You want to respect the person’s time and therefore if you are familiar with the outlines of his life, you can save time by exploring areas that are not otherwise available.
It also helps to formulate a list of questions for your interview. Here are some sample questions:
- How did you get to where you are now?
- Who influenced you?
- What does a typical week look like for you?
- What skills do you need in your current role?
- What is the most challenging part of what you do?
- What is the most rewarding part of what you do?
- What other training and experience would you suggest that I get?
- What do you wish you had known before becoming a musician?
- What are the challenges and opportunities for making a career as a musician today?
- Given what you know about me, what advice would you give to me?
You might also ask career-specific questions on the music business like how to start an ensemble and other questions that relate to your specific goal.
5. How To Conduct an Interview
At the interview, be prepared to talk a little about yourself and your interests so that you and your interviewee can connect effectively.
Use your prepared questions as a guideline but do not get stuck with your script. Listen well and show a genuine interest in what the person has to say. Make sure that you are asking open-ended questions (questions that start with “Who, What, How, Where and How) so that you encourage a dialogue. Moreover, be flexible enough to explore another topic that interests both of you and that may not have been part of your original goal. If you find that the person is straying from the topics that interest you, steer the conversation back to where you want it to be.
In addition, if you and the person connect well, ask him or her if s/he would be willing to make some introductions on your behalf. This is a great way to expand your network. Often, the person you are interviewing will offer to introduce you to other people in the field. When people interview me, I am happy to make introductions on behalf of younger professionals who I think have a lot to offer.
It is fine to take notes during the interview. You may want to ask the person’s permission before doing so.
Be respectful of the person’s time and when you sense that the interview is over, thank the person for her time. Lastly, offer to keep the person informed of your activities so that you can cultivate your relationship with your interviewee. Ask permission to add her to your mailing list or invite her to your next concert. My students have had a lot of success doing this.
6. Debrief your Interview
In order to maximize the learning experience from an informational interview, spend some time reflecting on the experience after the interview is over. Write down your answers to the following questions:
• How well did you connect with your interviewee?
• What aspect of this person’s career and life resonated the most for you?
• What aspects did not appeal to you?
• What was the most significant lesson from this interview?
• How did this interview help you to clarify your career path?
• What actions will you take as a result of this interview?
7. Keep in Touch
Within one to two days after the interview, write the person a note (preferably a personal hand-written note and not an email), thanking her for her time and expressing your appreciation for what you learned.
Be sure to keep in contact with the person. You can let him know when you have followed up on his advice and how things are proceeding as a result. This can help you to build and cultivate the relationship so that the person becomes a valuable part of your network.
Once you get in the habit of doing informational interviews, whole worlds will open up to you. Now is the time to get started so tht you can set yourself up for success!