Cover letter secrets musicians need to know to get the interview

If you’re applying for jobs read on, because I’m revealing the cover letter secrets musicians need to know to get the interview.

See if you can spot the common mistakes musician make in this scenario:

A typical musician—let’s call her Joan—finds a teaching job opening she’s interested in. She’s excited: she reads the ad quickly and then digs up the last version of her CV and the last cover letter she sent. With any luck Joan manages to change the name of the person she’s writing to, the date, and the name of the institution.

The generic cover letter “template” that Joan keeps on using is based on the examples she found online, and what her peers have been using. She sends this out along with an old list of references and whatever she has of recordings from recent recitals. No matter what job she’s applying for, she sends pretty much the same package.

Joan doesn’t research the school or department but sends it all out ASAP because she heard somewhere that early applications get more consideration. She also wants it off her “to do” list so that she can feel she’s moving ahead, and start fantasizing that she’s getting the job of her dreams.

Does any of this sound familiar?

In Joan’s mind, the purpose of the cover letter is to introduce herself and impress the hell out of the search committee. She tries to make it sound “professional” by using big words and the standard clichéd phrases everyone else uses. She references her “extensive” experience and the “prestigious” awards she’s won even though she only completed the degree two years ago and the awards she has were from regional competitions. Joan thinks “more is more,” so her letter is not only full of pretentious adjectives, it’s also rife with long boring lists of her performances, degrees, and collaborations.

Any of this hitting home?

Joan’s approach is based on what I’ve seen with many musicians and yes, it was my approach, too, way back when. I thought cover letters were simply a formality. And that essentially, the message was, “Here’s my impressive credentials: read my CV!”

It’s as though we forget that cover letters are read by actual people—search committee members who are trying to find the candidate who will best fit the culture of their school and their students. That they want to hire someone who “gets” who they are and can demonstrate it in their application materials.

We forget that NOBODY wants to read a long boring list of what we’ve done, how impressive we think we are, or how much we believe we’re the “ideal” or “perfect” candidate.

Secret #1: biggest cover letter problem is the failure to use EMPATHY.

Empathy is the ability to put yourself in the shoes of the other person. So in this case, it means imagining and understanding the perspective of your intended reader. That poor search committee member who will have to slog through 200 mind-numbing cover letters and CVs.

Can you put yourself in their shoes? And clue in on what they’re really looking for?

You may be thinking, “I‘ve never been on a search committee, how can I possibly know what they want?” You CAN: you’ve got an imagination, right?

Imagine this . . .

That you are a faculty member at a university in the midwest teaching in a small music department. You’ve been appointed to the search committee and that’s on top of an already packed schedule and teaching load.

Like many music faculty in the US, you’re concerned about enrollment numbers. Because they’ve been down in recent years, there’ve been budget cuts across your department, so everyone is having to do more with less.

So you’re hopeful to bring in a new colleague who’ll be the right fit and help the whole department do better.

The ad went out and you now have 200 applicants for the position and every one of them meets the requirements. (ACH, you think: all those applications to read!)

Let’s say this is the essential portion of the job description you’re hiring for:

“This position is responsible for teaching and recruiting undergraduate and graduate private flute students, coaching/directing chamber ensembles, and teaching courses in flute techniques/methods. Additional duties will be dependent upon the qualifications and interests of the applicant and the needs of the school.

The incumbent of this position will be expected to maintain an active performing career and/or program of appropriate research/creative activity including performing with the Faculty Woodwind Quintet. This position will also serve on committees and perform other appropriate university service.”

Pop quiz cover letter question

Based on the scenario above and the job description excerpt, as a member of the search committee, what would you be most interested in seeing in candidates’ cover letters?

Would it be where a candidate went to school? The competitions she’s won? All the orchestra festivals she participated in as a student? The ideas she has for about how orchestral excerpts should be taught? And would you care that she believes she’s the “perfect,” the “ideal” candidate?

Or are you focused on the candidates’ specific experience teaching undergrad and grad students. On what they’ve done to recruit students and what kind of results they’ve had. On where they’ve coached chamber ensembles and what woodwind quintet experience they’ve had. How about whether or not they understand the institutional culture they’d be a part of?

The truth is, with the typical 200 applicants for one opening, you only have a few seconds in a cover letter to make a great first impression. So you need to keep it concise and targeted specifically on the employer’s needs. Instead of your cover letter being ME, ME, ME, it should be all about meeting THEIR needs.

Take this further

If you’d like more help with cover letters, check out my self-paced Musician’s Cover Letter Seminar video course.

In this exclusive training, you’ll get five pre-recorded video lessons, plus detailed worksheets to help you avoid the confusion and self-judgment. The work is broken down to a step-by-step process with worksheets and examples from a range of musicians. You can work through all this at your own speed. In the Musician’s Cover Letter Seminar you’ll:

  • How to structure and focus your cover letter for real impact. Most musicians get this all wrong.
  • The skills and concepts needed to always deliver a dynamic cover letter any time you need one.
  • The “Secrets” of what cover letters actually communicate about you, your teaching, and your music — so your letters can be memorable.
  • How to convey what distinguishes you from the 200 other candidates.
  • The 10 deadly “cover letter sins” to avoid so you’ll stand a fighting chance of getting the interview.
  • Plus you’ll see dynamic “before” and “after” cover letter excerpts so you can understand exactly what’s needed to power up your letters.

Through the course platform, I can help you articulate and convey who you are at your very best so you can make a great first impression with search committees. That way, you’ll be one step closer to winning the job—check it out HERE.

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Looking forward,

Dream Big, Plan Smart, Live Well

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