Shortcuts to writing a good cover letter.

6 years ago, in my mid-20′s, I was unemployed in one of the most competitive job markets in the nation. I had one marketable area of expertise: clarinet. Let me tell you, that is a pretty niche market in Austin, TX (or anywhere). I had an injury and couldn’t even play. But I had a master’s degree! I graduated with honors! I’m obviously no dunce! Surely I could get a job-I don’t know-answering the phone somewhere. I read article after article about how to tailor a resume and cover letter and hours upon hours hand crafting each application. Only to not get a call. Or even a return email thanking me for my interest. Crickets. It was humbling.

This year, I was asked to apply for a teaching position at a university. I had my CV (the academic cousin of a resume) read by a few people I trust and made necessary formatting changes. I wrote my cover letter in less than an hour and knew it was gold. I did all of this in the evening, because I was busy at my job during the day. As I finished up the application I was struck by the difference between my cover letter now and the ones I had written back then. That’s when I realized: you can’t fake it.

Don’t let anyone tell you that you can. They’re just trying to get hits on their website and suck in any person at their wit’s end who finally google searches “how to write a good cover letter.” They’re sending you on a fool’s errand, and that path will only lead you toward many more (unsuccessful) cover letters.

If you have basic writing and communication skills, you can write a good cover letter. What I lacked 6 years ago was not writing skill,  but something palpable to prospective employers that  went beyond the lack of substance in my resume. In my cover letters, employers got a perfect sense of who I was. Everything I was feeling and living as a person reeling from having their career not just hit the brakes, but full on slam into a concrete wall going 60, was on the page whether I liked it or not.  No matter how many strong verbs and key words I used, it was obvious I was timid and even apologetic about the state I was in. The main message those letters conveyed: please hire me.

You may think, “Okay but you obviously had experience in those 6 years that led you to be invited to apply for this university job. That’s the difference!” But it isn’t. I have zero point zero experience teaching at the collegiate level. I also don’t have a doctorate or am even working on a doctorate – which is preferred for anyone teaching at that level. I’m inexperienced and under-educated for this job. I will admit that I was referred by someone I went to college with who is on the faculty. But after reviewing my application she called to give me this feedback: “Julie your cover letter was the perfect example of what a cover letter should be. We got such a good sense of who you are. I would have hired you based on that cover letter alone.” I will never forget those words. After all the terrible cover letters of my life, I finally got it right.

So what is the difference then? I haven’t taken a writing class. I didn’t read one single article about cover letters this time around. The difference is…I feel good about myself. I wrote with the confidence of someone who is convinced they have something to offer and is not trying to get something (employment), but is genuinely interested in bringing their skills to the table for the mutual benefit of all parties.  It was easy for me to write and provide specifics about what I would bring to the university. I didn’t have to bullshit. Not even a little bit.

This is how I did it: one day 6 years ago, I shut my laptop. I got a part time job that I hated but was meticulous about it. I volunteered at the animal shelter. I babysat my niece every time my brother asked me to and I took anyone to the airport who needed a ride. I made a website for myself, in the process learning that technology had left me far behind and spent my free time trying to catch myself back up. I started fostering dogs. I visited my old teachers. I found old friends I’d lost touch with. I went to every single birthday party I was invited to and spent my last dollars to bring a bottle of wine. I didn’t do all of these things to get a job, but one year later, I had full time work that I really loved plus much much more: relationships built around trust and the confidence that can only come from doing good things in my community.

All these years later I am still reaping the benefits of the time I spent unemployed in so many ways I couldn’t possibly list them here. I can state for sure that the actions I took during that time led me to write the cover letter that I did. And I got the job. You can call me Professor.

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On Not Being a Lady

“Whatever you choose, however many roads you travel, I hope that you choose not to be a lady.”

– Nora Ephron

Many women are taking a moment to pay homage to the indelible Nora Ephron after her death this week.  From Facebook statuses to Lena Dunham in the New Yorker, women are writing to recognize her stamp upon their lives.

For me, her passing led me to reflect upon myself and the women in my life. Why is it that of all the wisdom of Nora Ephron, the words above stand out amongst all others?  I am, certainly and proudly, no lady.  I am female and feminine to the core, but I will never be meek. Wit and strength of will are the qualities I hold above all others.  How the heck did I get to be this way?

In Lena Dunham’s article she tells the anecdote of sharing Thanksgiving dinner with Ephron’s family, saying “I went home and likely offended my own mother by announcing that ‘it was with the kind of family I was meant to have.’ ” Those words reminded me of how lucky I am. I never had to hunt for a woman to look up to.  She was always right there, waking me up in the morning and putting me to bed at night, teaching me the lessons I needed in between. How fortunate to have my mother!

30 year-old me is single, with a dog and a little apartment. I’m starting a business.  At this time in her life, my mother already had three kids and a crumbling marriage.  I was two years old.  But what if she’d had her little apartment and just a dog to take care of?  She would have conquered the world.  Thankfully for me she put all of her skill and talent and vigor into mothering, for it was my mother who taught me to insist on being talked to with respect. She showed me that women may lose their temper and are not always “nice.” She taught me that beauty is innate, healthy and natural. My mother encouraged me to be exactly who I wanted to be and not apologize to anyone for it.  She stood back, let me make grave errors and helped me pick up the pieces when things fell apart. Most tellingly, she always applauded my choices that led toward greater independence – like getting my first apartment alone – and was doubtful of the ones that led in the other direction – moving to be with a boyfriend. Who I am now and the decisions I’ve made to get here were shaped by these lessons.

My mother brought me up to be the sort of woman who understands and embraces Nora Ephron’s words.  Nora’s death has reminded me to be proud of myself, to “above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim,” but it was my mother who instilled in me the self-confidence to become my heroine.

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4 year-olds, Instrument Drives, & Double Lipped Embouchure

If you don’t know what double lip embouchure is, here you go.

When I first heard about double lip from Tom Ridenour in Dallas, I thought he was insane (what can I say? I was 19 and didn’t know anything). But years later I was sitting across the dinner table from Ricardo Morales, sharing a beer and terrible pizza with arguably the most famous clarinetist alive. Ridenour came up and Morales immediately expressed his admiration of the man. He went on to say that if he could ever invest the time he would switch to double lip, and that the best thing anyone could do for their playing right now is spend time practicing double lipped everyday.

That was the point that double lip embouchure entered my playing life. But the subject here is double lip and 4 year olds. Or double lip and trying to convince 16 out of 75 5th graders that clarinet is the instrument for them.

One day I went to hang out with my 4 year-old niece and brought an old mouthpiece and barrel, ligature and some strength 3 reeds. I gave her very simple instructions:

1) Roll your lips in a little, like this, no no, a little less we still need to see pink.

          2) Put the mouthpiece in a little and start to blow

3) Push the mouthpiece gently toward your ponytail (Ridenour calls this “snugging”) and blow faster until it makes sound

Reyn schooling anyone on how to make an F#.

Voilà. She made a sound. Well, not just a sound. A perfect F#. Then we experimented. We stuck our fingers in the end to bend the pitch down and up slowly, we pushed the mouthpiece up and in until a loud shrill squeak, then moved it down and out until the sound disappeared from lack of friction. I thought: I wish I could be silly like this with my students.

Why was it so easy for Reyn to make that precious F#? I mulled it over, realizing the lack of steps and simple symmetry of the double lip embouchure meant even a 4 year old could play.

A few months later I secretly did my first instrument drive demonstrating double lip, and double the kids signed up for clarinet after their increased success at making a tone. Plus, double lip showed me the natural shape their face instead of the unnatural faces that came with single lip explanations.

Despite all these advantages I did that drive in secret because double lip remains controversial to music educators.  The Band Director for tonight’s drive had to give an explanation to a concerned Fine Arts Director! But after so many successes I’ll go ahead and say: I play double lip when I can, I teach double lip often and when necessary (with far more detailed explanation than above) and if you ask me to spend a Monday evening testing 5th graders for clarinet, my response will be “yes, as long as you know I’ll test them all double lip.”

Recommended Reading: Tom Ridenour’s “The Educator’s Guide to the Clarinet.”



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Life after injury

For a long time I avoided serious playing for the same reason I avoid speaking Spanish now. I used to be fairly fluent. I read Cien años de soledad. After a summer in interior Mexico words rolled right off my tongue. It was a source of pride. Now when I speak, it’s as if I have a mouth full of sand. My brain grinds through the thought in English, as I chew on the grainy syllables, translating each word one by one. And forget pronunciation and grammar. It’s horrible.

It was the same with clarinet. After 6 months of not playing I needed to prepare for a performance of Rebecca Clarke’s Prelude, Allegro and Pastorale, one of my favorite pieces. Listen to Robert Plane’s very nice version of the Pastorale:


I wanted to jump right in! But it felt awful. The air wasn’t there on a piece that requires incredible control. My embouchure once could make it through 8 hours of playing a day; now it couldn’t make it through 20 minutes of practice. Plus, my hand still hurt. I managed to throw the Clarke together and have a decent performance, but it lacked depth and beauty. I was by no means happy.

That was it. I stopped practicing and focused on teaching.

Now, though, I’m ready. The recovery is going faster and better than I ever imagined. After walking away from it for so long I can finally accept where I’m at and how far that is from where I used to be. I’m discovering amazing things about my playing: Whoa! I tongue with the right side of my tongue. NOT THE TIP. How did I never know that before? Even better, I can fix it, shedding that old bad habit as easily as taking off a very heavy coat. I’m not re-training muscles that are strong in the wrong way, I’m training them anew and I can make them strong however I choose!

It’s a long way to go before I’ll stop apologizing for my playing to my peers, but the fresh perspective, leading me to whole new discoveries, inspires me to continue.

And why not? Hola. Me llama Julie. Me encanta tocar el clarinete. Maybe someday I tackle that problem too.

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Clarinet Pro Workshops Reinvest

The Reinvest idea is simple.

Clarinet Pro Workshops will reinvest 5% of all tuition back to that child’s band program, with the idea that band programs should benefit from producing students who desire to excel, encourage parents and children to participate in summer workshops and camps like ours, and who basically are awesome and go the extra mile.  Many of these programs now face zero budgets yet don’t accept doing less for their students.

I’m a product of Texas public school band programs. I make my living now within those band programs. I believe in them and the teachers and students who give them life. My whole life has been built on the backs of much more hardworking people than myself, who fought to keep music in Texas public schools and built the remarkable system that shaped me.

5% is the first step in the reinvest idea. I hope and plan on more to come.

http://clarinetproworkshops.com/reinvest/

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Music Ed and SXSW – Musicians of Lucero/Chuck Ragan Cedar Street Showcase

SXSW is obviously one of my favorite holidays. Not your average music festival – it completely inhabits every nook and cranny of the city I love for 4 straight days. I love the imperfection of it, from pop up shows with terrible sound to sweat-box venues where the musicians and fans alike leave completely soaked and no one is complaining. No stage fences and big burly security guys (unless you are interested in seeing 50 Cent on a giant Doritos vending-machine-shaped stage, but that’s not MY Southby), the musicians step right off the stage and the arbitrary boundaries we place between artists and ourselves are suddenly gone – sometimes uncomfortably – and you have the chance to be humans together.  There’s Deer Tick’s singer John McCauley wrapping his own cords and carrying off his own guitar, taking pictures with any fan that asks. It’s more than gushing about their last album, it’s sharing that we are real people, who are hot and sweaty, there for the music and could really just use a drink.

John McCauley just needs a drink.

My favorite shows this SXSW were the Built to Spill and Lucero shows at Cedar Street Saturday. I could see Built to Spill 1,000 times and Lucero was new-ish to me and blew me away. I managed to wiggle upstairs (just call me Muggsy Bogues – 5′ 3″- you never even saw me) and chat with some of the showcase musicians. Because I’m a nerd, my questions were about their music teachers.

“…Dr. Murray L in Alexandria, Virginia.  He was my favorite violin teacher – he played viola for the National Symphony Orchestra. I played classical violin from 5 all the way through college…joined a rock band when I got bored with Mozart…”

How do you ever get tired of Mozart? Even with different backgrounds and different instruments, they all had a similar experience.

“Dunbar Junior High in Little Rock, Arkansas.  I met the band director and he seemed like a really nice guy, really  inviting. And I was like, man I want to play the saxophone.  I played the saxophone for three years. Later my friend and I started a garage band. They already had a guitar and drums and I already knew the notes – knew my way around music – so I picked up the bass.”

Every single musician I asked didn’t hesitate for even one second. They could pinpoint that one person that either believed in them, taught them something that changed their lives, or inspired them in some way to be a musician.

“Actually the most influential musical teacher [I had] was a vocal teacher by the name of Mrs. Turtle. She taught me how to sing songs when I was a wee little lad, and I always carried that with me. I never believed I’d be making a living at it someday.”

I’m always emphasizing “process over product” to my students. I think kids sometimes don’t have the insight that these musicians on stage aren’t just bestowed a God-given talent.  They worked to get there and they were most likely taught by someone.  It was a long process to get to that stage and they didn’t give up on it. When I talked with them, saying I was a music teacher gave me enough clout that they stopped and talked to me for a few seconds and some for a few minutes, and that means something to me.

All of this begs the question: when will Music Education start entering into SXSW Music’s equation? After all, how can the Music Industry survive if this country stops producing great musicians?  Either way, I’m counting down the days to SXSW 2013 already.

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