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James M. Rohner | May 2019

    Putting together interviews is one of the most rewarding parts of our work. Whether the subject is a world-famous musician or an ambitious young director, everybody has a story to tell. You never know what you will get when you hit record and ask your first question. Having worked on hundreds of interview over the years, I have learned a few general rules.
    It helps to have a surplus of confidence. Some directors seem shy about discussing their strengths. They demur that what they do in the rehearsal room is not that remarkable. These folks need a bit of prodding at the beginning and eventually open up about their musical journey. Another type of interview subject has little trouble discussing their virtues at length. A high level of self-regard is not essential, but it helps.
    People always want to cut out their best material. Directors are often pretty relaxed about an interview until they see their words written down. The people we interview have an opportunity to review their text before publication. Then, we anxiously wait to see what cuts they want to make. In any conversation, there are moments when the comments are especially honest and direct; these are the parts that interviewees frequently propose cutting. If the material seems essential to the article, we might try to change their minds.
    Everybody gets tired eventually. I like to get about 75 minutes of conversation recorded for a typical interview. There are a talented few who can spin brilliant ideas and engaging anecdotes from the moment recording starts. Most others take about 10 minutes to get rolling and get fatigued towards the end. We often start conversations with biographical information to give people a chance to get comfortable with some easy questions.
    Once in a while, a good conversation does not translate well to the page. Years ago, when I was just a junior assistant editor, I interviewed one of my jazz idols. I heard that he could be a bit prickly, so I prepared the best questions I could muster. The conversation went well, he congratulated me on doing a nice job, and I dropped him off at his hotel. (I was a terrified chauffeur for a ten-minute drive that seemed to take hours.) When the time came to transcribe and edit the article, I discovered that the conversation was friendly, engaging, and completely unintelligible. A colleague asked some follow-up questions by phone, but the article never improved that much. The article finally reached the magazine, but it is a project I have never had the heart to reread.
    Sometimes, a good project can go off the rails in unexpected ways. When we pick an interview title, sometimes we look for a key phrase that captures the subject’s teaching philosophy or passion for music. Long ago, we chatted with a not-so-famous player who discussed an ancient bias against classical musicians who also play jazz. He said this bias was always ridiculous. He used a catchy phrase that we liked, and we picked it as the title for the article. Judging by the smoke that came out of the phone a few weeks later, he did not agree with our title choice. Once we print a mistake, it can never be unwritten.
    When recording an interview, something can always go wrong. We have faced every recording failure that exists. We have had tapes that got shredded, interviewers who forgot to hit record, and microphones that failed. At one point, we had a transcribing machine that mysteriously picked up a local radio station while we were recording. On a number of occasions, we have called back and asked some patient people to recreate their answers.
    Students often make the best stories. We frequently ask about their most memorable students, good or bad. Everybody has those students who stay in the memory. Sometimes it is a student who found a home in the music room when all other academic classes were a struggle. For others, it is the student who felt inspired to pursue a career in music. For a few, it is the student who quit the program. Their stories remind us just how much music matters. As the close of another school year approaches, that is worth remembering.