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Recommendation Letters and References


In addition to resumes and CVs, job applicants are usually required to submit a list of references, confidential letters of recommendation, or both. Our first task as job applicants is therefore to assemble a list of individuals to serve as references and/or to write recommendation letters. This is the most important element of the process because references, whether in verbal or written form, are expected to describe you accurately and positively.[1] Think critically about whom to ask. These individuals should be respected professionals with a rich knowledge of your abilities. 

Donald Hamann provides essential advice about the selection process. If a person responds “no” when asked to serve as a reference, do not try to convince him or her otherwise. Instead, be grateful that he or she responded honestly, and ask another person who can offer better support. Another important consideration is that some individuals will, understandably, feel conflicted about saying “no.” Instead, they may say, “I don’t know too much about your progress,” or “I’ve only had you in one or two courses.” Again, do not try to convince such individuals that they should feel comfortable or that they do know you well enough. They are trying to tell you that they would not be able to offer you full support, and, as already mentioned, recommenders are expected to offer glowing appraisals. In these circumstances, move on to other possible candidates.[2]

 As you identify individuals who will offer you their full support, try to assemble a varied group of referees who can speak of your abilities and experience from a variety of perspectives. Consider especially those who can reference qualities such as collegiality, character, work ethic, potential, flexibility, and leadership.[3] Primary teachers will usually appear on a reference list, but do consider other types of individuals as well. Do you have a supervisor from a job in the music industry who can speak to your professionalism and reliability as an employee? If you are applying for a teaching job, is there a successful student who might be willing to attest to your ability as an excellent private instructor? Did you study at a summer program with a renowned teacher who was impressed with your artistry?[4] Also consider adapting your reference list based on the type of job for which you are applying. A search committee at a school might be more impressed by recommendations from other academics, while a job in the professional sphere may require recommendations from industry leaders. 


Having assembled your ideal list of references, you now have responsibilities to those on that list:[5]

  1. Do not assume that your recommender will have a thorough knowledge of your background and activities. Make sure to provide all persons on your list with a current CV/resume and other pertinent information. This will be helpful as they compose letters and speak on your behalf in reference phone calls.

  2. Provide thorough information about the job to which you are applying and about details and deadlines for letter submission. Give your recommenders the full job description and the physical or email address to which the letter should be sent. Many will tailor their recommendations specifically for each job. This information will help them do so, and it will help ensure that they submit on time and to the correct person. 

  3. Be respectful of your recommenders’ time. They probably serve as referees for many others, and each letter request places demands on their time. Choose the jobs to which you apply with care, especially those that require letters to be written, and always provide your recommenders with adequate notice for submission.

  4. Provide your recommenders with feedback. If a letter helps you land a job, gain admission to a prestigious festival, or get accepted to graduate school — tell your recommenders! They are advocates for your careers and will be thrilled to know that their support contributed to your successful application. 


For higher profile jobs, often “off-list” references will be contacted (in most instances, pending your granting permission to do so).[6] If an individual on the hiring committee knows someone at your school or current place of employment, he or she may contact that person even if his or her name is not on your official reference list. Past employers are also often contacted, even if not listed. Because of this, professionalism and collegiality are of the utmost importance in all interactions, particularly with work colleagues, faculty and administration.[7]

A great exercise for you to do as an individual is to compose a recommendation letter for yourself. This exercise provides three valuable benefits. First, it can guide your thinking about your own career. Use the letter you composed to identify areas in which improvement might better align your current qualifications with career goals. Second, the letter can be used if a reference requests that you provide a draft of a letter that he or she can tailor and submit on your behalf. Third, should you ever be asked to serve as a reference, this experience will be useful as you craft a recommendation for someone else. 

[1] Hamann, Donald. On Staff: A Practical Guide to Starting Your Career in a University Music Department. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013, 74.

[2] Ibid, 75

[3] Ibid, 76

[4] Cutler, David. The Savvy Musician. Pittsburgh, Pa.: Helius Press, 2010, 59-60.

[5] Hamann, 77

[6] Hamann, 78

[7] Hamann, 79


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