Should You Write That Letter of Recommendation?

SBO Staff • ChoralCommentaryMarch 2020 • March 18, 2020

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Teachers at the high school and college levels are often asked by students to write them a letter of recommendation for college or grad school, scholarships or jobs.  Band, orchestral, and choral directors, in addition, may be asked to write recommendation letters for students wishing to participate in musical ensembles of all sorts, music festivals, camps, clinics, workshops, competitions, and other special music programs.  While every teacher wants to help his or her students in every way possible, not all students may be deserving of a recommendation letter. 

Indeed, while a teacher hates to turn down a student, who asks for a letter of recommendation, it is also incumbent upon the teacher to be honest and to live up to his or her personal integrity.  I have never turned down a student although I write these letters with varying degrees of enthusiasm.  Musical talent aside, here is a list of criteria you may want to consider in determining if a student deserves a letter of recommendation, and if so, how complimentary it should be:

  • Does the student attend all rehearsals or classes (unless he or she has a valid excuse for missing a rehearsal or class)?
  • Does the student show up on time or is not continually late?
  • Does the student come in prepared?
  • How is the student’s work or skills?
  • Is the student respectful to you and his or her peers?
  • Does the student have a positive attitude?
  • How is the student’s conduct in the musical group or in class?
  • Does the student show maturity for his or her age or level of education?
  • Does the student help or is he or she willing to help others?
  • Is the student reliable, trustworthy and honest?
  • Does the student respond in a timely manner to emails and other communications?
  • What kind of service does the student give to your organization?
  • Does the student come up with ideas that could help or further your organization?
  • Does the student take initiative in helping your musical group in any other way?
  • Does the student volunteer for any activity that could use his or her services for your music group?
  • Does the student go beyond what is expected of him or her?

When you write a letter of recommendation you are putting your reputation, if not that of the institution for which you work, on the line.  Since you have worked with the student in a professional capacity, people on the other end trust your judgment.

In your recommendation letter you want to highlight the student’s strengths and give examples that support your assessment, if possible.  You may also be asked to write about a student’s weaknesses and that can be difficult, as you are trying to help the student advance toward a particular goal with your recommendation, and now you are being asked to comment on a negative aspect of the student.  No doubt every one of us has strengths and weaknesses and in indicating a weakness, you can do it in a gentle way by also indicating how improvement is being made in that particular area.

As far a musical ability is concerned, that is a separate area involving various aspects of performance (not within the scope of this article) and the teacher will be able to assess those areas and write accordingly.

By the time a student reaches high school, he or she is old enough to understand proper behavior and etiquette in the classroom and the special needs of a music group.  For a band, orchestra, or chorus to run properly it is necessary that students conduct themselves in ways that promote the progress of that group.  While it may not be necessary to state what you expect of students or your guidelines for running your group, there is nothing wrong with setting out rules of conduct to help ensure a smooth-running musical group or classroom. Indeed, the students will really appreciate this as they want an orderly group, not to mention that rules can help encourage discipline and personal growth.  Students come to band, orchestra, chorus, or a classroom expecting to enrich themselves and grow in various ways.  You are the conduit for that, but the students can also help goals be met in how they conduct themselves and in what they bring to the group. 

Ideally, you want to avoid a situation where you have to turn down a student who asks for a recommendation letter, or one where your heart is not in writing it, so you may want to say to your students at the outset of the term that if they think they may want a letter of recommendation for any reason whatsoever down the line, they should ask themselves: What have I done to deserve it?  That might even be a wake-up call for exemplary behavior on behalf of the students.

It’s great that students are ambitious enough to want to pursue their educational growth and to request a letter of recommendation, but they should earn it.

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