Violin Teacher as College/Post-College Recommendation

October 24, 2017, 2:37 PM · Hi all! So I'm thinking of having my violin teacher as one of my character recommendations for a non-music related degree. She's been with me for a long time, and I feel like she knows my struggles, and my growth in the community orchestra I'm listing as my extracurricular.

Is this tedious? Am I putting her at an awkward spot?


Replies (26)

October 24, 2017, 2:54 PM · As long as the college accepts non-academic recommendations, it should be fine. I think most teachers just want to see their students success in whatever way it may be, and I know most of my teachers were extremely happy that I asked them for rec letters. At the very least, you would be letting her know how much you trust her as an instructor and how important she is in your current career, so I don't really see a reason why you wouldn't ask her--except do check to see if the colleges you want actually accept rec letters from non-academic teachers because I know a handful that don't.
Edited: October 24, 2017, 4:36 PM · Carl,

I can't help thinking that the question is not so much whether you are putting her in an awkward position, but rather would she be the best person for giving such recommendation for the particular program you are getting into for a degree. You should check with the schools that you are applying to find out what kind of recommendations and from whom will have the best weight. You didn't tell us which area you are going into so it's hard to tell. Say, if you are going into liberal arts, I don't see your work ethics and community orchestra experience will likely carry much weight as you would, say, if you want to get into a law school.

I would think Professor Paul Deck should have some good insight for you.

Edited: October 24, 2017, 5:57 PM · Following up on Yixi's comments (with which I agree), if you're talking about an undergraduate college, it's probably fine. Individual departments generally do not review undergraduate applications. For a graduate degree, you want someone who will speak directly to the specific aptitudes required for that type of degree. I have never seen an application for a graduate program in chemistry accompanied by a reference letter from a violin teacher.

Going forward, if you find you are having trouble identifying three people to write really solid, thorough reference letters for you, then head that problem off at your next career stage (graduate school, etc.) by cultivating those references well in advance of when you will need them.

Edited: October 24, 2017, 7:01 PM · I frequently write recommendations by request for my private high school students who are applying to college. It makes perfect sense; usually I have been working with them for years, far longer than any single high school teacher except possibly an orchestra director. I can speak to their work ethic; to how they respond to criticism, frustration, disappointment, or success; to their ability to make quick adjustments; to work with get the idea.

I consider it an honor to be asked to write such recommendations and am always happy to do so.

Editing to add that I always sign such recommendations with both my symphony and university titles.

October 24, 2017, 7:26 PM · AFAIK, most colleges do like to see at least one recommendation letter from someone who has known the candidate in an extracurricular context; for many students that's an athletic coach.

Mary Ellen's comment explains the reasons well.

Edited: October 24, 2017, 8:43 PM · Thanks for all your input! I’m looking to apply for an MBA degree. I guess they are slightly different from the “hard” sciences since they look for a more multi-dimensional or wholistic growth. They do recommend one professional, and one outside of your profession. I have the professional one covered, but am searching for the extracurricular one.

I can do organizations like the place I volunteer at, or a friend from community orchestra (not the conductor!). I just feel like the connections aren’t deep enough for a good, solid recommendation. I moved from another country ~5 years ago, so old connections are pretty stale.

Like how Mary-Ellen described it, I’ve known my violin teacher the longest since she was one of the first people I’ve met here. She has seen all my efforts and (mostly) frustrations. She’s also on my list because, if violin/community orchestra is going to be one of my main “selling” points, I will have to have someone attest to that.

So, it is a huge favor, especially when it’s teaching and orchestra season...

(Edit: typo)

October 24, 2017, 8:42 PM · Mary-Ellen, forgive me if I might come off as insulting. Is it more difficult to write a recommendation for someone who pays you directly? I don’t want to have the teacher feel like she is obliged to write me a recommendation since I’m th paying customer, as opposed to a parent paying for a child’s lessons. The parent and teacher have a partnership, while the child is the disciple.

I’m used to having the master-disciple hierarchy, so I’m not sure on how to handle this as a master-disciple/customer. Hence, “putting her in an awkward spot”.

Also, I might be overthinking this...

October 24, 2017, 9:21 PM · You're definitely overthinking this.

Writing a recommendation is something I do on my own time as a favor for a student with whom I have (typically) a long-standing relationship. The question of who pays my fee doesn't enter into it at all. Incidentally I don't think of minor students as "disciples;" especially not young adults of 17 or 18. While I do usually develop some sort of relationship with the parents, the far more significant relationship is between my student and me. And once the student gets a driver's license, I hardly ever see the parents again.

If I ever felt that I couldn't write an honest, positive recommendation for a student, I would politely decline.

October 24, 2017, 9:42 PM · What an MBA program is looking for in letters of recommendation will be different than what undergrad programs are looking for.

Normally, you get one of your letters of recommendation from your immediate manager at your current job. The other letter is expected to highlight your leadership qualities, organizational skills, business acumen, and the like, outside of your specific profession.

That means that your violin teacher is probably not the right person to write that letter, although it depends on the nature of your playing and experience.

For instance, if your "struggle" in the community orchestra involves rising from being a section violinist to occupying a principal chair, or you have assumed some non-musical leadership role (for instance, leading fundraising, publicity, being the personnel manager, being on the board of directors, etc.), that's worth highlighting in a letter -- but if so, the right person to write that letter would be the orchestra's conductor or board president, not your teacher.

If your teacher has been with you for long enough to witness your growth from a not-very-accomplished player, to someone who is playing gigs for money, then you actually have a second type of professional experience, which would be great for a letter to discuss -- especially if you intend your MBA to focus on an area in which experience with the music profession would be valuable.

But if you're a mediocre violinist going from barely-competent to surviving your community orchestra, without musical or business leadership involved? Then no one doing MBA admissions really cares, unless this is coupled to some story of overcoming major physical disabilities or something like that, but even that personal trait of perseverance isn't as useful as demonstrating the ability to lead other people.

So ask yourself: Where else in your life have you demonstrated not just participating, but taking charge? That's what they want to see, and where you should seek your letter.

October 24, 2017, 10:48 PM · I guess it all goes back to what Yixi and Paul mentioned earlier as well.

Yes, you’re definitely right, especially given the competitive nature of admissions. It has to be part of some overarching story of organizational leadership. I still won’t put the violin recommendation to rest yet, though— maybe work harder at it, i.e. get into more “challenging” community orchestras, get more involved in the boards, etc. I do have a long time frame to do these. It has also been such an enjoyable journey so far.

Mary-Ellen, maybe the whole master-disciple is an Eastern culture thing. My adult sister had a teacher who was only 4 years older than she was, and his name to her was “teacher”. Even my parents called him “teacher”. We never addressed him by his first name out of respect.

Thanks again for the replies and the solid advice.

October 25, 2017, 7:26 AM · For graduate school, I'd probably pick someone else who can speak to your qualities as they relate to the specific degree. Picking a private music teacher seems a little immature--as if you don't have any real-world work experience, which is what an MBA program would look for.

October 25, 2017, 11:35 AM · No one reading MBA applications will care how well you play the violin if it's not at a professional level. They don't know or care whether or not a community orchestra is considered a "challenging" one. They do care about the degree to which you've demonstrated actual leadership. Getting involved as a pair of administrative hands that helps the board is nowhere near as useful as being, say, the orchestra's treasurer, or organizing and leading some initiative for the orchestra.

Ditto your volunteer efforts. Nobody cares if you serve at the soup kitchen every week. They do care if you're managing, especially in a way that demonstrates independent initiative -- not merely carrying out organizational tasks at someone else's direction.

This is not about the depth of your connection to the recommender, per se. This is about your achievements as a leader, and the ability of the person writing the recommendation to explain those achievements in a letter of recommendation, and compliment you on your sterling personal qualities along the way.

Five years in a place is plenty. People with a take-charge attitude, who make great MBA candidates, are going to take charge of things pretty much as soon as they get a sliver of a chance to do so -- in whatever context they're in, they see what needs to be done and go get it done. That'll often happen the very first day they're with a volunteer group.

Carl S, why do you think your community orchestra/violin is going to be one of your selling points? I'm not seeing that at all.

October 25, 2017, 2:35 PM · It's possible that the MBA program just wants a character reference. But I have a suspicion that, as Lydia says, they really want something that has to do with business.
October 25, 2017, 2:59 PM · It took me a while to get used to the new environment, find a job, etc. The US is such an extroverted society, it's like jumping into an icy pool.

I guess it also depends on the nature of the volunteer itself. Perhaps, if it's teaching a classroom of children, or something that requires a more "front office" experience. I did join the orchestra boards, so there should be more interesting projects.

The requirement for the program was two letters: one from a supervisor and a character reference. The university I'm aiming for is stereotyped as "book-ish", academic, and too business-oriented. The program is trying to be more well-rounded. By showing passion in a subject outside finance, especially in the arts, I was hoping to address that.

I do get that a violin teacher is a bit too personal. Maybe the orchestra board president would be a better person. I just thought that she would have better insight to my progress within the entire violin realm--- leadership and skill-wise alike.

I did check with a friend who's a freshman there. I'll look more into it. The way she marketed herself was pretty cool. She created a website resume, and included videos of her oboe recitals.

Thanks again for your replies. Sorry for having such a specific, non-universal topic. I just could not pass up the opportunity to ask the critics. :)

October 25, 2017, 5:56 PM · Carl, are there other former supervisors or senior volunteer colleagues who could write the letter? Someone who has an MBA, works with MBAs, or has experience supervising people in corporate or other settings?

Even if the orchestra board president doesn't know you as well as your violin teacher, the president could end up writing a stronger (or more relevant) letter. That's because they might know more about what MBA programs are looking for and how, specifically, to support your candidacy in a letter. Keep in mind that some graduate programs use letters to "rank" how well you stack up against other applicants.

If your violin teacher has management experience, and they've directly worked with you on a project (like organizing a concert or fundraiser), then a letter from them might work.

October 25, 2017, 8:57 PM · If I recall correctly, my sister used letters of recommendation from her piano teachers both for her undergrad and MBA applications.

At the undergrad level it was more about how she was an accomplished (international-competition-winning) pianist while carrying a heavy academic workload and many other extracurriculars. It was useful at showing the traits her undergrad program was looking for -- perseverance in the face of very difficult challenges in an environment where nobody has time to get adequate sleep.

At the MBA level, I think the letter touched on that work ethic, but was much more focused on her non-piano musical leadership activities, like being the music director of a campus a capella group (conducting, arranging music, organizing concerts and tours, producing the CDs, etc.), which were much more directly related to demonstrating the seize-the-day leadership that MBA programs are looking for.

"Passion" is nice in theory, but lots of people claim to be "passionate" about things without achieving very much in them. "Passion that has led to substantial accomplishment" is what the admissions committees care about.

Also, if you're Asian, you are hampered by the stereotype that all Asian kids learn piano and violin for the purpose of demonstrating artistic accomplishment and being "well-rounded" in order to get into a good college, whether or not the student has any genuine interest in music or not.

October 25, 2017, 10:59 PM · Okay, I’ll look around more. You guys have convinced me against that route. Better to hear it from a forum than from a rejection letter!

Lydia, the interesting thing about immigrating here, is that many Asians come from better off families. Thus, we’re so used to being the “big fish in a small pond”. For example, a stellar student back home learns to play an instrument as a sign of achievement. In here, (at least for the amateurs) it’s almost a hobby— similar to mountain climbing or bowling.

October 25, 2017, 11:02 PM · P.S. do you guys know what’s in that title-less discussion?I’m so curious!
October 26, 2017, 7:14 AM · How funny, I emailed Laurie to ask the same question. I can't see the title or click it open but obviously some can since there are (as of right now) nine responses.

I can't speak to Asian culture, but some parents in the U.S. seek out music lessons for their children in part for the documented beneficial effects on brain development. There is also the thought that not only is playing in an ensemble enjoyable (your "hobby" remark), the students in the school ensembles are typically some of the nicest students around.

Two of my children switched from the violin to wind instruments of their choice and played in their middle and high school bands. That's when I found out that many, perhaps even most, band parents had themselves been band kids, and had enjoyed it so much they encouraged their children to follow their example. I always felt like a fish out of water when volunteering alongside the other band parents--they were nice people, but they were not *my* people.

October 26, 2017, 7:37 AM · Well, here (in the US), children play as a sign of achievement (or at least that's the common Asian kid who plays violin or piano). Adult amateurs play as a hobby.

The unfortunate part is that many people who are forced to learn to play as children, stop playing the moment those college acceptance letters roll in.

To read the title-deleted thread, use your browser's "view source" feature to find the hidden link. :-)

Edited: October 26, 2017, 7:49 AM · We were talking about this too in my orchestra. But even if you hate it like I did growing up, if you get yourself deep enough in this "hobby" as a kid, it's like an itch that you can't get rid off. And yes, I agree. Ensembles are full of nice and interesting people.

For curious souls out there, it's a deleted thread, with a deleted title from a respectable poster. People in it are wondering as well what it's about. Maybe he just decided not to post it.

Edited: October 26, 2017, 7:56 AM · In my experience, there are many Asian kids who play for enjoyment, and many non-Asian kids who play for achievement, or to learn work ethic. I knew some of each personally. It's unfortunate there are these stereotypes, but OP should be aware of them, as they can affect how he is perceived in admission decisions and job applications.
October 26, 2017, 8:01 AM · I do apologize for the stereotyping. It's just that cultural differences become apparent when you're in a different country. But beyond that, of course, the individual comes out.

Ah. Admissions... Definitely a big black box there.

Frieda, just curious, do you work in admissions? Your responses give that feel to it.

October 26, 2017, 8:39 AM · Carl - nope, I don't work in admissions. I also apologize if I gave off that impression. Just have been involved in discussions about it in other places.
October 26, 2017, 1:06 PM · Oh no, not at all. Since your comments very relevant, it made me wonder whether you were from an ad committee. Thank you!
October 26, 2017, 5:26 PM · The title-less discussion has quickly evolved into a discussion about how to get into a title-less discussion, and about notifying Laurie ad infinitum.

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