References in Professional Development

When it comes to applications for opportunities, score calls, competitions, or any sort of professional development in music (and not in music), you will need strong references and deep connections.

References in Professional Development

Part of the process of applying for opportunities is showcasing who you are, what you have achieved, and examples of the work you have produced.  But, that only gives the interviewers/judges/committee your perspective.  To better gauge who you are outside of your own perception, place you in the context of the industry, and see what others have experienced with you and your work, you will need to provide names and contact information of professionals and personal figures who have played important roles in your development.

Types of References

Personal references

Personal references are those close to you and your development who can attest to your personal and interpersonal qualities.  They generally won’t be family members, but can be mentors, colleagues, parents of students, fellow members of societies or groups, or others who know you on a personal level.

These references will want to speak to qualities and experiences such as:

  • Personality
  • Teamwork
  • Independence
  • Work ethic
  • Timeliness
  • Organization
  • Humility
  • Kindness
  • Persistence
  • Struggles overcome
  • Current obstacles in your life
  • How you handle challenges
  • What your goals are
  • What your potential is and where it can take you

Educational references

Your teachers are often one of the best judges of who you are as a person and a professional.  By having understood how you work, what drives you to put in effort, and what your strengths and weaknesses are, your teachers have worked with you closely and watched you from afar.  They also know how well you work with others.

When considering asking a teacher, consider not just those who know your best work, but also those who have seen and helped you through struggle and hardship.  Oftentimes those who have seen you in “the grind” know you the best and can speak best to your ability to struggle and come out much better than you came in.

Professional references

Your coworkers and colleagues can aptly judge how you actually do work day-in-and-day-out, how you work with others, your work quality, and the impact your work has on your organization and field at large.  These are often the strongest references when applying to opportunities, as they speak to people who are actually in your field, working at the professional level.

Be careful when using professional references.  For example, if you are considering leaving your current job, ask those who you may ask for references who work at your job to keep it quiet.  It is therefore good to minimize the number of references at your current job who know about your intent to depart.  On the other hand, former coworkers who left on good terms are great resources, as they understand the departure process, can keep things quiet with ease, and want to be advocates for your success since they have found success after leaving your workplace.

What types of support can references provide?


References may converse with prospective employers or judges via email, giving honest assessments of you in written form.  This can be different from a letter of recommendation.

Letter of Recommendation

One of the most powerful forms of reference support, the letter of recommendation allows your contacts to speak at length, in detail, and in formal context, about you and why you should be selected for the particular opportunity.

Phone call

As a final step in many application processes, a phone call may be made to your references to have them attest that you are indeed a good hire.  In addition, real-time talk with the infinite inflections and nuances of human speech allow for a more frank, unfiltered conversation about who you are and any “red flags” you may have.

Things to keep in mind

Besides being polite and grateful to your references, please keep the following in mind.


If you need a letter of recommendation, give your reference at least a few weeks to write it.  If you need it sooner, give them clear deadlines and expectations, manage your own expectations, and thank them profusely.  Chocolate helps, too.

Ample warning

If you are informed that your references will be called or vetted, alert your references that they should expect a phone call or email in the next few days (or whenever the call or email may come).

Select the best

It is better to have 3 to 5 great references who are articulate, honest, and can showcase your best work and qualities than it is to have 6 to 10 of poor quality who can’t really speak well to (or speak well of) you work.  In general, 3 to 5 strong references is a great starting point.


Your references are not here to serve you.  They are your mentors, teachers, colleagues, and fellow opportunity-seekers.  Be thankful to them, and if you are in a position where you could help them, offer them help.  Even if you don’t think you can help, accept their request for help.  For example, a professor of mine asked me to write a letter of recommendation as a student because of my phenomenal experience with her that I expressed at the end of the semester.

In conclusion

You will want to have a great set of people behind you to help support your application.  And, chances are you already do.  Look for those who not only know your best work, but know you at your lowest points and how you have moved forward.  Oftentimes your harshest critics are your best advocates as well.  And, the best references may come from unexpected places.

If you can find references with specific connections, leverage those connections.  If one of your 7 references has a connection to a university to which you are applying, and you are only allowed 3 references on the application, consider that reference very highly in your decision-making process.  In addition, make it clear that as an alumnus/alumna of that school, the reference is being asked to assess just how well you would fit in there.

References and the ways in which you will utilize them vary widely, but with careful selection, focused intent, and a lot of kindness and gratitude, you can have an amazing group of people saying “choose this candidate” to the committee reviewing your work.


More reading:

Best pens for composing and writing

Rejection – the “Downside” of Competitions

Dealing with Interruptions

Composer Cat

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