Getting to Know You (writing a good bio)

by Edna Landau

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Please note that in the months of June, July and August, I will be posting new entries to this blog on a bi-weekly basis. I am grateful to all of you for your interest in “Ask Edna” and wish you a very pleasant summer.

Dear Edna:

What do you think makes for a good bio these days (from an artist management point of view)? I’m sick of reading bios that are either A. Boring (laundry lists of accolades, credits, quotes and not conveying something distinctive) OR B. Overly chatty/personal (some non-classical bios are like this, as are musical theatre bios typically). —a management colleague

Dear management colleague:

I think a good bio is one that provides only as much information as is necessary to capture the attention of the reader and keep them engrossed until the end. It should come across as professional, be well written and well organized. It should find a good balance between sharing important factual information and also giving the reader a glimpse of what is special about the person it spotlights. It should whet the appetite of the reader to experience the subject’s artistry and to get to know them better, either by presenting them, hearing them or listening to their music making.

The first sentence and paragraph of a bio should help place the artist among their peers and highlight some recent significant accomplishments. This is not achieved by the all too typical introduction that reads something like this: Joe Smith was born in Buffalo, New York in 1984 and began to study violin at the age of five with his father. The opening of the bio should also avoid any grandiose statement that is out of proportion to the artist’s career. As Ellen Highstein has written in her book Making Music in Looking Glass Land, “ the expression ‘one of the foremost pianists of our day’ is only appropriate for someone who is undeniably one of the foremost pianists of our day.”

Here are some opening sentences that grabbed my attention when I surveyed a sampling of bios of young artists with burgeoning careers:

“Internationally renowned as a brilliant innovator of the classical guitar, Paul Galbraith has been working since the 1980’s towards expanding the technical limits of his instrument, besides augmenting the quantity and quality of its repertoire.”

“Born in Los Angeles in 1981, composer and performer Gabriel Kahane is a peerless musical polymath, invested in the worlds of concert, theater and popular music.”

“Formed in 1984 by four prize-winning graduates of the Conservatoire National Superieur de Paris, the Parisii Quartet won early acclaim with its triumphs at three major international competitions: Banff (1986), Munich (1987) and Evian (1987). Invitations followed from the major concert halls and festivals of Europe, and the Parisii has since toured regularly throughout Europe and the United Kingdom.”

“An accomplished young conductor and pianist, Kelly Kuo has had tremendous success working with both singers and instrumentalists in the United States and abroad in a broad spectrum of repertoire including nearly 60 operas spanning the 17th through 21st centuries. He is the recipient of a 2009 Solti Foundation U.S. Career Assistance Award for young conductors.

“Dubbed a ‘Classical Rock Star’ by the press, cellist Joshua Roman has earned a national reputation for performing a wide range of repertoire with an absolute commitment to communicating the essence of the music at its most organic level. For his ongoing creative initiatives on behalf of classical music, he has been selected as a 2011 TED Fellow, joining a select group of Next Generation innovators who have shown unusual accomplishments and the potential to positively affect the world.”

You are totally correct that nothing is more boring than to wade through a laundry list of endless credits until one’s eyes glaze over. Performance credits should be limited to significant debuts and tours, recent and upcoming engagements, recent recordings, commissioned works, and perhaps some mention of associations with other artists, especially conductors, who may have played an important role in an artist’s career. They might also include examples of an artist engaging in outreach or charitable activities. The artist’s achievements should always be summarized in reverse chronological order so that the reader doesn’t have to navigate through several seasons to get to the most recent and significant accomplishments.

It is important to include dates of various performances and milestones in the artist’s career. I read a bio of a soprano which began: “Most recently heard worldwide in the Sirius Satellite Metropolitan Opera broadcast of Puccini’s Tosca…” None of the artist’s numerous accomplishments were associated with dates anywhere in the remainder of the bio. A quick visit to YouTube showed significant clips from 3-4 years ago so I could deduce that the artist was still quite active. This was reinforced by a vist to Ask.Com that indicated that satellite radio was introduced around 2004. However, this is far more research than should be expected from the reader of an artist’s bio.

The bios of all of the artists mentioned above remained compelling and informative to the end. They never became “chatty” but I enjoyed learning that Gabriel Kahane makes his home in Brooklyn, New York, “in close company with a century-old piano and many books” and that conductor/pianist/vocal coach, Kelly Kuo, began his musical studies on the violin at the age of five, made his debut as a pianist five years later, but also later trained as a clarinetist. Today he has become a champion of contemporary music and has edited scores for two of Jake Heggie’s operas. None of the bios mentioned family members, as musical theatre bios so often do. I have no problem with a bio that does include such information, especially if the artist feels that their family is a major source of support to them in their career and that they bring balance and meaning to a life that can often involve long stretches of lonely time on the road.

The bottom line is that interesting artists have interesting bios. They don’t need to create heft in their bio by citing long lists of engagements. Artists who are still pretty young in their careers can prudently include brief quotes or phrases that pay tribute to their gifts and should focus on sharing with the reader their intense dedication to their chosen profession, the efforts they are expending to share their love of performing with new audiences, their joy in helping to expand the repertoire for their instrument (if applicable), and the other aspects of their lives that are important to them and that contribute to the persona they bring with them when they walk out on stage. If their bio conveys both humility and ambition, and reflects a sense of excitement and privilege at being able to pursue life as a performer, the reader will want to embark on the journey with them and support them as they reach new heights and become better known.

To ask a question, please write Ask Edna.

© Edna Landau 2011

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