Choosing Your Opening Line

By: Edna Landau

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I recently had the pleasure of leading a Professional Skills session at The Academy – a program of Carnegie Hall, The Juilliard School and the Weill Music Institute, in partnership with the New York City Department of Education. The twenty Fellows currently participating in this excellent program represent some of today’s finest young professional musicians. In the question and answer section, violist Margaret Dyer asked: What is an attractive first sentence of a bio? Although I have written about this in an earlier column (Getting to Know You (writing a good bio),  June 2, 2011), I have chosen to address this question again, with a slightly different slant.

It is my belief that the first one or two sentences of a bio should relate information about the particular artist that is central to who they are and that is likely to make you want to continue reading. If there is merit to this statement, the following openings (taken from real artist bios but with names and instruments changed) would not qualify:

Pianist Aristo Allegro’s extensive performance schedule has taken him to the Mostly Mozart Festival, the Prague Spring Festival, the Aspen Music Festival, the Newport Music Festival, the Savannah Music Festival, the Settimane Musicale in Stresa, Italy, as well as appearances at the Ambassador in Pasadena, the Fiddle Fest, at Alice Tully Hall, the 92nd Street Y and Carnegie Hall.

In the space of a few short years, violinist Pavlina Presto has ensconced herself on the international stage, both as a recitalist, and as a guest soloist with many leading orchestras.

Sonja Sordino has established an international reputation for profound musicality and articulate virtuosity at the keyboard. In performances throughout Europe, the United States and Asia, she plays a broad repertoire in a powerful yet elegant style.

Some writers of bios like to begin chronologically. We learn when the artist was born or when they started to play their instrument. As a stand-alone piece of information, this is generally not all that interesting. If the writer of gifted 16-year-old pianist George Li’s bio had taken the chronological approach, he or she would have started out as follows: George Li gave his first public performance at Boston’s Steinway Hall at the age of ten. Instead, that information is relegated to the last paragraph and the bio begins: “Pianist George Li possesses brilliant virtuosity and interpretive depth far beyond his years. Rounding off last season playing for President Obama at a White House evening honoring Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, along with capturing a prestigious Gilmore Young Artist Award, George Li is well on the way to a flourishing career.” I like the fact that a news item is combined with mention of an accolade that has significant recognition and respect within the field, but I think that “last season” should be replaced with the actual year.

Although I don’t love quotes in bios, it is helpful in the case of young artists to be able to open their bios by referencing critical praise that endorses their special qualities, especially if they are not yet all that well known. Of course, the quote should come from a significant publication. Here is a good example: “Nineteen-year-old clarinetist Narek Arutyunian is a player who “reaches passionate depths with seemingly effortless technical prowess and beguiling sensitivity” (The Washington Post). It is even more effective if the quote is combined with another piece of information that helps to position the artist as someone on the rise. For example: “Elena Urioste, featured on the cover of Symphony magazine as an emerging artist to watch, has been hailed by critics and audiences alike for her lush tone, the nuanced lyricism of her playing, and her commanding stage presence. Elena’s debut performances with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 2010 were praised by three separate critics for their “hypnotic delicacy”, “expressive poise” and “lyrical sensitivity”. (Note that the introductory sentence sets up the little quotations nicely, and the second sentence informs the reader that she has already made a very important orchestral debut and had unanimous praise from three critics. How often does that happen?!)

Awards are also impressive credentials to include in the first sentence of a bio, provided that they are from recognized institutions and/or competitions. It is nice to find a way to frame the information in a way that reveals a quality of the performer, such as humility. The bio might start: Violinist Benjamin Beilman was deeply honored to win both the First Prize and Radio Canada’s People’s Choice Award in the 2010 Montreal International Musical Competition.

In my opinion, there is room for artists to take greater chances with the opening sentences of their bios and to entice us to get to know them. It is fine to say: Adele Andante spends many of her waking hours dedicated to the pursuit of her two passions in life: playing her cello and advocating for the preservation of our natural resources. Or: Dedicated to sharing his love of classical music with audience members who might otherwise not experience it, flutist Sean Scherzo has made the commitment to set aside one day a month each year in which he will offer free performances to schoolchildren as well as the elderly who cannot leave their senior residences. These opening sentences should certainly segue into more particular information about the artist that helps to establish their credentials and inform us of their artistic accomplishments but it is refreshing to be introduced to the person first. I would love to hear from our readers who may have encountered other opening lines of a refreshing nature.

To ask a question, please write Ask Edna.

© Edna Landau 2012

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