More from the life of an arts administrator: Today I’m talking about artist biographies. Performers, composers, whoever. Those lists of schools, degrees, competitions won, venues played, and musicians performed with, punctuated with quotes from critics adequately impressed.

I spend a decent amount of time soliciting bios, editing bios, and grumbling about bios. Sometimes you can’t find an artist’s bio anywhere. And then you write to the performer, only to get… nothing. Sometimes you find the bio, but it’s only in Flash, so you can’t actually copy and paste it into the program you’re trying to produce.

So you finally download the bio and drop into the program, and then the editing begins. That’s when you find out that they only have a 6,000-word version of their bio, and you have space for 400 words. Maybe it’s so out-of-date that it reads, “Upcoming performances for 2003-04 include…” Or it’s poorly edited, full of grammar so wrong it makes you cry – not to mention bursting with hyperbole, claiming that the young and untested performer is the greatest, most expressive artist to burst onto the scene in generations. Or some combination of all of those things.

If you have a professional bio, or if it’s time for you to write one, I’m going to give you my unsolicited opinion.

– Offer both short and long versions, so I don’t have to decide what parts of your career aren’t important.

– Edit. Edit not just for grammar but for style, varied sentence structure, and coherence.

– Don’t overuse the word “also.” Definitely don’t use it more than one sentence in a row. It’s ok to list different items without using piles of conjunctions.

– Speaking of lists, don’t make them so long that your reader falls into a stupor. Pick the highlights.

– Brag about each accomplishment only once. A new context in a new paragraph isn’t an excuse to milk the same prize or commission again.

– Don’t randomly capitalize something just because you think is Important. You’re a violinist, not a Violinist. You gave a world premiere, not a World Premiere.

– Be clear about your education. Did you get a Master of Music degree in tuba performance? Awesome. Don’t write that you got a bachelor. This isn’t about your wedding.

– Think about the importance of information to your audience. Does the exact date of a performance nine years ago really matter? Do you actually think your reader doesn’t know that Carnegie Hall is in New York City? How many obscure chamber music partners do you really need to list?

– Watch for bio clichés. I love chamber music too, but I’ve read countless sentences that all begin, “A dedicated chamber musician, she…” or “A passionate educator, he…”

– Make it readily available. If you want to promote yourself, put your bio out there, and send it promptly if requested. Admins really like working with helpful artists. Be one of those artists we can’t wait to bring back.

– – –

Bios were on my mind this morning because I found myself getting more and more irritated by the one I was editing. It was for an ensemble of high-profile professional musicians, so I expected their materials to be readily available, well-written (though I would have settled for decently-written), and usable. But the bio on their website was several years out of date, and the one they emailed was still about two seasons old. It had a bunch of oddly useless sentences, offered arcane information that didn’t add to my knowledge of the group, and had clearly been written by someone with a less-than-awesome grasp of English grammar and punctuation. Not a great way for a group to represent itself.

Then, this afternoon, a colleague sent me the funniest bio I’ve ever read. (It’s got its own problems, but it’s still so worth reading.) Here’s a series of my favorite excerpts.

WB began his musical training by torturing the piano in his seventh year. His singing in the choir as a soprano made for some sincere (if not barely passable) solos in concerts, the likes of which all good parents have sat through. This eventually led to parts in the Nevada Opera Company productions that called for children’s voices. This worked to great effect until puberty, when his voice took on that migrating goose quality.

Although his GPA and teen drinking habits looked to be ideal for a jazz musician, Mr. B was never able to ignite a talent for jazz.

Mr. B mysteriously avoided the problems he had with both piano and jazz and took to the horn like a half-hearted vegetarian takes to bacon. Youth orchestras accepted him, school bands tolerated him, his first instructor nurtured him, fellow horn students constantly outplayed him, and eventually, some groups even let him play solos with them.

As his practice hours expanded (along with his late-night music listening), Mr. B’s grade point average fell even farther. A foray into music school seemed his only option.

Mr. B also played in the busy recording studios of Salt Lake City. To his credit are over 200 motion picture sound tracks, numerous T.V. productions, commercials, sports, news and entertainment music. Although some of these efforts can still be heard today, many of these recording efforts are sitting, un-rented, at your local video retailer.

Since moving to Milwaukee as principal horn in 1996, Mr. B has performed as a soloist with the MSO and other area orchestras and is occasionally referred to positively by critics, the public and even peers.

A number of his students are doing exactly what he warned them they would do if they only practiced.

Mr. B has two solo recordings. The most recent is “Functionlust” on Summit Records…. This is a project of which he is extremely proud; even the critics have found it palatable. He also recorded “Pictures from Fairyland” on the Bennet House recording label. This is a collection of nocturnes and lullabies for horn and piano. Although it’s no longer in print, you would have loved it!

The warm balm of applause helps compensate for the size of his paycheck and he is grateful every day that his job is better than yours is.

Thank you, Mr. B, for making my day. I applaud you.

1 Comment

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One response to “Biographies

  1. I hate the standard American composer bio. When I was still getting programmed on concerts, I used to use this for mine:

    Christian Hertzog is an unpublished composer who has never won any major awards or prizes. His music has been performed in Lancaster, Pennsylvania and Turlock, California. His extramusical interests include beer, speculative and hard-boiled fiction, and Scottish terriers.

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