Working with gifted musicians at music schools, conferences, festivals, and through my private practice is an honor and a fabulous creative challenge. I love helping musicians advance their careers, and communicating their story and purpose is an important piece of the puzzle.
To recap from the earlier posts this month, an effective bio is the goal: one that communicates who you really are as a person and what your aesthetic sensibility is. It should create a distinct, memorable impression of you and your work and convey a sense of shared human experience.
That element of “shared human experience” is what we’ll tackle next.
In the earlier articles we covered the basics—four of the five W’s—the “who, what, when, and where” of both you and your music. For composers, it’s what is your music like, who has performed it and where. In terms of the when, we don’t need a lot of dates, but it’s good to highlight recent work and preview upcoming projects.
But there’s an additional fifth “W” needed: the WHY, the motivation behind your work. Ultimately, it’s the why that makes a bio memorable and that can create a sense for the reader of a shared human experience.
Detailing why you make music can be a challenge. For some, it’s easier to get at answering this by coming at it from another angle. Think about what you’re fascinated by or obsessed with in your current projects. Or consider what attracts you to taking on certain projects. These questions can be answered explicitly or implicitly—or not at all—John Steinmetz says, but thinking about these questions will help you articulate priorities and “humanize” your bio.
A compelling “why” can make a bio effective because it introduces vulnerability. This may seem contradictory. Most people think of bios as listings of impressive credits—that it’s all about “puffing yourself up.”
But the ultimate goal of your bio is to engage readers and motivate them to click and listen. The magic bullet to getting people engaged is vulnerability.
In this context, being vulnerable doesn’t mean showing weakness. It means letting readers in on who you are as a real person. Dallas Travers, the guru of promotion for actors, describes this crucial aspect of a bio—being vulnerable—as “revealing your human experience.” This might come in the form of describing what work first turned you on to new music or why you first got started composing. Give readers a chance to see you as a person.
I love this web bio of composer Ellen Reid. As stated earlier, having multiple versions of your bio is important. And the trend these days is for website bios to be in first person, candid, and direct. Here’s Ellen:
I grew up in Oak Ridge, Tennessee–a small town in East Tennessee that was created as part of the Manhattan Project. I never dreamt that writing music could be a viable career path, but I started composing my sophomore year of college and haven’t stopped since. As a kid, I casually sang in choir, played piano and percussion. As an undergrad at Columbia University I was exposed to the kaleidoscopic sound world that is New York City. Within weeks I saw an installation of amplified lightbulbs at The Stone, a concert of Wagner’s Ring Cycle at Carnegie Hall that gave me synethsesia and heard my first Indian Raga. These experiences expanded my understanding of what music could be, and created an insatiable love of sound that has taken me all over the globe.
Earlier I recommended not starting with your childhood. But like all rules, there are exceptions. In this case, where Ellen grew up is relevant to explain the contrast to her New York experience.
This is vivid storytelling. With striking examples and details, from the amplified light bulbs, to the Ring and the raga, we can vividly picture and hear her “kaleidoscopic sound world” experience. We also get the vulnerability through the “I never dreamt…” passage and from the contrast between her background (the Manhattan Project reference is striking) to her first weeks in NYC.
Though Ellen uses language in inventive and fresh ways, the effectiveness here is not simply a matter of word choice, but rather the detailing in a story that explains how she developed “an insatiable love of sound.” In the process, Ellen is answering a core question that most readers have: “Why do you compose?”
And the “all over the globe” phrase sets up the expectation that we’ll find out more about the exotic places her music as taken her. And we do in the next paragraph:
In Thailand, I lived and collaborated with Thai artists for several years. We created pieces for the United Nations and the Patravadi Theater. My site-specific installation Lonely Traveler was featured in the 2011 Ruhrtriennale in Essen Germany, and She Gone Rogue (dir Rhys Ernst and Zackary Drucker) was featured in the 2012 Hammer Biennial (LA) and 2014 Whitney Biennial. Last summer, I traveled with members of wild Up and Jodie Landau to Reykjavik, Iceland to create You of All Things with the Bedroom Community. And this past winter, I received a Young Composer Award to perform Push/Pull at the Residenz in Munich. I split my time between my two favorite cities–Los Angeles, where I attended CalArts for my MFA (2011) and New York.
This paragraph includes examples of her projects. Not a boring list, but highlights, with impressive international venues tucked in so we get the credibility without the fuss. We also find out where she lives and when she graduated, so we do find out the usual boring essentials. But here they’re in the context of picturing her life and imagining what her work sounds and looks like. The result for me as a reader is that I feel invited in.
Ask yourself: Does this make you curious to hear her music, and maybe also to meet her?
Keep It Clean
The final key to writing effective bios is all about the finishing touches: refining and editing.
John Steinmetz recommends that composers “apply the skills you already have for writing, proofreading, and rewriting music. Working with words is similar to composing music: check for mistakes, make sure the words say what you mean, revise to correct and improve, and keep reworking until your intent is clear.”
Read your drafts out loud slowly—listening for awkward sounding phrases or transitions, redundancies, and run-on sentences. Have other people whose writing skills and feedback you trust also proofread.
“Check all spellings and grammatical uses, especially if you’re planning on using your bio to solicit reviews or features in the press,” says music consultant Dan Kimpel. “Bad copy is galling to those whose livelihood is the written word. Keep your words in the ‘active tense’ i.e. ‘John Smith incites his audience,’ as opposed to the passive: ‘the audience is incited by John Smith.’”
Keep in mind a bio is not something you knock out in 20 minutes. A strong bio (like a cover letter, CV, or grant proposal) is the result of multiple revisions. Most of the writing is, in fact, re-writing. It’s typical for musicians to do seven or more complete rewrites, but an effective bio is well worth it. This takes time, so start weeks before your deadline.
This series covered seven keys to a better bio: consider your reader, grab our attention, establish credibility, describe your music, avoid clichés, be human, and keep it clean. If you follow these, I can guarantee you are well on your way to an improved bio!
Use these in good health and Happy Better Bio Writing to you!