If you missed it, check out last week’s “Why You Need a Better Bio.”
Over the years, offering career coaching to alumni and students at the Manhattan School of Music, Indiana University JSoM, and New England Conservatory, I’ve read my fair share of bios: the compelling, the boring, and the downright embarrassing.
I’ve found a number of predictable traps in bio writing—and I’m happy to provide tools to avoid all of them. To help make the new music world a more audience-friendly place, I’m offering, in this and the next posts in the series, the keys to writing your better bio.
Keep in mind that an effective bio conveys who you really are as a person and what your aesthetic sensibility is. It should create a memorable impression and convey a sense of shared human experience. By piquing readers’ interest, an effective bio motivates them to click, listen, and connect with you.
The good news (courtesy of John Steinmetz):
1. Your bio needn’t be a literary masterpiece. So it’s completely within your power to write a better one!
2. You have musical skills you can draw upon in writing your bio: shaping phrases, crafting clear expression, communicating intent and meaning.
3. The purpose of a bio is not to show that you are “worthy” or how well you measure up to others. Instead, it’s about helping readers understand who you really are. There’s only one YOU, complete and original. Help readers to “get” who you really are so they can get your music, too.
4. There’s no one “right” way to write a bio. There are many ways to convey what you and your music are really about. The examples to follow may help broaden your sense of possibilities. Notice what engages or resonates with you to get ideas for an approach to try for yourself.
Caution: Bio Hazards
Of course there are exceptions to every rule, but overall, I recommend:
1. Don’t structure your information chronologically. And unless you were raised by wolves or have a truly notable backstory, don’t tell us about your early years.
2. Don’t start with where you studied. This may be of interest to other musicians, but for the media, concert presenters, and potential fans, it’s mind-numbing.
3. Don’t include every music-related experience or accomplishment. Instead, select only the most relevant or intriguing items. Shorter is better—think highlights of your past, as well as news about upcoming projects.
4. Do focus on facts and accurate descriptions: concrete nouns and verbs, as opposed to effusive hyperbole. Keep the use of adjectives and adverbs to a minimum.
Thinking of your bio as your “biography” is a trap. It leads to writing chronologically, using too many dates, and using academic or new music jargon.
If calling your bio a promotional tool feels too commercial, picture it as a bridge to link potential fans and the media to you and your music. NPR’s Anastasia Tsioulcas encourages musicians to consider their bios as “an opportunity to advocate for the music we love.”
A well-written bio should, through words, bring the subject to life on the page. As readers and fans, we’re interested in the energy and spirit behind the music you make.
This isn’t about pandering. It’s about helping others—especially civilians and those outside the new music club—connect with you and your music.
Consider Your Reader
Because not every audience is the same, you’ll need multiple versions and lengths of your bio tailored to the intended reader. It’s best to have a mini bio of a few sentences, as well as a short bio of about 200 words and a medium size of about 500. Your profiles on LinkedIn and Twitter, and your FB page should be tailored to the specific platform but still present a consistent message. If you teach, you may also need a teaching bio that’s different from your composer/performer bio.
For your website, it’s great to have a short FIRST person (I/me/mine) version of your bio along with links to the third person versions. First person bios can make a more immediate connection with readers, since you’re speaking directly to them.
Grab Our Attention
We live in a world of sound bites and short attention spans, so you have just ONE brief moment to get us to stop and focus. Your opening sentence needs to arrest our attention, to wake us up, and give us a sense of connection to a real human being with a distinct artistic vision.
An impressive award or review quote, of course, can help energize the start of a bio, but grabbing our attention doesn’t mean you have to have won a Pulitzer or a Grammy. What readers really want is a human connection.
What I like about each of these openings is that they make me curious about the music and the person behind it—and they motivate me want to read more:
Katherine Bergman is a Minnesota-based composer who draws on literature, environmentalism, and found materials to create work that has been described as hypnotic and visceral.
Composer and pianist Haskell Small has been praised for the exquisite blend of sound and silence in his compositions and for his prodigious technique and subtle touch at the keyboard.
Part cartoon character, part virtuoso, musical whiz kid Wang Jie has been nudging serious music and its concert audiences into spectacular frontiers over the past few seasons. Her “From New York, with Love” transformed a classic percussionist into a dervish-like rock star. Her chamber opera “Flown” dramatized the end of a rocky love affair by having the two pianists attack each other and their shared instrument.
Raised in America’s Dairyland, (Wisconsin), multi-instrumentalist, singer, composer and instrument designer Mark Stewart has been heard around the world performing old and new music.
Anne LeBaron’s compositions embrace an exotic array of subjects encompassing vast reaches of space and time, ranging from the mysterious Singing Dune of Kazakhstan, to probes into physical and cultural forms of extinction, to legendary figures such as Pope Joan, Eurydice, Marie Laveau, and the American Housewife.
Note that none of these bios starts with where and when someone was born or where they went to school. Unless there’s something surprising, inventive, or fun about this information (as in Mark Stewart’s America’s Dairyland), I’d suggest leaving it out. As for your birth year, I really don’t care to know this, although concert presenters may want this information. Again, have multiple versions of your bio and leave the birth year off the short version on your website.
You don’t need or want a long list of anything in a bio: just a few notable and relevant credentials. So this is about being selective and choosing not just what’s most impressive, but what shows the full scope of your experience and what you have to offer.
This is the aspect of bio writing that raises everyone’s self-esteem issues. Inevitably, musicians feel that their credentials aren’t enough or don’t measure up. I mean it: no matter how successful they are, when it comes bio writing, everyone feels “less than.”
Don’t fall into the comparison trap. When you read examples of other musician’s bios, including the ones in this article series, don’t compare your experience or credits with theirs. It’s a huge waste of energy. Instead, analyze the bios and notice how they’re constructed, the use of language, and the effect it creates. See what concepts you can adapt to your own material and distinctive voice.
Want more? Stay tuned for the next installment of the Keys to Writing a Better Bio.