Tag: website

Your Better Bio: Getting Real & Covering the Bases

If you missed any of the previous articles in the series, find them here.

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.

For extra help thinking through your “why,” check out Simon Sinek’s excellent TED talk on the topic and his book Start With Why.

Being Human

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

Apply the skills you already have for writing, proofreading, and rewriting music. Working with words is similar to composing music.

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!

Your Better Bio: Describing your music and your self

Miss the earlier articles in the series? Find them here.

It’s a challenge for any musician to answer the question, “So, what’s your music like?”

In order for readers to get curious enough about your music to stop surfing, click play, and actually listen, they need an incentive. That’s where your bio comes in and the crucial element it needs to include is a description of your music. Your readers want—and deserve—an understandable, compelling sketch of what your music actually sounds like, not a string of adjectives and clichés.

It’s easy to pretend we’re describing our music when in fact we’re simply relying on broad labels like post-modern, avant-garde, neo-romantic, or atonal. These terms only serve to make you and your music sound generic and institutional—and to alienate readers unfamiliar with the lingo.

It’s also easy to fall into analytical terms: telling us that you employ extended harmonic language and polyrhythms. But again, this won’t help civilians connect on a human level and won’t help us imagine the experience of hearing your music.

And if you simply write, “X is a composer who has written for solo voice, string quartet, and chamber winds,” your reader still doesn’t have a clue about what your music sounds like.

The good news is that there are multiple ways to describe your music and there are tools to make writing easier. Here are three example descriptions. I find these distinctive and compelling: they make me want to click “play” and listen. What I also like in these is that each has something surprising that made me sit up and take notice. See what you think:

Annie Gosfield, whom the BBC called “A one woman Hadron collider” lives in New York City and works on the boundaries between notated and improvised music, electronic and acoustic sounds, refined timbres and noise. She composes for others and performs with her own group, taking her music on a path through festivals, factories, clubs, art spaces, and concert halls. Dubbed “A star of the Downtown scene” by The New Yorker magazine, her music is often inspired by the inherent beauty of found sounds, such as machines, destroyed pianos, warped 78 rpm records and detuned radios.

This made me look up Hadron collider: it’s a particle accelerator. I thought, wow! The other images and phrases that got me curious to click play were the boundaries between “refined sound and noise” and performing in “festivals, factories, clubs, art spaces, and concert halls.” I loved that concert halls was last. But the end especially piqued my curiosity—that her influences include “the inherent beauty of found sounds, such as machines, destroyed pianos, warped 78 rpm records and detuned radios.”

Meredith Monk is a composer, singer, director/choreographer and creator of new opera, music-theater works, films and installations. Recognized as one of the most unique and influential artists of our time, she is a pioneer in what is now called “extended vocal technique” and “interdisciplinary performance.” Monk creates works that thrive at the intersection of music and movement, image and object, light and sound, discovering and weaving together new modes of perception. Her groundbreaking exploration of the voice as an instrument, as an eloquent language in and of itself, expands the boundaries of musical composition, creating landscapes of sound that unearth feelings, energies, and memories for which there are no words.

Here we get the range of Meredith’s work, a sense of her position in the field, and then a real description of what her music involves and what the experience is like—described in a way that both musicians and non-musicians should find accurate and compelling. Note: she employs the much over-used word “unique” but in this context, and knowing her work, it’s fine.

Identity has always been at the center of Gabriela Lena Frank‘s music. Born in Berkeley, California, to a mother of mixed Peruvian/Chinese ancestry and a father of Lithuanian/Jewish descent, Frank explores her multicultural heritage most ardently through her compositions. Inspired by the works of Bela Bartók and Alberto Ginastera, Frank is something of a musical anthropologist. She has travelled extensively throughout South America and her pieces reflect and refract her studies of Latin-American folklore, incorporating poetry, mythology, and native musical styles into a western classical framework that is uniquely her own. She writes challenging idiomatic parts for solo instrumentalists, vocalists, chamber ensembles, and orchestras.

Here the information about Gabriela’s parents and background are absolutely relevant because she tells us immediately what is at the heart of all her music: identity. She’s “something of a musical anthropologist” and explains her major influences and how these have played out in her work. I get a vivid sense of her music and, again, am compelled to listen.

Questions to help you generate a more concrete and evocative description of your music. Try one or more of these and see what your responses generate.

How have listeners described your music? What have people said after your performances or about your recordings? Not the generic “it was amazing” but the more curious comments about what your music got them thinking or seeing. Not what other composers or teachers have said, but audience members and performers. These may give you more immediate clues and language for how civilians experience your music.

What are you fascinated by or obsessed with? Are there issues, ideas, types of soundscapes, or areas of inquiry you explore in your music? Give readers a sense of your focus.

What would you say has been at the core of your work? What you are aiming to achieve? Do you have a sense of mission?

How would you describe your music to a favorite aunt, a non-musician? Hint: you wouldn’t talk down to her and you wouldn’t use technical jargon. And of course she might especially appreciate knowing what fascinates you in your work.

If describing your work as a whole is too daunting, instead focus on a particular project and describe its notable features: instrumentation, form, or the occasion or ensemble for which it was written. A particular project can serve as an entry point for a reader to connect with your music.

What projects are you working on? Give us a reason to sign up for your newsletter and to be looking forward to (and contributing to) your next projects.

For additional help, consider connecting and working with a coach, mentor, publicist, or journalist. You can also ask fans and friends to send you a one-sentence description of any of the works you have online. You may get surprisingly evocative and helpful results.

Avoid the Clichés

You are a distinct individual and your music is a reflection of your singular perspective. Therefore your bio should not contain the same tired words and stale phrases found in countless other musicians’ bios.

The use of clichés starts with an innocent desire to communicate something authentic. But in reaching for words to fit, we end up grabbing the first and easiest thing that comes to mind. You can do better. Dig deeper.

To Be Avoided
(feel free to add more clichés to the list as needed #clichésRus)…

At one point these words or phrases weren’t stale, but once everyone else started using them, they became generic hype.

Passionate / passion
Unique (who isn’t?)
Distinctive voice
Of her/his generation
Strives to
Highly esteemed
Highly (anything)
Quickly establishing herself/himself as a sought-after . . .
Fortunate to
Critically acclaimed
Has studied under (sounds subservient: use “with”)
Under the tutelage of (too arcane)
Committed or dedicated to, or champion of . . . the music of our time
One of the most . . .
The next . . .

Keep in mind that at one point these words or phrases weren’t stale and over-used—they had meaning and could be used effectively. But once everyone else started using them, they became generic hype, and now merely sound like “bio speak.”

Don’t follow the herd: the language you want should be fresh and memorable to reflect what is specific to you.

To be clear, effective bios that pique interest, avoid clichés, and make you want to click “play” are not easy to find. In the course of writing this article series I searched for hours to find good examples.

Instead of being discouraged, this has got me thinking: what if musicians rallied around this challenge and improved their bios—just think of all the new listeners and fans we might attract!

Want the rest? Stay tuned for the final installment of Keys to Writing a Better Bio.

Your Better Bio: Vivid and Engaging

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

Unless you were raised by wolves or have a truly notable backstory, don’t tell us about your early years.

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.

Mindset Traps

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.”

The Goal

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

You have just ONE brief moment to get us to stop and focus.

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.

Establish credibility

Bio writing raises everyone’s self-esteem issues.

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.