Program biographies

January 5, 2020, 9:37 PM · What do you put in your biography for the paper programs of concerts in which you are featured either as a soloists or chamber musicians? If you have a professional/semi-pro website for your musical endeavors, what do you put in that biography?

I ask because I've noticed wildly divergent biography contents in both amateur and professional biographies in my current city, both in paper programs and online.

It is my understanding that in a pro or semi-pro resume, only college-and-beyond education, and post-college professional experience is mentioned. Your childhood local competitions won (unless you did something like win the Junior Menuhin), the middle school youth symphony you were the concertmaster of, your Juilliard Pre-College, your (non-famous) pre-college teachers, your attendance at teenage music camps, etc. are generally not mentioned. The biography similarly follows the items on the resume.

For amateurs, it is presumably reasonable to mention your last teacher, or attendance at an arts high school / Pre-College program if you don't have college-and-beyond to mention. But you don't mention most childhood accomplishments otherwise (some people will mention having attended Interlochen or Tanglewood in the summer, though). Amateurs may also mention their current profession. (Pros with a day job occcasionally also mention their other profession.)

Does anyone else have a different opinion? In my written biographies, I only mention current stuff. Nothing from childhood at all (I presume no one cares about my youth symphony concertmaster/principal 2nd positions even if they are prestigious, or childhood competitions won), but I notice pros including this stuff.

Replies (39)

January 6, 2020, 12:55 AM · For an amateur, it seems reasonable to mention something like a youth symphony concertmaster position -- just limit pre-college accomplishments to the most prestigious one or two things.

The one time I had to write a bio for a solo appearance with an orchestra, I mentioned my then-current orchestras along with the two prior orchestras I spent the most time with. Because I was trying to bring it up to the length of a typical community orchestra soloist bio, I also mentioned being a composer and listed places where my music had been performed. Other than that, I mentioned being a self-taught player, the maker and date of my viola (not that anyone in that would really care about a modern American viola, but I was filling space!), and my profession. I suppose my situation of having to pad my bio was unusual, because I really had nothing on my violin/viola resume other than community orchestras.

Edited: January 6, 2020, 12:04 PM · Keep it short, relevant to the event, and no padding. For a classical Violin bio., I do not mention that I played in a drum line for a fife and drum corps, electric guitar, Mariachi singer, etc. What I also find annoying is solo singers listing every opera role that they have done.
January 6, 2020, 11:36 AM · Basically, you want to put a few things into your bio that will give the reader some background on you, so that they know who you are and where you're coming from. And if you have to reach back a little farther (i.e., because you don't have more recent accolades to list), then I think that's what you do.

I had a recent orchestral performance of Beethoven Romance Op. 40. Here is the bio that was printed in the program.

Paul Deck grew up in the Detroit suburb of Trenton, Michigan. The youngest of three brothers (all amateur musicians), he began violin and piano lessons at an early age and continued studying both instruments until he left for college. Paul's father is also a self-taught pianist who bravely and skillfully performed all of their accompaniments for "Solo and Ensemble" performances. During high school, Paul's piano interests shifted to jazz, and he performed with the Michigan All-State Jazz Ensemble. During college he had a lesson with the late legendary "Piano Jazz" host, Marian McPartland, who later described him as "a fine player." In fact, today Paul is known in our area much more for his frequent work as a pianist with Highlands Jazz than for his exploits on the violin. However, several years ago, Paul also returned to studying the violin with Vladimir Kromin, who teaches at Renaissance Music Academy in Blacksburg. Paul is especially grateful for the patience and respect that Vladimir has demonstrated for the challenges that a busy family man and professional faces when studying the violin, and for Vladimir's steadfast support and encouragement. To broaden his opportunities even further, a few years ago Paul purchased a viola and has played viola with RMA Chamber Orchestra, Blacksburg Community Strings, and the New River Valley Symphony -- groups that always seem to be needing more violists. Paul's two daughters are also classical musicians: [The elder] is a violinist who studied with Vladimir Kromin until she left for college, and [the younger] is a cellist who studies with Lisa Liske and Sandy Kiefer. In between musical adventures, Paul teaches chemistry at Virginia Tech and enjoys cooking for his family.

January 6, 2020, 12:48 PM · I don't know who reads bios. Usually they are more like puffed-up resumes in the program notes I see. I have played with these big names, blah blah blah. One thing I'm always curious about that gets left out just about any performer bio is who they studied with - And yeah, they will mention they studied with Delay or this or that big name, but I feel like the formative teachers always get the shaft, which leads me to believe that the bios are just a vain publicity exercise, and that names that aren't big enough aren't worth noting.
Edited: January 6, 2020, 3:13 PM · (edited a little bit to make clearer) I think Paul's bio is very well written and fun to read and learn a bit more about his background! For Lydia I would recommend something similar. I agree, do not list youth accomplishments. So, basically, that you play since early childhood, possibly mention your teachers, say that you are nowadays a professional in (fill in blanks), that you are now an avid amateur, studying with current teacher name, playing/concertmaster of current orchestra, and perhaps list some recent events/places where you have performed solo or chamber music.
Edited: January 6, 2020, 6:59 PM · People do read bios, especially if the performers are not famous.

Your program bio will depend on the audience, venue, and word count restrictions in the printed program. I think the usual conventions can be relaxed for amateurs or if the venue is really offbeat and informal.

January 6, 2020, 8:50 PM · I always read the printed bios in the program. But I agree with Christian that when there are long lists of former collaborators, that starts to remind one of 1 Chron 1.
January 7, 2020, 3:34 AM · I like to read about people who are performing. The best bio was one, where a young artist described why she decided to pick up her violin, how she met and begun collaboration with her pianist, how they did choose the pieces for the program, and how they ended up to perform in that rural area of nowhere of Denmark.

It was an equal bio of the pianist, who joked about the program choice.

The concert was very nice.

January 7, 2020, 5:14 AM · I like reading bios which show the performer(s) as real people and don't read like some c.v. of past teachers, honors and performances. And when I'm asked to provide such a bio for a printed program I try to do the same.

Listing teachers who may be famous in the violin pedagogy world but remain unknown to most people outside that world (top teachers such as Dorothy Delay being the rare exception) is meaningless to most audience members. And the audience members have no clue whether those people are real or just made up to make the performer's bio look good.

Tell me why you're there, tell me what you love about the piece you're playing, tell me about your other interests, show me you're not a musical machine. That's what I like to read in printed bios.

January 7, 2020, 12:47 PM · I think as an amateur I'd just as well not do any bio at all. A (professional) violinist once told me: "Never tell that you are an amateur when you perform. You'll only bias the audience against you". This may be exaggerated but I do think there is some truth to it.

If you do a bio though (and mention your status as an amateur) I think it should include a mention of what you do in your life that feeds you and your family. It is an important part of who you are.

January 7, 2020, 2:12 PM · My favorite biography ever:

9 year old ---- ------ has been concertizing for 26 years. Upon making her debut last year, she's released 21 albums since 1990, and though she's in the fourth grade, she celebrates her 30th anniversary of playing with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Some exaggeration, but still. :-D

Edited: January 7, 2020, 2:37 PM · David, Micheal, Albrecht, and Andrew, I loved your posts. :-)

Not everything in the fiddle business needs to be all hoity-toity. It might even be its main failing.

Edited: January 7, 2020, 2:56 PM · You have to be careful with humor, though. You don't want to convey the notion that you think the organization that you're performing with is some kind of joke. I was making my orchestra debut with Blacksburg Community Strings! I wanted to play as well as I possibly could, and I think I pretty much did, although certainly it was not a perfect performance by any stretch. My fellow orchestra members were trying their hardest too. We're definitely amateurs -- no question about it -- but even though we don't "take ourselves too seriously," the endeavor itself is a serious attempt at a good performance -- and, of course, an enjoyable experience for all.
January 7, 2020, 4:44 PM · I find it nice to read about people's histories, especially in concerts aimed at the general community, where people bring their kids. A lot of folks include how old they were when they started playing, and a bit about their early years (whether they started via Suzuki or other training). And it's nice to have a little bit about them as human beings, too.
January 7, 2020, 6:38 PM · Paul, moment of truth: Do your family enjoy eating your food, as much as you enjoy cooking it?
I was sacked from cooking for our soup kitchen, or even preparing the food (mostly - my cranberry relish for a Thanksgiving meal - we had some lovely American volunteers that year - was appreciated. On the whole, though, best thing that happened to the Soup Kitchen), though they still seem to welcome my shopping.
Edited: January 7, 2020, 6:41 PM · Couple of random, jet-lagged thoughts in no particular order:

Why do we have program bios, anyway? I suppose on some level (esp conference bios, etc.) they function as a presentation of bona fides. But those can be pretty boring and formulaic. More interesting is the range of experience that someone might have, which could shed light on their offering. I've always thought people would benefit from seeing each other more fully, which is why I'd definitely want to know about Paul's jazz/chem background or Lydia's analyst gig–or their violin habit on a different context. It's inspiring!

I have noticed, at times, what appears to be an inverse correlation between the length and degree of arcane subject-specific detail in a person's bio and their confidence/ability as a performer. For example, as a young teenager, I wondered why my violin teacher's wedding quartet was listing what seemed like every gig they'd ever played on their advertisements. It's the musical bio equivalent of the 4 pp. resume (to be distinguished from a CV)–seems like you're trying too hard.

In Lydia's case I'd consider the audience and go in a direction like Paul's. In the case of an aspiring music professional, I'd defer to whatever someone like Mary Ellen might suggest but try to avoid looking desperate and probably minimize the list of minor/early-stage accolades. If I were a rockstar soloist (e.g. Hilary Hahn), I'd recognize that as a genuine celebrity, my resume was probably less important than, say, gratitude to the key institutions and people who helped me along the way (pretty sure Hilary routinely lists or mentions her childhood teacher), a dose of inspiration, and maybe something interesting to remind stunned listeners that she's also human.

January 7, 2020, 7:34 PM · Very lovely reflection on how bio content should vary depending upon one's goals, but also one's positionality (as a superstar, young professional, amateur, etc.) by Katie B.!
January 7, 2020, 7:46 PM · John, yes they do. I'm never going to win any gourmet cooking contests, but I am good at making "family fare," as I learned from my mother and I have been doing all the cooking as long as I have been married. (My wife does any baking that may be needed -- I do not enjoy baking, but she is good at it, just a lucky break for me there.) This afternoon I had a bit more time because it was a "snow day" and I made almost 8 quarts of beef stew, which will give me four meals for the four of us. I am guided by taste, nutrition, a desire to decrease (gradually) the amount of red meat (beef stew is something I make maybe once per year), whatever is on sale in a particular week, and simplicity for making a large quantity that I can put into containers and reheat all week. Fortunately my kids eat pretty much everything that is put in front of them. Last week I made 8 quarts of pasta e fagioli. What will I make next week? I impulsively bought a package of freekeh at the international market and I have never made it before so I'll probably turn it into a pilaf to go with some skewers -- with any luck I'll have a nice enough day on the weekend to fire up the grill.
January 8, 2020, 7:54 AM · Thank you for this thread. It is really helping me to think about how to help my kids with this. I really hate his current CV-like bio.

We struggle with two issues that I'm guessing don't apply to most people. The first is that my son is required to use specific language and content in the first paragraph of his bio to satisfy the terms of his two primary merit scholarships. Is that common? I don't know, but it makes the first paragraph boring no matter what.

The second issue is my son had a really challenging start to violin for the first ~6 years, which is more than half the time he has been playing. This was not his fault at all (his older sister was extremely ill and eventually passed away). As a result, he was unable to be in a program or study with a teacher at the level he needed. He didn't do any of the cool things his (now) peers did during that time. All of this makes his bio even more uninteresting.

In any case, thanks again as this thread his given me some ideas to get around some of the above issues.

January 8, 2020, 8:39 AM · Lots of interesting (and good) advice on this topic.
In my field (clinical psychology) I have a half-century of experience of writing and co-authoring books, dozens of articles, manuals, bios, marketing pieces, etc, and have done a ton of editing.

I've never had the occasion to write a bio for a musical performance (unfortunately). However, I would strongly suggest that whatever you write, work with an experienced editor to make sure that every word counts.

I hope all of you have many occasions to face the "problem" of writing a bio for a musical performance.

Happy New Year,
Sandy

Edited: January 8, 2020, 10:24 AM · All very interesting. My standard program bio is fairly dull (and it emphasizes what I'm playing this year in hopes that people will come to the concerts):

Lydia Leong began playing the violin at the age of five, via the Suzuki Method. Her principal teacher was Lee Joiner, professor of violin at the Wheaton College Conservatory of Music. She is the concertmaster of the Montgomery Philharmonic, and is also active as a chamber musician. She is a regular performer in Friday Morning Music Club and other chamber-series recitals. This FMMC season, will be performing the first Faure violin sonata at Strathmore and the Rachmaninoff G-minor Trio Elegiaque at Ingleside. She will also be featured as the violin soloist in Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante with the Montgomery Philharmonic. Solo performance highlights from recent seasons include Vaughan-Williams's The Lark Ascending, Glazunov's violin concerto, and Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 with the Montgomery Philharmonic. Lydia is currently a Distinguished VP Analyst at Gartner, and is a frequently-quoted expert on cloud computing. She presently studies with Emil Chudnovsky.

Format: Name - History - Primary teacher - Current orchestra - Here's my season - Some past performances - Day Job - Current teacher

(In previous years when I was doing more gigging I had, "She has also been active as a chamber musician, freelancer, and pit-orchestra concertmaster for musical theater and light opera productions." in there.)

The "solo performance highlights" idea I cribbed from one of my quartet-mates.

January 8, 2020, 11:18 AM · Lydia, looks good except that the sentence "She presently studies with Emil Chudnovsky" seems out of place to me. I would make that your third sentence, right after the sentence about studying with Lee Joiner.

Sandy suggested hiring a professional editor. I see his point, but one thing I like about the bio I wrote is that it's in my own voice. There really wasn't a severe space limitation, and I wanted it to be breezy and friendly-sounding, not dense and pedantic. Of course a really good editor can help you retain your own voice while helping you improve both clarity and concision, but unless your future aspirations depend on what is written in your bio, I think professional editing is an unnecessary expense.

January 8, 2020, 11:32 AM · I agree. I actually put my current teacher last so his name does not get lost mid paragraph. People who hear me play often are interested in hearing more about my teacher and it's thus a good deed of sorts.
Edited: January 8, 2020, 11:55 AM · What David B said. As a member of the audience or the accompanying orchestra I often think the biogs too self-congratulatory. But what about some information about the instrument?
January 8, 2020, 12:13 PM · Nice Lydia, I like it, but same reaction as Paul's about the last sentence: people may be confused that Chudnovsky is your cloud computing teacher or something!

Small correction, insert "she" after "This FMMC season"

Edited: January 8, 2020, 12:15 PM · I am always curious to know what people are using equipment-wise, but I'm also cognizant of the fact that whatever is listed is not necessarily what they're playing that day.

As an amateur, I worry a little that it feels like too much of a brag to list an exceptional instrument in one's bio. I've done it once for a solo with orchestra ("Lydia is fortunate to have use of a violin by JB Vuillaume and a bow by Victor Fetique" phrasing to not come out and just say that I own that equipment). However, in almost every concert I play, people ask me what I'm playing, often adding that it's extraordinary and they've never heard anything like it before. (If they don't, I know the violin is out of adjustment / needs new strings!)

For kids, I think a nice format is "Kid began playing the violin at age X with teacher/method, and is currently a student of teacher. They enjoy types/styles, and are title chairs, and a member of other ensembles. They won list of meaningful recent competitions | "many local/regional competitions". They are currently a student at school and enjoy other activities/clubs/sports/hobbies."

January 8, 2020, 12:33 PM · If Lydia wants to trim it further, I would suggest:
- "Lee Joiner of the Wheaton..." (violin is implied) "...and presently studies with..." making teacher's name front and center
- "concertmaster of ... and an active chamber musician, including as a regular performer in..." (balanced structure of predicate noun and noun instead of noun and adjective? I forget what things are called)
- Alternative: "is CM of MP and will be featured as the violin soloist in..." Followed by: "As an active chamber musician, she performs regularly in/with... This season will include/feature..." (otherwise missing word: "This FMMC season, SHE will be...") This varies the sentence structure to not have as many linking verb sentences.
- Does Montgomery Philharmonic have to be repeated for solo highlights? If not, it could be named just once instead of three times.

The perception of "dullness" might be because it's a list of objectively verifiable facts. You could replace the proper nouns and it could be anybody. If it fits your voice to inject a personality item or something that conveys emotion, maybe that could go with the last sentence about day job/expertise or perhaps earlier to point out any particularly meaningful repertoire. (Who's to say something was or was not meaningful? That's the subjective/emotion part.)

(Tangent: I knew Emil Chudnovsky's name seemed familiar! He did the Beethoven violin concerto recently with a community orchestra in my area.)

January 8, 2020, 1:14 PM · Lydia I thought about including a description of the violin that I play (even though certainly it is not in the Vuillaume class), but I concluded that it sounded stuffy, so I'll be curious to see how you solve that. One option might be to somehow include that information elsewhere, such as a photo caption. "Cover photo: Scroll of Lydia's violin made by JB Vuillaume in 1860" or whatever.
January 8, 2020, 1:39 PM · I think it reads fine. If I had a big name violin, I don't think I would put it out there myself, just because on one hand, people out there are shifty, and on the other, I think people glom onto names and start to try and attribute your performance to the instrument, which is silly.
January 8, 2020, 2:51 PM · Paul that's a creative idea!
January 8, 2020, 6:18 PM · I enjoy reading bios in every concert, especially bios of those who are not famous.
Edited: January 8, 2020, 7:50 PM · Lydia, I love the format- it's topical and focused. From a stylistic point of view, every sentence starts with "She is" or "She was" or some other passive verb. Consider punching up the verbs and mixing up the sentence structure.

"Lydia Leong began her violin studies at the age of five, via the Suzuki Method. Under the tutelage of Lee Joiner, professor at the Wheaton College Conservatory of Music, Lydia ---Describe general accomplishments here {Lydia flourished, becoming concertmaster of her youth orchestra, tackled {significant repertoire} or whatever----. Currently, Lydia is honored to serve as concertmaster of the Montgomery Philharmonic. Also an active chamber musician, she performs regularly in Friday Morning Music Club other chamber-series recitals.

This FMMC season, she will perform the first Faure violin sonata at Strathmore and the Rachmaninoff G-minor Trio Elegiaque at Ingleside. She will also be featured as the violin soloist in Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante with the Montgomery Philharmonic. Solo performance highlights from recent seasons include Vaughan-Williams's The Lark Ascending, Glazunov's violin concerto, and Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 with the Montgomery Philharmonic. She presently studies with Emil Chudnovsky, and is fortunate to have use of a violin by JB Vuillaume and a bow by Victor Fetique."

I think you should mention your instrument, and even give sort of description of the sound if you'd like. People are genuinely interested in that. **You may own the violin and bow, but really, you're only care-taking for the next person who plays them** I think you have enough music related meat that you don't need the description of the day job.

January 8, 2020, 8:59 PM · I actually like to make it deliberately clear that I'm an amateur. I think it's useful for the audience to realize that people can play seriously without doing it professionally. (And similarly I like to understand which people are performing pros vs teaching pros vs educator pros.)
Edited: January 8, 2020, 9:34 PM · "I think it's useful for the audience to realize that people can play seriously without doing it professionally. "

Excellent point! And something every person here who asks about becoming a music major should think about!! You've probably had more performance opportunities as a serious amateur than many music majors, actually.

From 9-5, Lydia can be found working as a VP Analyst at Gartner, and is a frequently quoted expert on cloud computing. She also enjoys...whatever your other hobbies are.

I get your justification for putting your current teacher at the end, but it doesn't quite fit there. It feels like a random last second addition- like you forgot about him and tacked him on at the end.

January 8, 2020, 10:18 PM · Flourished, tackled, and honored are exactly the type of emotion/personality words I was talking about and don't have the writing chops to actually come up with! "From 9-5" is not literal but a humorous (? that's not the right word) of changing the subject in a lively manner.
January 8, 2020, 10:31 PM · Indeed, the advantage to being a cheerful amateur is that you go out and perform in circumstances that a professional would be afraid to perform in, because the amateurism is a certain amount of freedom to be imperfect without feeling like it's ruinous.

January 9, 2020, 9:21 AM · Lydia,

Emil is a tremendous individual, fabulous player, and expert diagnostician on the violin.

My 2 cents

January 9, 2020, 9:57 AM · Hey Andrew, I missed meeting you when you were doing a masterclass for Emil's students; I had a concert to play then, I think. :-)

Emil is an excellent and inventive teacher!

January 9, 2020, 10:09 AM · That was a long time ago...maybe the 15-16 season? But I think I'm playing in Fairfax in 2021, so there will be other opportunities.


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