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Five Ways to Improve Your Bio

Here’s what a good bio shouldn’t do: give your reader cause to doubt, even for a moment, that you are a unique and highly-accomplished professional. With that in mind, here are five things to remove from your bio immediately:

1. “I started composing [or playing my instrument] when I was 7 [or 6, or 8, or 10…]”

You started playing your instrument at the average age that musicians start lessons? Great — you and the rest of the world. This sentence is in so many musician bios, and it makes you sound completely ordinary. Unless you started composing/performing when you were an infant or over the age of 40, kindly get rid of this sentence.

2. “Composer X is a student at _______ university” (anywhere in the first half of your bio)

If you are a student, that information (where you attend, who you study with) should go at or near the bottom of your biography.

As Angela Myles Beeching writes in her book Beyond Talent, “If you are still in school, you should NOT list this first. Your bio should present your performance [or composing] credentials as a professional. If the reader is very impressed with all that you’ve done in the first paragraphs and then finds out you’re still in school, they’ll be that much more impressed.”

In your bio — and in your career — present yourself as a working musician first and a student second.

3. The words “emerging” or “amateur”

Once again, you want to let people reading your bio judge your success without feeding them any information that suggests that you’re, well, “amateur.” Furthermore, unless you’re the youngest composer to ever [win a Pulitzer, win the Rome Prize, etc.], there’s no reason to imply age at all. Let readers assume that you’re a wildly-successful professional, and don’t give them any reason to think otherwise.

4. Quotes without citations

I’m in favor of the quotes that so frequently dominate the first-sentences of bios, but they have to be from a legitimate source: a newspaper, a well-respected music blog, a highly-accomplished musician, etc. List where the quote came from. None of this citation-less nonsense: “Composer X has been called ‘totally amazing!’ and ‘super great!’” Whenever I see this in a bio, I assume you’re either making those words up or quoting your mother. State your sources, and if it was your mom? Take that quote out.

5. Dates

Stating that you won a contest 10 years ago feels dated and potentially irrelevant. If you leave the dates out, though, that contest can exist alongside one you won this year; all of your achievements are placed on equal footing. Group together notable performances, premieres, commissions, grants, recordings, or concert halls in which your work has been performed, and however you choose to group your accomplishments, make sure that there’s a common thread linking them together within each sentence and again within each paragraph. Don’t list them by chronology, though, or you’ll end up with a mishmash of disparate information.

Here are a few things your bio should do:

1. Highlight what you want more of in your career

Your bio presents what you’ve already done as a way of framing what you want to happen next. You’re not only demonstrating through your bio that you’re extremely skilled at what you do; you’re convincing the reader that you’d be a perfect fit for similar opportunities in the future.

Want more commissions? Near the top of your bio, list the commissions you’ve already worked on, or strongly emphasize the ensembles and performers with whom you’ve already collaborated. If you’ve been writing a lot of chamber music and would love to be scoring films, prominently highlight any relevant prior experience, even if it’s from 10 years ago (we’re leaving off the date, remember?). Give the reader every chance to assume that you know exactly what you’re doing, you’ve done it before, and they should hire you to do more of it.

2. Exist in multiple versions

I have a just-under-100-word bio (third-person), a longer bio (~250 words, third-person), and  a first-person bio for use on my website. I usually end up revising my bio with each opportunity to which I apply, too. Just as you wouldn’t use a performance resume to apply for a job working in arts management, you shouldn’t use the same biography to apply to every composing or performance opportunity.

Why have I experimented in the past with a first-person bio on my website? On a website, your bio is making an impression both as an accomplished musician and a memorable human being. As author Danielle LaPorte writes, “People are hiring you, paying attention to you, coming to see you. So they want to hear from… YOU. Besides, anyone you want to work with is smart enough to know that the third person copy is probably written by…You.”

A first-person bio is a way to be authentic; so is focusing one or two sentences on what makes you different from every other composer/performer/conductor out there. You’re an accomplished classical pianist who also specializes in new-music kazoo? You play part-time in a bluegrass band? You’re an opera singer who went to cooking school? That’s awesome. Put it — briefly — in your bio.

Finally, enlist a good proof-reader or three. For years, until a conductor pointed out the typo, my bio said that I had a “duel” undergraduate degree. (Ironically, that second, non-musical degree is in English Language and Literature.) Make sure your two majors aren’t at war with each other; have a friend who’s a good proof-reader scour your bio for typos and awkward sentences.

Your bio will be the first impression of you that many people get. So be as professional as possible, no matter your age or student status; be authentic; if you use quotes, cite them; and group similar accomplishments together, regardless of when they happened. Use what you’ve already achieved to bring more of what you want into your life. And please, please don’t tell me you started playing the piano when you were 7.

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Originally published on the MusicSpoke blog.

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