We need to talk about bios, y'all.
I don't mean book-length, formally published biographies. Those books are a diverse bunch, and the ones I've read haven't been plagued by any repeating issues — whatever failings they have are idiosyncratic and individual, not representative of the genre as a whole. No, I'm talking about the short little bios that get slipped into concert programs, sometimes as part of the notes for a given piece, but more often as standalone entries in the "About Tonight's Artists" section.
On the whole, these bios are terrible.
Not every single one, of course (#NotAllBios) — there are composers and performers both who manage to create 150-word snapshots of their lives that are a genuine pleasure to read — but the failings I'm about to go into are far too common. Indeed, I'm quite guilty of them as well; my bios are hardly exemplars of the kind of bio I hold in high regard.
The standard professional bio goes something like this: Start with a couple of flattering press quotes if you have them, or, failing that, write a couple of pump-up sentences about yourself. (Make heavy use of buzzwords: Energizing! Adventurous! Dazzling technique and expressive power!) Throw in a line or two about your education, especially if you went to a particularly famous Name Brand School or studied with an especially renowned teacher. Wrap it up with the most prominent ensembles you've worked with in some capacity and put in a plug if you currently teach at an institution. Boom! One standard-issue professional musician bio.
This formula is everywhere. You could almost write a mad-lib version of it. ("OK, I need a major conservatory, then two orchestras and a chamber ensemble. . . ") It produces results that are totally serviceable, but also all too frequently soulless, generic, and mind-numbingly boring.
Does anyone actually read these? Like, does anyone in the audience regularly pay attention to them? Because I definitely don't. I will read artist bios when a concert is starting super behind schedule and I'm desperate for anything to take my mind off of the boredom of waiting, but I am never disappointed when the lights go down before I get to the end. There are, as I said, occasional exceptions, but as a general rule, these bios are a last-ditch distraction tool, one step up from counting splinters or loose threads on the seat back in front of me.
It doesn't have to be this way. Musicians aren't a boring bunch. We're geeky, silly, enthusiastic, insightful; we've got killer senses of humor and deep, all-consuming passions. Yet all this glorious intensity, this verve and joie du vivre gets sucked out and flattened down when it comes time to write about ourselves for an audience. What if we did things differently? What if, instead of mechanically converting a list of ensembles and awards into stilted boilerplate prose, we used this space to put forward a brief artistic vision, to say what we hope to do with the art we make? Or to actually let some of our personality shine thru, so that when we make that much-discussed connection between performer and listener, it's a connection with an actual person, not just a conglomeration of dry accomplishments?
(I don't mean to imply that I think there's no room anywhere for celebrating accomplishment and tooting one's own horn with some juicy snippets from choice reviews. I am just unconvinced that a bio in a program is the best forum for doing so.)
Much of this, especially personalizing quirks, is often frowned upon for not being "professional" enough to include. But "professionalism" is a set of standards that people made up and that we've all agreed to perpetuate. There's no law of the universe that says that knowing where I went to school is more "professional" than knowing I'm inordinately fond of puns. (This, of course, leaving aside the ways that many aspects of professionalism perpetuate oppressive power structures along depressingly familiar lines of class, gender, race, and so on.) Is knowing that someone is human instead of just a collection of degrees and ensembles-worked-with really that much of an impediment to taking them seriously as an artist? If professionalism means de-personalization, I want nothing to do with it.
We can change this, y'all, we have that power. We can decide, collectively, that it is appropriate to be personal, funny, and friendly in a bio. That it is professional to present yourself to the audience as a human being, instead of some self-aggrandizing trophy case. Let's do it. Let's put an end to boring bios.