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29 Days to Diva: Day 3 – A Singer’s Bio (#29daystodiva)

February 3, 2012

Perfect objectivity is always impossible, no matter who writes a person’s biography.
-Pamela Stephenson

Nary a graduate voice student has gone through a semester without worrying about updating their singer’s biography. How does one strike the right balance between facts, achievements, humor, and interest? When writing your bio remember that this is not about what you find the most interesting. Your bio is a music business document designed to inspire interest in your product/service. Singers should focus on writing their bios for the contacts with whom you are trying to collaborate and impress. The bio is an exercise in writing a beautifully balanced portrait of yourself as a musician.
Your 29 Days to Diva: Day 3 challenge is to write a captivating biography.

Whereas fiction is a continual discovery of what one wants to say, what one feels, what one means, and is, in that sense, a performance art, biography requires different skills – research and organization.
- Edmund White

Start with your résumé from yesterday’s challenge. Take an inventory of your background, education, recent roles (make sure spellings, diacriticals, and names are correct!), and recent non-opera performances. Also, make another list of your goals and mission as a performer. You will use a combination of both of these to create your bangin’ bio. Think about those that reading your bio: stage directors, company directors, competition judges, teachers, festival committees, etc that are usually skimming a plethora of bios just like yours. Therefore, lean toward upbeat language with any authoritative quotes comments or quotes you can drum up.

Let’s dish for a quick moment about cliches. Take a moment to research other singer bios; especially those of your peers whatever level you may be. After a few examples you will start to notice phrases that used frequently – too frequently. Stay away from those phrases! Novelist and essayist Martin Amis said, “All writing is a campaign against cliché. Not just clichés of the pen but clichés of the mind and clichés of the heart.¹” Try to figure out another way to say that you are “highly sought-after” and that you are “a frequent performer of recital, concert and chamber repertoire.” The Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition, contains full entries for 171,476 words in current use.² I am sure that you can find something more interesting and specific to your career.

Biographies are but the clothes and buttons of the man. The biography of the man himself cannot be written.
- Mark Twain

Follow these guidelines and you will have a valuable document for any press kit, analog or digital.

First Paragraph

Your first sentence should be like the topic sentence of an essay. It should clearly define the essential information you want the reader to know. “Topic sentences often act like tiny thesis statements. Like a thesis statement, a topic sentence makes a claim of some sort. As the thesis statement is the unifying force in the essay, so the topic sentence must be the unifying force in the paragraph. Further, as is the case with the thesis statement, when the topic sentence makes a claim, the paragraph which follows must expand, describe, or prove it in some way. Topic sentences make a point and give reasons or examples to support it.³” This is often the place where you will place a quote from an authoritative contact in the industry. If the quote is vague or not portraying you in the most shimmering light you should consider excising it.

Example:

“Praised for the remarkable agility, precision and warmth of her voice, and for her outstanding musicianship, Sumi Jo has established herself as one of her generation’s most sought-after sopranos. She has been consistently greeted with exceptional accolades, by public and press alike, for her performances in the most important opera houses and concert halls throughout the world.”

Second Paragraph

This is the current section. Take this moment to highlight whatever you are doing this season. Again, remember your audience when writing. What will the reader find the most interesting? Write about your most exciting upcoming projects and with whom you will be working. You are trying to give the reader a sense that other people trust you and revel in your musicianship and that they should too.

Example:

Hampson begins his 2011-12 season at San Francisco Opera, where he will create the role of Rick Rescorla in the world premiere of Christopher Theofanidis’s Heart of a Soldier. The new opera, commemorating the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, features a libretto by Donna Di Novelli and is directed by Francesca Zambello. Based on the 2002 book by James B. Stewart, the work is inspired by the true story of Rescorla, his wife, Susan, and his friend Daniel J. Hill, culminating in Rescorla’s tragic death in the collapse of the South Tower of the World Trade Center following his heroic evacuation of all 2,700 employees of Morgan Stanley. Hampson’s other operatic engagements this season include Iago in Verdi’s Otello and the title role in Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler, both at Zurich Opera, and Verdi’s Macbeth at New York’s Metropolitan Opera.”

Third and Fourth Paragraph

At this point, it is time to illumine the path that brought you to your present diva-ness. Go back to your inventory and find the most interesting accomplishments and honors to write about in this section. Just like the résumé, do not exaggerate. Be proud of your accomplishments wherever you are in your career. All experiences teach you how to be a better singer and stage performer. If you have created any sort of long-term projects elaborate on how that is part of your overall career development.

Example:

Kala has presented solo recitals or been featured in recital at Hawai’i Public Radio, the Freeport Memorial Library, the Chicago Cultural Center, the Aspen Music Festival, the University of Hawai’i, the University of Albany, and the Faulkner Gallery in Santa Barbara, CA, and has collaborated with the Aspen Contemporary Ensemble, Musica Viva, The Choral Arts Society of Washington, The Boston Conservatory Wind Ensemble, and The Boston Conservatory Women’s Chorus. She is also on the roster of Sing for Hope (www.singforhope.org).

Kala graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa with a BA in Political Science and Music from Barnard College, Columbia University. Recruited because of her related work experience and facility with languages, she worked as a Senior Program Analyst with the Criminal Division of the United States Department of Justice, but after two years decided to pursue her lifelong love of singing, receiving her MMus in Opera Performance from The Boston Conservatory. She also holds a Graduate Certificate in Spanish-to-English Translation from New York University. Kala is the Co-Founder and Executive Director of The Opera Insider, a social and professional networking community for opera lovers and opera professionals from both sides of the curtain (www.theoperainsider.com).

Biography is a very definite region bounded on the north by history, on the south by fiction, on the east by obituary, and on the west by tedium.
Philip Guedalla

Some tips to remember:

  1. Any paper bio you send out should be only one page in length.
  2. Use the same header from your résumé to provide continuity in your press kit.
  3. Always send in PDF format – not in Word.
  4. Always proofread – bonus points for having a friend or teacher look it over.
  5. Save two or three different short versions. You should plan on having a 100 and 200 word version to use for programs.
  6. Practice good prose – use transitions, proper grammar, and avoid clichés like the… (well, nevermind.)

Do you have a good singing biography that you would like to share? Have some bio pet-peeves? Share your thoughts and questions in the comments below.

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