At some point in your career, you’re going to need to provide a short biography (or “bio”). Here are some tips on constructing a suitable bio.
- Third Person: Write your bio in the third person. (Use he/she, for instance, rather than “I”)
- Formal Tone: Keep the tone fairly formal. Some contexts may demand a less formal tone, but err on the side of formality if you’re unsure.
- Last Name: After you give your full name at the beginning, you should use a shortened form of your name. The standard for professional bios is to use your last name, with or without a title. (Remember, you’d say “Stravinsky,” not “Igor.”) When you’re young, it’s often better to use your first name. Sometimes, a less formal approach is called for, which might also recommend the use of your first name. If you’re not sure, err on the side of caution and use your last name.
All Bios Include
- Your full name
- Your birth year (optional)
- This is highly recommended for composers, because concert programs usually give the birth year of the composer. It can help those designing programs if this is readily accessible in your bio.
Things to Include Early in Your Career
You might think that you’re too young or inexperienced to write a bio. You’re not! Here are some things you can include:
- Your hometown (optional)
- When you started composing, singing, or playing your instrument
- Early performances, awards, honors, etc.
- Instruments you play
- Instrumentalists, you’d include this only if you play something other than the instrument for which you’re being featured/
- Hobbies and interests (optional)
- Who you’ve studied with; where you’ve studied
- Include your website if you have one (I recommend you have one)
- Keep early career bios short, about a paragraph.
- A less formal tone is acceptable when you’re younger, but you still want to read as a professional. Err on the side of formality.
- A thank you note in your program is acceptable when you’re young.
A Sample Early-Career Bio
Gregor Samsa (b. 1985) was born and raised in Houston, Texas. He started playing the violin at age 7, later switching to the contrabassoon. He started composing in 2007, and this is his first summer attending AFA, where he studies with Colonel Sanders. He wishes to thank his mother and father, without whom he couldn’t be here today.
Things to Include Later in Your Career
- Notable Performances
- Your highest degree and where you went to school
- Optional: List all of your degrees and schools, undergrad and higher
- Who you’ve studied with
- Notable prizes, awards, and honors
- Professional recordings
- If you’re a member of any professional organizations
- Composers also often put their PRO affiliation (in the US: ASCAP, BMI, or SESAC)
- A quote or two from major reviews
- Include your website
- Have bios of different lengths for different purposes. I recommend having at least a short bio (about a paragraph) and a long bio (about a page).
- While there are different strategies as to how to organize a bio, you generally are looking for an inverted pyramid structure, starting with the most critical information and moving to the least critical information. (Recommended Further Reading)
- Who You Are: Open with who you are and what you do. Try to grab our attention with something impressive, such as the inclusion of a quote from a major reviewer. Include at least one accomplishment that backs this up. (Length: 1-2 sentences in short bio; 1 paragraph in long bio)
- What You Do: A more expansive section that includes some of your impressive activities and achievements. (Length: 3-6 sentences in short bio; 1-3 paragraphs in long bio)
- Education and Things to Come: Most bios close with information about education and training. Some also include information about upcoming or current projects. (Length: 1-2 sentences in short bio; 1 paragraph in long bio)
- COMPOSERS: Karim Al-Zand (short) | Libby Larsen (short) | Michael Remson (long)
- INSTRUMENTALISTS: Hilary Hahn (long) | Webster Trio (3 sample short bios)
- VOCALISTS: David Daniels short bio & long bio | Marin Mazzie (long bio)
- CONDUCTORS: Han-Na Chang (short bio) | Sean Newhouse (long bio)
- PRODUCERS: Wire Road Studios (numerous medium-length bios)
- Many other bios are available on musician websites and on the faculty pages of music departments, such as the one at the college where I teach.
Common Bio Errors
- Weak Opening: Your opening should grab our attention without being overhyped and make us interested in you.
- Unsubstantiated Hype: Don’t start with unsubstantiated hype, such as “One of the great talents of his generation…” Instead, use your accomplishments to speak for themselves or use quotes from major reviewers.
- Amateur Tells: Some people’s bios unintentionally show that they are amateurs. What does “He learned the guitar last year,” for instance, suggest? To me, it suggests that you have no idea how much there is to learning guitar or that people dedicate their lives to mastering their instruments.
- Outdated: All of us fall into this trap periodically, but don’t forget to keep your bio up-to-date.
- Unprofessional Writing:
- Don’t be too informal
- Don’t use words that you think make you sound impressive if you don’t know what they mean. Be especially wary of malapropisms and homophones.
- Make sure that your sentences are grammatically and syntactically sound.
- Use correct punctuation, spelling, and capitalization.
- Extraneous Details: If it doesn’t have to do with the career you’re advertising, don’t include it. Some people, especially in actor bios and in bios of young and inexperienced musicians, will opt to include one line with hobbies. In some cases, that’s OK, but don’t let it happen elsewhere on your bio.
It’s often helpful to examine a bio that doesn’t work. Here is a fictional sample based on real errors seen in bios on the web:
John Doe is a musical prodigy. He is an uncommonly gifted songwriter, a preponderant composer, a singularly gifted guitarist, and a sensational music producer. John’s songwriting began with performing for his family at holidyas. But yet he went on from there to become the talent you see today. John obtained his license as a hair stylist and is an online certified minister able to perform marriages in the state of New Wyoming. He also has an associate’s degree in geology from the University of Atlantis. Stay tuned to this page to watch him crush it in the music world. And watch for his greatest hits CD, which will be released in 2009.
I’ve annotated that here to show where these common errors occur in this fictional example:
John Doe is a musical prodigy. [Weak opening; unsubstantiated hype] He is an uncommonly gifted songwriter, a preponderant [poor word choice] composer, a singularly gifted guitarist, and a sensational music producer. [Unsubstantiated hype] My [unprofessional; use third person] songwriting began with performing for his family at holidyas [typo; amateur tells]. But yet [“But yet” is redundant] he went on from there to become the talent you see today. [Unsubstantiated hype; amateur tells] John obtained his license as a hair stylist and is an online certified minister able to perform marriages in the state of New Wyoming. [Extraneous details] He also has an associate’s degree in geology from the University of Atlantis. [Extraneous details] Stay tuned to this page to watch him crush it in the music world. [Informal; unsubstantiated hype] And watch for his greatest hits CD [Amateur tell; only very established artists should have “greatest hits” CDs], which will be released in 2009. [Outdated]
Musical Theatre Actor Bios
Bios for theatre are something of a unique beast, so I wanted to address these separately. Here are some guidelines:
- Write in third person.
- Include your full name when you first list it. After that, just use your first name.
- If you use a stage name, use that here. Some actors have to choose an alternate name when they join AEA, since their name may already be taken.
- Keep it short (about a paragraph). Remember that these will likely be printed in a program. If you don’t keep it really short, they may cut it for you. Some actors also require a longer bio (about a page) for personal websites.
- Avoid telling us that you’re “passionate,” “knew you had to be an actor since you were five years old,” or that the stage is a “second home.” These are clichés that make you look less unique, even if they’re true.
- Actor bios often include lists of roles, broken down by theatre, and sometimes by type of theatre (REGIONAL, OFF-BROADWAY, BROADWAY, FILM, etc.)
- These can be a little less formal and often include thank yous for your family or friends and special skills (the sort you’d put on an acting résumé).
- Include your website and/or facebook/twitter handles.
The best place to find examples is to look up the website of your favorite running shows. They should have actor bios there.
What Do You Think?
What bio tips do you have to share? What bio mistakes have you seen when you’ve received bios from artists?
©2016 Aaron Alon. All Rights Reserved.