I was just reading an editorial by David Lister from The Independent wherein he decries the amount of useless information that he sees in performer bios in concert programs. And I totally agree. He asks why these bios are so horrible for the average person.
I would answer that it is because they aren’t intended for the average person. They’re written by publicists, both for other publicists and for presenters. Lister is right on the money about what most people want to know about performers: how old are they, what instrument do they play on, do they have a family, where do they live. A listing of the twenty orchestras they played with last year and the twenty that they’re playing with this year is hugely irrelevant to anyone, unless they’re following the performer around the globe and want to know where to route their around-the-world ticket to next. Most performers omit where they studied and who they studied with. I can understand their wanting to distance themselves from the student realm, but for the knowledgeable listener, knowing the pedigree of a performer can be very instructive. If I know a violinist studied with Ivan Galamian and Dorthy DeLay, then I have a very good idea of their interpretive foundation. If a cellist has studied with Heinrich Schiff instead of Janos Starker, that also gives me some insight into what I’m about to hear, or what I’ve just heard.
I kind of wish that most bios in programs were more like the informal performer portraits that are often featured now and then in orchestral programs. Just for comparison, here is my bio from the Oregon Symphony musician roster page:
Charles Noble joined the Oregon Symphony as Acting Principal/Assistant Principal violist in 1995. In 1993 he was first-prize winner of the Seattle Ladies Musical Club Competition. He received the 1995 C.D. Jackson Award by a vote of the faculty at the Tanglewood Music Center and the 1995 Israel Dorman String Prize at the Peabody Conservatory of Music. Noble is also a founding member of the acclaimed Ethos Quartet.
His solo appearances include two performances of Mozart’s Sinfonie concertante, the West Coast premiere of Joseph Castaldo’s Viola Concerto, Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 with OSO Principal violist Joël Belgique, and Bruch’s Romanze for Viola and Orchestra, all with the Oregon Symphony. Other solo appearances include the Cascade Festival of Music, Chico Symphony (Calif.), the Vermont Youth Orchestra, Tacoma Youth Symphony, Tacoma Young Artists Orchestra and the Portland Youth Philharmonic.
As an author Noble has published two articles on audition preparation appearing the The Strad magazine, and his article profiling violist Roberto Díaz appeared in the January 2003 issue. He was one of three American violists invited to tour Japan with the Super World Orchestra, whose roster included members of the Vienna Philharmonic, Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra and Cleveland Orchestra. In December 2000, he was visiting master teacher at the University of Nevada at Reno. In 2002 he was a featured artist performer at the 2002 International Viola Congress in Seattle, Wash., where he and colleague Joël Belgique performed George Benjamin’s Viola, viola.
Noble was a member of the faculty at the 1998 National Youth Orchestra Festival at the Interlochen Center for the Arts, and he is co-founder and a member of the faculty of the Max Aronoff Viola Institute in Seattle, Wash.
During the 2002-2003 season, Noble formed The Four Violas with three colleagues from the Oregon Symphony viola section: Joël Belgique, Mara Lise Gearman and Brian Quincey.
It’s ok – it has a bit of list-iness to it, I’ll admit. But you do learn where I went to school, who my important teachers were, and other musical activities that I’ve done outside the orchestra. Now, here’s my About Me bio from this blog:
I’ve been Assistant principal viola of the Oregon Symphonyviola section since 1995. I’m also a member of the Arnica Quartet and Third Angle New Music, and play occasionally with 45th Parallel. Before that I was a professional student, collecting degrees from the University of Puget Sound, the University of Maryland, and the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University. At those places (among others), I was lucky enough to study with these amazing teachers and mentors: Joyce Ramée, Joseph DePasquale, Michael Tree, and Roberto Díaz. I joined the faculty of the University of Portland in the Fall of 2014 as adjunct instructor of viola.
I play on a viola made in 1997 by Gabrielle Kundert, of Olney, MD.
I love cycling, wine, beer, whiskey, reading, movies, and cats.
There’s still a bit of a list, but it’s more of a narrative than a pure list. You still know where I went to school and who I studied with, and you also learn that I teach at a university myself, and then that I’m on the board of Allclassical (our awesome classical radio station!), the instrument I play on, with a link to its maker’s website, and then a short list of stuff that I enjoy that lots of other humans enjoy, too.
If I saw performer bios that looked more like my blog bio than my orchestra c.v., it would make concert programs eminently more readable, don’t you think? Audiences are so hungry for this type of information. They want to get a glimpse into the lives of those people on stage who, for a lot of fans, are practically heroes. To be fair, a lot of performers do have social media presences (though often curated by their PR teams rather than being true expressions of their personal interests), and these do give a more rounded view. Cellist Alban Gerhardt has maintained a blog about his travels for quite some time (though it is much less often updated as of late), and Hilary Hahn also kept a wonderful blog before her career became huge and she started her family. But the point is, if we as performers allow a bit of our non-performing persona out into the public, we stand to gain a lot of additional goodwill from our audiences, and build stronger relationships between these two seemingly monolithic (but actually very diverse and interesting) structures—orchestra and audience. That’s why the Oregon Symphony Musicians’ Classical Up Close initiative has proven so successful, in large part.
What do you think?