performer bios suck


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.

In June 2014 I was proud to be appointed to the Board of Directors of All Classical Portland.

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?

team building

J Richard Hackman

Today’s New York Times published an obituary for J. Richard Hackman, an expert in team dynamics. In his 2011 article Six Common Misperceptions About Teamwork for the Harvard Business Journal, Hackman wrote:

“Misperception No. 2: It’s good to mix it up. New members bring energy and fresh ideas to a team. Without them, members risk becoming complacent, inattentive to changes in the environment, and too forgiving of fellow members’ misbehavior.

“Actually: The longer members stay together as an intact group, the better they do. As unreasonable as this may seem, the research evidence is unambiguous. Whether it is a basketball team or a string quartet, teams that stay together longer play together better.”

Not only sports teams or string quartets – symphony orchestras could also be considered in this statement. It’s a shame that many managements don’t subscribe to this view instead of seeing an endless supply of eager, young talent emerging from conservatories and music schools to replace higher-cost musicians.

bitching, orchestras, and professionalism

I wrote this over at my tumblr blog as part of my DigiWriMo efforts.

Musicians love to bitch. It is our favorite hobby. If we have nothing to kvetch about, then we are a sorry and miserable lot, even more so than when we have woes falling about us like the frozen products of a prairie hail storm. Largely, this is due to the fact that we have very little control over our environment. Even basic things can go awry. A coat rack appears in an already cramped backstage area used by an entire section of stringed instruments. Too bad – building management said it goes there. Like it or lump it. Or someone in an adjacent section ate an entire bulb of raw garlic and then went on a ten mile run. Then forgot to bathe before that evening’s concert. Yes, something like this actually happened (I may be being charitable by assuming the body odor was caused by exercise). The conductor sprays sweat all over you during the scherzo of a Beethoven symphony. One of your strings breaks. A trumpet plays into the back of your head from six feet away – for an hour. Someone else’s mail got put into your cubbyhole by mistake. The Starbucks was really slow and so you didn’t get a refill during your strictly enforced 15 minute break. So many problems, many of them unrelated to the process of making the actual music. But they all are related to that process. Because we use our bodies to manipulate instruments – that take decades to even partially master to the level of the professional orchestral musician – and if we are out of sorts in our head, that will translate into our bodies, and bad things can happen.

Now, there is that phrase said about some musicians – that they are ‘true professionals’. What exactly does that mean? It means that they play like motherfuckers (that’s a good thing) even when the chips are down. They may have had a fight with their husband, had their cat die, lose their wedding ring, and have a very bad case of halitosis – all on the same day, and if they are physically able to play their instrument, they will show up and put the pedal to the metal and play solidly and dependably. That’s why, for those of us who aspire to this level of professionalism, we are so wed to our instruments and our place in the orchestra (or string quartet, or dance band, or rock group) – that act of making great music with colleagues who we trust and respect can get us through the hard times that otherwise might bring us to our knees.