30 Days of Musical Tidbits, Day 17: Quick tips for preparing your written materials: A guide for performing classical musicians.

Over years of steady (if part-time) work as a music journalist and as program annotator, I’ve read a lot of résumés, bio-sketches, programs, web sites etc. for classical musicians. They are sometimes, even often, a bit of a mess, felled by typographical errors, out of date copy, fuzzy writing, and unusable visual or other resources.

They don’t do the job of presenting the artist in a clear, engaging way, and certainly don’t help the harried program note preparer or music critic find a needed fact and get on with it.

In the spirit of helping (with what is admittedly one of the world’s less pressing problems) here are some tips on improving editorial materials for classical artists (with singers in mind specifically).

1. Establish a set of consistent, and easily updated editorial materials and keep them fresh. Go for quality over quantity, both for your sake and those of your readers. I would recommend a résumé, and at most a bio in two flavors, short and long. Be strategic about the way the bio is written: build it out in modular sections  that can be swapped out and supplemented when there are new things to add, rather than requiring a redo from scratch.

2. Keep track of versions of documents by clearly naming and dating them (in both the file name and inside the doc). A file naming convention is good, for instance Violetta_Valery_Bio_Short_11_14_14.docx. Note the filename, author of the doc and important details right in the document as well.

3. Make it as easy as possible for all involved to tell at a glance whether materials are up to date and what to do if they aren’t.  Nothing wastes time (and annoys editors) like trying to determine which of 3 or 4 different versions of bios flying around as email attachments should be used for a program. One approach is to write something like “Violetta Valery’s s bio was last updated 11/17/14. Please check, http://www.allaboutvioletta.com for the latest version).  Alternately, you can just say something like this, “This biography valid for the 2014-2015 season only, see the web site for more info” and make a point to do an annual update. Importantly, if you have doubts about your ability to keep the web site up, be realistic with yourself, and don’t set up expectations you can’t meet.

4. Avoid excessive revision. Good: an opera singer slightly reworking a bio to emphasize her achievements in song as she prepares to make her debut in a distinguished lieder series. Bad, completely rewriting a bio because you got cast as the cover Marullo for a big opera company. Also, while it’s reasonable to present the best possible take on your background, don’t lie and don’t inflate. Singing “Ines” in a volunteer performance of Trovatore at Una Volta Opera Company of West Pitchfork, Montana, is all well and good, but does not a major credit make. Arts editors and presenters are savvy readers and can generally read through pad and discern what credits actually mean for the career in question. Don’t oversell or undersell yourself.

CMOS_16thed
“Chicago,” not the musical, the authoritative style guide.

5. Choose and abide by a consistent copy-editing style. This is simple to describe although not so simple to do. It means applying consistent rules for things like the capitalization of titles, names of composers, working with foreign terms, abbreviations, etc.  Style guides also specify which choice should be made when several options are acceptable (form of titles, writing out numbers, certain spellings, use of the serial comma, the way sources should be cited etc.) Newspapers frequently use the Associated Press Style Book. Academe typically uses a style guide specific to the discipline or the big kahuna of style guides, The Chicago Manual of Style. None of these is targeted to the needs of practicing performing artists and presenters (as far as I know, there is not a resource tailored to this task). If that’s all too much for you, just make sensible rules for yourself and follow them. (Keep track somewhere of your decisions.)

6. Set reasonable expectations of yourself and enlist others to help. If writing and updating these materials is not a strength, don’t sweat it. There is probably an English major in your life who would be happy to help. I’ve flirted with the idea of starting a service to help with this–although in truth, I’m not much of a copyeditor. (Extra points to readers if they can spot all of the inconsistencies and other errors in this post!) Professional writers at all levels have editors, so it’s certainly no shame to ask for help on your materials.

6. Provide a range of photographs in usable formats. Print requires higher resolution photos (300 dpi or greater is preferable) and for a large photo, this may make it inconvenient for emailing. Provide a print and digital-friendly format of key photos (again, don’t go overboard) on your site for download (or in a cloud resource). Provide a caption and a photo credit, and explain any restrictions on use. Make other media (audio clips, video) as easy to use as possible (for instance, making sure it can be embedded).

7. Abide by copyright and other IP requirements. Don’t use materials without permission and don’t put your presenters in the position of inadvertently using copyrighted materials unlawfully. Just because it’s on the web and can be downloaded, doesn’t mean it’s okay to use in your press kit or materials you submit for a program. Also, “fair use,” is a complicated issue, in that it is a decision that is dependent on a number of relative factors, one of which being whether there is any commercial interest involved. Given that marketing and promotion are implicit in a singer’s biographical and other materials, there is a risk in assuming that material could be used on a fair use basis automatically.

7. Be on time and responsive. There are a lot of things to juggle for artists, god knows, but stay on top of this, and don’t let the line go dead on this topic. Many presenters and program editors pull their hair out waiting for long-requested materials, or holding a spot to accommodate a program change or bio update. Playbill–and most other publications–fine presenters for late material, and, of course, late changes breed opportunities for errors. Managing things in a timely fashion will be enormously appreciated, as will be being forthright when problems come up. A practical example: if you can’t get a program note you had hoped to write done in time, call and explain yourself. That will give enough time to consider a “plan B” (for instance, doing a Q&A on the program that can be pulled together in two days). Just hiding in a bunker and not answering email for two weeks risks making a minor glitch into a major hassle.

Your editorial materials are not the most important part of your tasks, certainly, but handle them professionally from the get go and they’ll add polish to your presentation, save everybody some time and headaches, and might even open some unexpected doors.

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