As listeners, we’re pretty lucky these days: it seems like every second pianist is ‘one of the best pianists of their generation’! That is, according to their biographies.
Recently, whilst perusing several websites of performing musicians, it struck me that the collective biographies of young classical musicians these days consists of a repetitive combination of cliché and tired rhetoric. With the exceptions of pianist Jonathan Biss – whose online biography is a veritable trove of charm and humour, and Hilary Hahn (who continues to live up to her billing as one of the more personable superstars in classical music)1, the collective biographies of young classical musicians these days tends to be a repetitive combination of cliché and tired rhetoric.
Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 8 in C Minor, Op. 13, “Pathétique” (Jonathan Biss)
A good generic biography must consist of several important elements:
1. Fawning quote from a well-known (or not-so-well-known publication), often hailing them as ‘one of the upcoming superstars of their generation’.
2. A list of unpronounceable schools, competition placements, orchestras, teachers, and masterclass appearances (the final addition often proof that one can sign up to perform on time).
3. A few more quotes related to recent recordings.
For young musicians it almost becomes a sport – collecting as many plaudits as possible in order to add them to an endless list of achievements, made all the more impressive by how inflexibly one fits the structure. But at the end of the day, what is it actually achieving?
The written biography is often the first point of contact with a musician. From an audience perspective, this might be at a concert as they peruse the programme notes before the lights dim; liner notes that accompany a CD release (people still buy CDs?); or an organisation website before purchasing concert tickets. From an industry point of view, it is the document that acts as the calling card for potential employers – management, booking agents, etc. Most young classical musicians these days are tech savvy enough to turn their biographies and recordings into a well crafted website, meaning a Google search or link-click will take you directly to a home page full of these production-line attributes.
Surely however, the folks who visit these websites and lists of musicians must reach a fatigue point, where one musician starts blending into the next. With every young aspiring musician able to develop a reputable list of competition victories (there are over eight hundred international piano competitions in the world, ‘gotta catch ‘em all’) and performances, how could anyone searching for something unique be expected to pick one out of the hat?
Let’s assume that 99% of solo classical musicians with websites or concert-accompanying programme notes out there are actually pretty great. Let’s also assume that anyone who leaves a conservatory or college has a fair command of the instrument they’re making their living on. Why then is it so necessary to put a veritable CV into the opening introduction of every webpage? Surely a biography is a document to mark oneself apart from the milieu; so why do musicians end up merely conforming to a specific and uninspiring template?
Because we have to. Because the people reading these words need assurance that other people before them have given us a seal of approval. After all, it is a much easier way for people to judge quality, compared to actually having to listen to the musician and give their own personal appraisal. So we give the people what they want! We tell them that we’re awesome!! And we have so much proof because we’ve been to places all around the world that you can’t pronounce, and other people said we’re great, and therefore we must be good.
Biographies tend to have one final point of synergy: they undoubtedly fail to actually talk about what the musician stands for: their philosophy, why they play, and what makes them stand out amongst the rest – their unique selling point. This is symptomatic of a much larger problem: Musicians are not taught to be individualistic, they’re taught to follow the rules. We’ve had it drilled into us from an early age that the performance of classical music is specifically not about us, but about the music we aim to serve. Every music college at some point either has a requirement or strongly encourages their students to have a biography ready to go when requested – but every student is also encouraged to follow previous models and expectations to a ‘T’. It is not surprising that this is then represented in how we present ourselves in all aspects.
The homogenous nature of biographies draws a direct line to the monochrome style of performance that higher-level schooling, competitions, and recording labels seem intent on producing. The similarity of one to another represents the conformity that pervades our entire industry. Each biography follows an industry-standard pattern, featuring the exact same risk-aversity that then translates into audience expectation. These musicians are not bad musicians, quite the opposite – the vast majority are extremely gifted, talented, hard-working individuals, often driven by passion when entering the classical music profession. But it is a profession that rewards the least provocative as a general rule, and this is reflected from that very first point of contact with said musician: our biographies. If we as performers are to move forward as a collective, as an industry, we must start long before our notes have even been struck.
Footnote: Whilst writing this article, I realised my own biography still conformed to this model. To remedy this, I composed a new biography to pair with the publication of this essay, which is available at www.chrislloydpianist.com.
1 Special thanks to biography and classical music career specialist, John Hong for his help with this article.