by Justin Raffa, R&S Chair, Community Choirs
Have you ever attended a community performance, opened your program, and read a conductor’s bio that sounded something like this?
American conductor, tenor, educator, composer, arranger, and Top Chef Dr. Justin Raffa, DMA, PhD, MD, ROFL has been hailed by the Tri-City Herald as “the greatest musician, human being, and lover the world has ever seen.” Praised by critics for his interpretation of repertoire ranging from the Dark Ages through contemporary compositions that have yet to be conceived, Raffa is a highly sought after performer with over 5000 major works at his command.
A native of scenic South New Jersey, Raffa made his Carnegie Hall debut at age one playing Mozart piano duets with his sister Rafflein and the Gotdaschitz Orchestra under the tutelage of Maestro Blaarrfengaaar. From there, he went on to be the youngest graduate of the Julliard School of Music in New York City, NY and the Royal Academy of Music in London, UK, completing dual certifications in both the “Musical Master of the Universe” and “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better” programs.
Throughout his impressive career, Raffa has had the privilege to study with the world’s leading musicians of all time, including Leonard Bernstein, Robert Shaw, Richard Strauss, Antonio Salieri, and The Honorable Sir Johann Sebastian Bach, to whom he dedicated the initials J.J. commonly found on his manuscripts (Justin James). Raffa currently serves as the Principal Conductor and Artistic & Executive Director of the Mid-Columbia Mastersingers, a position he has held for nearly a century, during which time he has been invited to perform at every National Conference of the American Choral Directors Association (ACDA) and the National Association for Music Education (NAfME).
Raffa’s most recent performances include (never ending list……………..) under the batons of (slightly shorter, but still long list………….)
I often wondered who was responsible for writing such outlandish bios when I started paying attention to them as a teenager in high school. Surely a professional agent or management company was producing them. As it turns out, the majority of conductors write our own! If that’s the case, what is important or really necessary to include in a bio? Who is the target audience that will be reading them? What is the purpose of a bio, and what do you hope it will achieve? It was not until fairly recently that I stopped to consider these questions and see what I can do to challenge the culture of conductor biographies.
In my early years of composing my own bio, I attempted to include every single performance/award/special event/lick of training I had ever received. After all, long bios are impressive and a sign of an experienced musician who really knows what they’re doing! I had no formal training in writing a bio from either my undergraduate or graduate degree programs, so the only resources that have ever been available are other conductors’ bios. They tend to be formulaic and all sound the same, including state or country of origin, educational pedigree, major accomplishments and awards that at times seem inflated, and a litany of either roles performed, works conducted, or teachers with whom one has studied. Throw in a fancy published quote about yourself that begins with “heralded,” “acclaimed,” or “hailed,” and you’re golden. If no such quotes exist, think of what your friends or family may have at one time said to you and reference them as “praised by critics” to cover this need. This leads to most bios being too long and full of stuff that nobody cares about!
In reimagining how to write our bios, let’s first consider the audience who will be reading them. As a director of a volunteer community chorus in a medium sized metro area, my average concert goer in the Tri-Cities may have little point of reference to names of conductors, roles from shows, or titles of major choral works (unless it’s Handel’s Messiah), no matter how impressive they may be to me and my colleagues. Most audience members here nod politely when I tell them I am a member of ACDA, NAfME and MTNA. In fact, perhaps listing all of that may be overwhelming to my audience and paint me as a person who is completely disconnected from their reality? I don’t ever want to come off as an elitist who is unapproachable or intimidating. I want to be conceived as a normal person that audience members can talk to and feel comfortable around. I want to ensure that I live “in” my community and not “above” it.
What does the average concert attendee want to know about a conductor? I personally find it interesting to read a little about a person’s background: where they grew up (especially if not a local), a little about their training, and any unique personal anecdotes about them that’s worth talking about after the concert. I always get a kick out of bios that include funny stories or experiences that make the person seem real. References to family, kids, pets, and hobbies outside of music support that image as well. Instead of including a long list of works, conductors, or teachers, maybe select a few and express those in terms of which were most transformational or inspiring to you.
Concert program bios should be your personal story, not a resume, and certainly not a forum for bragging. Many of my friends in the business world see bios moving in that direction, as companies attempt to portray themselves as being more “human.” I find it much more intriguing to learn about WHY a person does what they do and not simply WHAT they do. This couldn’t be more important in music, which is all about the WHY. Musicians have all the reason in the world to show some creativity and passion in their bios.
We conductors should be proud of the experiences we’ve had, the education in which we’ve invested, the awards we’ve received, and the recognitions that come along with all of that. However, let’s be more intentional about what we choose to include in our bios and the message we want to send to our audience. How can we tailor our bios based on the situation? Is this a concert in your small town high school auditorium, or at a national level music convention? Do you want to come across as “the best,” or do you and your community value humility in what it means to be a leader? Are you confident in your abilities as a conductor, or does your insecurity lead you to write a massive bio to make up for your shortcomings?
Guess I need to go and rethink my own bio. Good luck!