This week I worked with musicians on a whirlwind of promotional pieces. From press releases, program descriptions, and email pitches, to CV bullets and bios. The big A-Ha for me was realizing that many musicians are not getting a crucial concept. The essential rule for all musicians’ self-promotion is show don’t tell.
It’s a well-known writing adage but it’s especially helpful for marketing language. What does “show don’t tell” mean? It means you need to . . .
Stop hiding behind adjectives
Do you describe your music—or your teaching—with over-used words or phrases such as:
committed / dedicated to
Too many musicians try to “puff up” their materials by using familiar language found in far too many other musicians’ materials. You may justify borrowing tired language by saying to yourself, ‘I just want to come across as appropriate and professional.‘ Unfortunately, you’re coming across as generic and un-inspired.
Use clichés and here’s what readers think . . .
That you . . .
A) are too lazy to come up with something more original.
B) don’t care that you’re boring the pants off anyone who reads what you’ve written.
C) are just too scared to tell us something more revealing, more memorable, and more human. Like many musicians, you hide behind clichés instead of standing in the light and telling us who you really are.
I get it. We’re all human and writing promotional materials brings out all of our self-esteem gremlins. It makes us feel self-conscious and vulnerable. But the thing is, we all have far more interesting stories to offer than the typical crap in most musicians’ promo material.
What gets readers hooked and curious enough to click ‘play’?
Readers need a balance of types of material. We do need some specific credits — where you’ve performed, the range of rep, and with whom you’ve collaborated. But then we also need examples of what’s special in one two of the projects you’ve taken on.
And we need to get a real sense of your purpose — without resorting to sweeping generalizations or clichés. If it’s a bio we need to either get a real sense of your sound or what your audiences experience at your concerts. And if it’s a promo piece for your teaching, we need to get a real sense of what you’re like in the studio with students.
Example of ‘Show Don’t Tell’ in a Bio
Here’s a portion of composer Angélica Negrón’s bio. At the start we get the surprising instrumentation she’s written for. It’s the “accordion, robots, and toys” that gets me to keep reading.
“Puerto Rican-born composer and multi-instrumentalist Angélica Negrón writes music for accordions, robotic instruments, toys and electronics as well as chamber ensembles and orchestras.”
And later, there’s this passage. We get the credit — she’s artist in residence at a prestigious venue. Fine. But what gets me hooked is her description of her current project. It gets me curious and energized to read more and hear her music.
“Angélica Negrón is currently an artist in residence at National Sawdust working on a lip sync opera titled Chimera for drag queen performers and chamber ensemble, exploring the ideas of fantasy and illusion as well as the intricacies and complexities of identity.”
Don’t get me wrong. I’m NOT saying you have to have to have an impressive artist residency, or that you have to write for drag queens, robots, or toys.
I AM saying that you need to give readers a sense of what’s noteworthy and what’s maybe unexpected about you and your work. So instead of telling us, for instance, that you’re innovative, give us an example of that in action so that readers come to the conclusion themselves. It’s a version of show me the money. Don’t give us empty adjectives. Show us the proof.
Challenge: describe what your performances are like without resorting to cliché
Of course if you have a review quote that describes your performances in a memorable way, that’s fantastic. If not, think about what audience members (particularly non-musicians) have told you after concerts. Then you’re perfectly fine using that in a phrase like, “Known for her X and V performances . . .”
Warning: if you describe your sound as ‘warm,’ ‘resonant,’ ‘rich,’ or ‘deep’—you aren’t actually telling us anything. These words are so over-used they’re clichés. And these words don’t help us conjure up a sense of your performances in our imaginations. They come across as boring advertising copy.
To introduce yourself and to pique readers’ interest enough to get them to click ‘play’—you need something better than adjectives.
Adjectives “tell” us about your music as opposed to giving us an immediate sense — that “shows” us through anecdotes or vivid illustration.
No clichés in site in this bio
Violinist Szuhwa Wu zeroes in on what her performances are like: what her audiences experience and what she aims for.
“Focused on creating performances that are vibrant, multi-faceted sound worlds, violinist Szuhwa Wu has designed concerts that challenge and disturb, surprise and enthrall audiences.”
Note: this kind of description will only work if it’s backed up with specifics that “show us the money” and Szuhwa’s bio delivers:
“Her multi-disciplinary projects have included a performance based on the essays of Montaigne, a recital pairing traditional Chinese music with newly commissioned works, and a set of ‘Musical Promenades’ in 6 architecturally significant sights, including Palladio’s Italian villas.”
Describe your purpose without sounding fake or full of yourself
Here’s an excerpt from pianist Nathaniel LaNasa’s bio in which he reveals his creative motivations as a collaborative pianist, and what specifically his duo is aimed at:
“Exploring intersections of storytelling, speech, and movement, pianist Nathaniel LaNasa frequently partners with vocalist Lucy Dhegrae. The duo is committed to building a new repertoire that challenges conventions of the voice and piano partnership . . .
‘The magic,’ Nate says, ‘lies in expanding the spaces of our shared inspiration. For me, it’s all about dancing with the tension and flow of musical dialogue.’ ”
How does this apply to your teaching—to your CV bullets?
It’s the same approach (Show Don’t Tell) no matter what kind of promo material. You do need some concrete credits. And you need to reveal what makes your teaching distinctive. Again, it’s about going beyond cliches and then thinking clearly about what the reader is most interested in.
When it comes to college job search committees, of course they want to know the ‘Who, What, When, and Where’ of your teaching experience. But by themselves those details are not enough to distinguish you from the 200 other candidates.
You also need to tell us HOW you teach. How you engage and motivate students and in what ways you are an effective, creative, and inspiring teacher.
Here are bullets from two different musicians’ CVs to get you thinking about how you might detail what makes your teaching distinctive.
First from a chamber music coach . . .
- Emphasize critical listening, effective rehearsal skills, creating cohesive ensemble sound
- Repertoire coached includes Shostakovich, Mozart, Brahms, Rota, Schubert
- Successfully recruited over 50 students each year from Austria, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina
And next, from a theory teacher . . .
- Teach undergraduate theory sequence, 1-2 courses per semester
- Focus on compositional processes, musical styles, aural skills, part-writing, form and analysis
- Lead students through a process of exploration, reflection, skill building and compositional exercises for each topic learned
- Engage students by singing, playing, and improvising
- Teach individual advanced theory lessons to graduate students
So go beyond simply telling us what you’ve taught, where and when. You can “show” us through getting specific like these two examples. They essentially bring us, the readers, into the teaching studio or classroom with you so we can see your teaching in action.
I hope this tour of the Show Don’t Tell rule helps you write more compelling and effective promo materials.
But let’s be clear: overhauling your promotional materials takes real time and effort.
Most promo pieces take 7 complete revisions. This requires reflective soul-searching and it takes parking your ego at the curb. No one said it would be quick or easy.
That’s why I recommend finding a mentor or coach — an experienced writer who can help you tease out your story and communicate it directly so that it sparks readers’ interest.
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Here’s to your forward motion,
Dream Big, Plan Smart, Live Well