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The Bard, the COVIDgilant, and the Plague Peer – Part Two

I was placed on Vigil for the Laurelate on Feb 29, 2020.

Word had been circulating about the new virus for some weeks. My wife (an RN) was insisting that we start stocking up on essentials. Two weeks later….well, you all know what happened. As for me, my boss said, “You’re working from home starting tomorrow.” That’s been a year now.

I had planned to have my Vigil and Elevation at NOWM, a local event, so my family could attend. Folks had quickly stepped up to Do Things- coordinate food and music, have local-ish folks read statements from those unable to attend in person. render a version of the Laurel’s oath into Irish, etc.

“They like me, they really do!”

And now it looked like NOWM would be canceled, and then in short order it WAS canceled.

Everyone was scrambling to make sense of The New Normal, in real life as well as the SCA. And somehow, things and people transpired to arrange on ridiculously short notice a virtual vigil and elevation on Zoom. A friend (who had volunteered to arrange the vigil snack table) made hand-crafted laurel-leaf chocolates and left them on my front stoop, along with a handmade “laurel spoon” created by her son. Friends created (on VERY short notice!) a Zoom event for my vigil, and people not only showed up, but waited …. and waited… to get to talk to me.

“They like me, they really do!”

For the Elevation (scheduled a day or so before TRM’s Final Court), I rearranged a space at home to make it presentable on camera. Old friends who could not have traveled to the in-person event were able to attend. I worked out a sleight of hand bit of schtick with TRM to “transfer” a medallion across cyberspace.

It wasn’t exactly what I had imagined.

But y’know, it’s ok.

Being elevated to the Peerage is kind of like getting married, or getting a Ph.D., or tenure, or a lifetime achievement Oscar. It’s just a public recognition of a fact that already exists.

You Are That Good, and Everyone Agrees.

The Bard, the COVIDgilant, and the Plague Peer – Part One

My son was repairing the bathroom sink (with some assistance from me). I was talking through some options, and he said, “Dad, I can’t talk and think at the same time.” I replied, “Sometimes talking is the only way I can think!” It’s true. Sometimes I’m not quite sure what I think about something until I process it externally. Get it out of my head and look at it. I’m just wired that way.

Hence this post. I’m not quite sure where this is going. I just thought it’d be good to set down my thoughts about the past year. Two things in particular have happened this past year: COVID (along with the rest of 2020) and my being elevated to the Order of the Laurel.

For those not in the SCA, or new to it, being made a Laurel is kind of like being awarded a Ph.D., tenure, and a lifetime achievement Oscar all wrapped up together. It’s something I aspired to and worked toward for a very long time.

But it’s not a thing that you can just check off the boxes and get the merit badge. The other Laurels vote you in. Or not. Yes, in point of fact they only make recommendations to the Crown, and the Crown ultimately decides whether to give the award. (But it seems to be pretty rare that a person is elevated over the objections of a large number of the Laurels, or refuses to elevate someone the Laurels support (and in that case, the Crowns change hands twice a year, so they can just wait).)

For all practical purposes, the existing Laurels tell the Crown, “This person is our Peer. Make them a member of the Order.”

In some ways, it’s like my very first award in the SCA, the Meritorious Order of the Shire of the Shadowlands, or MoSS. The MoSS is a super-local-level cookie. Carries no rank or title, no prestige outside of (maybe) our little group of (mostly) college students. But it’s a polled order – the existing members vote on whether new members of the group get the award. So to me, it was admission to the Cool Kids Club.

I had NEVER been part of the Cool Kids Club. And to this day, whenever there has been a formal occasion where I list all my SCA awards, I include the MoSS.

So fast-forward some forty years. “Yes, Four Zero.” I had became a pretty solid performer, but due to Life Happening – career, family, two cross-country moves – I hadn’t been terribly active. I also wound up in the far corner of a large kingdom, without the ability to do much travel beyond a day-trip radius (and it’s twelve solid hours of freeway from corner to corner).

I had asked a performing-arts Laurel what I should do if I wanted to pursue the peerage. “Just keeping doing what you’re doing,” he replied. Yah, that’s a whole topic. But… I expanded my repertoire, added more period material, composed new material in period styles. I taught. I served. I judged A&S competitions. I even entered A&S competitions – in leatherworking, not performance, but that’s a different story.

And the years passed. I resigned myself to the apparent fact that well, whatever ineffable something that the Order was looking for, either I didn’t have it or they couldn’t see it. Or maybe I’d just blown it at some point in the past. And I eventually determined to be ok with that.

Then the daughter of a old friend wed a young man who won Crown. She asked me to be one of her Bardic Champions for her upcoming reign. So I got to march with them in processions, stand up behind them in Court, and (with a LOT of help) even managed to pull off some kingdom-level bardic shenanigans. And that was cool, but frankly not all that novel. (When you’re a performer in an organization that loves pageantry, you tend to wind up in parades and on daises.)

At the end of February, 2020, they came to my town for our big regional event. (Called, “A Regular Event” – there’s another story.) And so they had court, and I marched in with the rest of the retainers. The stage was small, though, so the rest of us peeled off to the side. I cheered the folks getting Big Important Awards, and didn’t give a thought to whether I would get called up.

Ok, that’s not true. I did wonder for a moment if maybe maybe at long last… but only for a moment. No point in getting my hopes up and then being disappointed. Been there, done that, not good. Don’t worry over stuff over which you have no control – that’s my rule, and I try to stick to it. I was happy for the for the folks who had gotten awards, and frankly kind of anxious to things wrapped up and get back to the kitchen. (My jam at Regular Event is dishwashing. I know how to do it, it’s an important job, I don’t mind doing it. So I run the scullery. And yes, there’s a story. Three, actually.) And Court is clearly over – they’ve given out the Big Awards – so let’s get this wrapped up and get on with things. I’d had a very good day so far, having taken on a new job in addition to running dishes, and pulled it off reasonably well.

But just as the herald is closing court, my old friend (who is up on stage because he’s Baron of the group in Peoria), reels out with some nonsense about being the Royal Father and Father-in-Law, and so he has this ridiculous request… which the King shuts down. He continues. “Ok, but there’s this other thing. My friend Master Cerian would like to address the populace… ” blah, blah. The King concedes to that, if only to shut the old man up.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4zDQiAXAgvs

And then Cerian gets up and Begs The Boon*. For me. Photos taken show my dawning realization that he could? be talking about me? No way he’s talking about me… HE SAID MY NAME!

And so the Order was called up and asked if they wanted me added to their number. A decided Yes. I was called up and placed On Vigil**, to be Elevated in a ceremony to be held on a date to be announced.

That was February 29, 2020. Two weeks later, the world went sideways.

*Begging the Boon – For non-SCA folks, that’s a reference to the traditional method of publicly recognizing a new Peer. One of the current Peers of the Order addresses the Crown and formally asks, “Your Majesty, I beg a boon.” At that point, the populace gets very excited – a buzz runs around the room – because that’s a very specific, formal turn of phrase that’s never used in court outside of the context of a Peerage elevation. In my case, I was working Very Hard on Not Getting My Hopes Up.

The Crown replies, “If it is a right and proper thing, and within Our power, you shall have it.” Then the Peer continues with a little speech about the candidate’s qualifications, ending with, “…and so I request that you elevate [Name] to the Order of the Laurel!” (Or other Peerage – Chivalry, Pelican, Defense). And the crowd goes wild while the candidate just named looks gobsmacked, because these things are usually planned as GOTCHA moments.

**Vigil – in the Middle Ages, a candidate for knighthood would spend the night before the elevation ceremony keeping vigil in fasting and prayer. In the SCA (at least my my area), the candidate typically spends the day of the ceremony in a room of pavilion off tot he side of the day’s activities, receiving visitors and well-wishers, many of whom have sage advice to offer the new Peer. More on that later.

Text to Telling (class notes)

A simple four-step (Two? Three? Five?) process for turning source material into a compelling storytelling performance.

Pick up a book of stories. Record yourself reading one. See how long it takes. Now listen to yourself. Is that a performance that would keep your attention for that length of time? Probably not, right? Most stories that are written down (children’s books excepted) are written to be read, not read aloud. Even short tales can run fifteen minutes – much longer than the typical 5-7 minute slot of most venues for bardic performance.

In this class, I’ll explain a method that works to turn source material into a dynamic, compelling performance.

Pick a story, do your research

These two steps go together. You might be looking for a story to tell. You might have one in mind but need to flesh out details. You might think you want to tell a particular story, do some research, then decide not to tell that one after all. Maybe you decide it doesn’t fit the theme of the competition you’re entering, or it’s too long, or too complicated, or you just. can’t. pronounce. the. names. Whatever, it’s ok.

Edit ruthlessly

MOST stories are too long to tell in an SCA context. Many were designed to last for hours – remember, this was pre-Netflix. Some are literal histories, told and retold to preserve them in living memory. You need to be able to edit it down. So look for the through-line. The basic plot, the underlying theme. The thirty-second version. El Cid: “The castle was besieged. The lord of the castle was killed. They strapped his body to his horse, and he led a charge out of the gates that routed the enemy.” Gawain and the Green Knight: “A young knight undertakes a fateful journey to fulfill an oath. He faces mortal temptations and learns a valuable lesson about knightly virtue.”

For my version of Gawain and the Green Knight (spoiler alert), I cut out the hunting scenes and most of the bedroom dialog. It’s not necessary to the plot and character development. What IS important is that Lady Bertilak is seriously trying to seduce Gawain while her husband is out hunting, and that the prizes Lord Bertilak returns with each night reveal that he is not just a genial host, but a deadly formidable foe if he’s against you.

But I left IN the description of Gawain’s shield. It’s all about knightly virtues, which is the theme of the story. The detailed description of his armor, I leave in when telling the story to non-SCA audiences. It helps solidify the mental image of a knight in shining armor. For SCA audiences, I generally leave it out. Why? Because in the SCA there are two kinds of folks in the audience – people who already know a lot about armor, and people who don’t care. 🙂

Wordsmith

I covered that some detail in this post. (https://bardlog.wordpress.com/2017/11/11/words-matter/)

As much as possible, show, don’t tell. Let the characters speak for themselves. “The Green Knight looked down at Gawain and ha-ha-‘HA-HA-HA! Does the king have no knights or even squires, that he sends out a pageboy to treat with me?'” Use onomatopoeic descriptions. “The sharp, shattered rocks clattered coldly beneath his horse’s hooves.” Say it out loud. The sharp-edged consonants sound like clattering shards of stones. Alliteration helps the words flow together.

Practice, Practice, Practice, Practice

I wrote about this at some length here. (https://bardlog.wordpress.com/2015/05/26/seven-deadly-bardic-sins-part-2/)

If you can pull off character voices, that can help. Even just changing pitch from low to high (think the Three Billy Goats Gruff, or The Three Bears) can help. Blocking, too – this character looks up and left, that character looks down and right.

For Gawain and the Green Knight, my mental cast list is (in order of appearance):

Sir Launcelot – Generic outraged Frenchman – John Cleese in a sugarloaf helm
King Arthur – Generic upper-class Englishman (but not posh)
The Green Knight – Sneering, guttural lower-class English – Barbarossa from Pirates of the Caribbean
Gawain – Nigel Terry as the young King Arthur in “Excalibur” – earnest, clueless, with a slight lilt (Gawain is the son of King Lot of Orkney)
Lord Bertilak – The Green Knight, but hail-good-fellow-well-met instead of sneering. Ghost of Christmas Past in the 1938 version of A Christmas Carol, or maybe Brian Blessed. A genial, cheery host. Or so it appears….
Lady Bertilak – Marylin Monroe. Husky, dusky, seductive. “Happy birthday, Mr. President….”
The Squire – Who else? Sean Astin as Samwise Gamgee

A Bard’s Legacy

Don’t worry, I’m in good condition for a guy in my condition. (Yes, Kenny Loggins *was* in a  psychedelic band. My post-retirement plan is to play nursing homes.  “We don’t play your memories; we play your flashbacks.”)

I have the luxury of being able to spend time ruminating about one of my hobbies.

Today, a man that I knew many years ago (but recently re-connected with on Facebook) let me know that his wife had just passed away unexpectedly.   She apparently was a fan of some songs I had recorded and distributed (on cassette tapes) in the mid-1980s, and would I share a song on her memorial page?

eerrr…  umm…

Ok.

So I posted a link to what I had: https://drive.google.com/open?id=0B5cQDeHpx6XkYXd4dG9VR29oQzA
I posted a while back about meeting Lady Katrina of Coventry, then the Premier Bard of Ansteorra.  Another Wow moment.

So that’s got me to thinking.  What will I really be remembered for?   I can’t really control that.  At least there wasn’t Instagram back in the 80s when I was stupid.

So what performers do I remember?

Cadfan… The Death Lay of Bowie Gizzardsbane (which I got to reprise at KWCB in 2015)

Ragnar…  Untimely taken.  His collected works:
 http://207.58.163.190/greatambience/bjornsborg/rstoc.html

Robin of Gilwell… “The Baron.” His comments helped me cut it down to fit a very sharp timeline, and it worked.  Not to mention the way he’s lived his life.  A Peer in every sense.

Duchess Seiglinge Syr…  A classically-trained operatic soprano who was very kind to  me.

And so many more…

Ohhh myyyy…..  John Inchingham and the House of Sans Nomen NAILED IT!!!

 

On Bardic “Prowess”

A recent post on social media generated a good deal of discussion (in other news, dog bites man….).  This particular post was on what Prowess should look like for an SCA Musician (i.e., instrumental musician or singer with an exclusively period repertoire, as distinct from bards, who often sing modern compositions that may or may not be in more-or-less period styles. (Of course, you knew that.)

The Prowess Post was a long, detailed, and very technical list.  Indeed, many of the terms and concepts would be unknown to a person who didn’t already have a strong knowledge of Early Music.  What really fueled the discussion, though, was the tone of the piece, which  a good many readers took to be that If You Want To Be Taken Seriously (wink-nudge be a Laurel) then you Should Know All Of This.

There was a good deal of commentary to the effect of, “Well, aren’t YOU being all judge-y!” and “I have an MFA in Early Music and 30 years performance experience, and this list intimidates ME!”

I was reminded of those dark days when I had the opportunity to define “levels of bardic skill” for a young kingdom’s bardic college, and based it on my own abilities and experience.  (In my defense: I was young, ergo stupid, fairly new to the SCA, and very, very full of myself. Seemed like a good idea at the time. )  When I moved to a different region, my advice was sought on how to organize the nascent bardic community there.  I replied, “Whatever you do, DON’T do what I did!”

If you’ve followed these posts, you may recall my musings on the Seven Bardic Deadly Sins and the Seven Bardic Virtues.  Those are mostly philosophical – attitudes and values.  I’ve recently written about the skill of wordsmithing, and a while back I discussed the technical aspects of various performance spaces.  (Hey, I work in academia, and can self-cite with the best!)

Prowess, though… that’s specifically a skillset, a body of applied knowledge.  So I thought I’d compile a list of what “prowess” might look like for an SCA bard.  I’ll draw on what I’ve observed in the performances of the many excellent SCA performers I’ve had the privilege to see over the past nearly four decades.

Before we get started, understand that if you can do ANY of these with reasonable skill, you’ll be welcome to perform just about anywhere.  You certainly DON’T have to Do It All – indeed, it’s probably not possible for one person to be able to do EVERYTHING on the list below.  Consider it as a set of goals when you’ve hit that Plateau of Boredom and need some inspiration to try something fresh and new (to you). Tack it to the wall and throw a dart at it.  I make no claim that this is comprehensive.

Skills are grouped into into general, semi-arbitrary categories.  There’s some overlap.

Writing

  • Compose a poem
  • Compose a poem in a period style
  • Compose a poem in a period style in a period language other than English
  • Compose poems in several period styles from the same general time / place
  • Compose poems in several period styles from several different times and places
  • Compose a singable melody
  • Compose a period-sounding singable melody.  Not peri-oid, but using actual period modes and motifs (The test: can it fool an Early Music snob?)
  • Write original words to an existing tune. (This is called filk if the tune is modern, but contrafacta if the tune is period – and it is a perfectly period practice.)
  • Compose extemporaneously with a written prompt (e.g. topic, list of words, etc.)
  • Compose extemporaneously without a written prompt (e.g., you witness A Thing and come up with something on the spot)
  • Compose a piece about a person in the SCA
  • Compose a piece about SCA culture
  • Compose a piece about a thing that you witnessed or heard about in the SCA
  • Compose a (fitting and well-deserved) satire
  • Compose a humorous piece
  • Compose an heroic piece
  • Compose a sad or tragic piece
  • Compose a piece about love (enduring, young, requited, un-requited, eternal, etc)
  • Compose a bawdy piece (style points for clever double-entendres rather than out-and-out vulgarity)

Working the Venue

  • Perform for people you know (a deliberate step up from performing for the cats)
  • Perform for people you don’t know, in a Bardic Safe Zone
  • Perform an “appropriate” piece at a bardic circle (e.g., not bawdy if kids are there)
  • Perform at a bardic circle, matching the mood
  • Perform at a bardic circle, deliberately changing the mood
  • Perform at your own campfire
  • Perform for a stranger’s campfire (aka fyrewalking)
  • Perform for stranger’s campfire, taking requests (NB: Offer moods to choose from: silly, sad, heroic, etc.  You can’t expect them to know your repertoire.)
  • Perform from memory (not everyone is able to do this, and that’s ok)
  • Perform from text where the text doesn’t look obviously modern – e.g., not a white plastic 3-ring binder
  • Stop before the audience wants you to (this is an important skill)
  • Lead a sing-along
  • Perform for a feast
  • Perform in an acoustically-excellent venue (e.g., theater, church)
  • Perform in an acoustically-neutral venue (e.g., outdoors, classroom)
  • Perform in an acoustically-lousy venue (e.g., campsite next to vehicle traffic or other background noise, gymnasium, cafeteria, etc.
  • Perform as part of pre-court entertainment
  • Perform as part of court (e.g., processional boast or song, Court-the-Musical, etc.)
  • Perform as part of a parade or processional
  • Perform in combat
  • Perform as walk-by / background music at an event (e.g, at gate, hallway, by the list field, etc.)
  • Perform at a post-revel
  • Perform a period or period-style piece at Enchanted Ground (e.g., a completely period campsite)
  • Perform a period or period-style piece at a period-looking site
  • Perform a period or period-style piece at an actual period or authentically-reconstructed site (e.g., I got to do “Thorvaldsaga” on board the Drakken Harald Hårfagre!)
  • Perform on the Performing Arts Tent stage at Pennsic
  • Perform at the Green Dragon at Gulf Wars
  • Enter a local bardic competition
  • Enter a kingdom bardic competition
  • Perform in an A&S Faire under the criteria specified in the rules
  • Judge at an A&S Faire
  • Notice a bored kid and offer a story or song
  • Notice a bored adult and offer a story or song

Performing

  • Tell a NSTIW story
  • Tell a NSTIW story to a non-SCA person (if they look at as if you’d just grown a second head, that’s ok.)
  • Tell a story about the intersection of the SCA and the modern world (aka “freaking the mundanes”)
  • Sing on pitch, in-key
  • Sing with varied dynamics
  • Sing with instrumental accompaniment
  • Tell a simple story – Brothers Grimm, Aesop’s Fable, Mullah Nasruddin, etc.
  • Tell a story without using any modern vocabulary (this usually requires practice)
  • Tell a story using different voices to represent the different characters
  • Tell a long story, e.g., longer than 5-7 minutes
  • Recite a poem without falling into a clap-along rhythm (unless that actually suits the piece)
  • Match the acoustics of an acoustically-excellent venue (e.g., account for natural reverb / echo)
  • Be heard in an acoustically lousy venue (i.e. PROJECT like a herald)
  • Perform at a Bardic Madness
  • Perform at an out-of-kingdom Bardic Madness
  • Perform a piece in a language other than English – and keep the audience engaged
  • Perform pieces in several languages other than English – and keep the audience engaged
  • Lead a sing-along where everyone knows the song
  • Lead a sing-along where you have to teach them the song
  • Perform as general-atmosphere / period-background-noise BUT do it as if the Queen were watching (she might be, you never know!)
  • Perform in a bardic competition (not everyone wants to do this; that’s perfectly ok)
  • Perform an emotional piece that takes you THERE (i.e., you totally lose it – expect to do this in rehearsal)
  • Perform an emotional piece that takes you THERE… and back again (i.e., bring your audience to the edge of the cliff, let them lean over, but pull them back before they fall.)

Teaching

  • Find good source material
  • Compile (and share) an annotated bibliography of good source material
  • Learn something new (How can you teach if you don’t first learn?)
  • Learn something new related to your persona
  • Teach something that you recently learned
  • Teach a song to someone else (e.g. kids, newcomers, sing-along at a campfire)
  • Teach a class at a local meeting
  • Teach a class at a local event
  • Teach a class at an out-of-town event
  • Teach a class at Royal University (or equivalent)
  • Teach a class at Kingdom A&S Faire
  • Teach a class at an out-of-kingdom event
  • Teach a class at a large multi-kingdom event (e.g., Pennsic, Gulf…)
  • Teach a class at Known World Cooks and Bards
  • Encourage a new performer
  • Take a new performer under your wing

Other

  • Critically analyze your performance (This is also called reflection.  It is NOT beating yourself up over errors!)
  • Critically analyze a recording of your performance (ditto)
  • Ask for constructive criticism of your performance (from someone you trust, duh)
  • Modify your performance based on that analysis (this could be practicing a rough spot, or re-working things to make a bigger emotional impact)
  • Record your performances in a studio, either home or professional
  • Publish a set of recordings of your performances (e.g., produce a CD)
  • Give others permission to perform your works (see creativecommons.org)

Words Matter

This is LONG.  I hope that it’ll worth be your while.  There is no TL;DR version apart from the title, sorry.

The past few posts have been pretty philosophical.  Seven bardic virtues, bardic deadly sins…

So let’s do something different, and get technical about storytelling.

(NB:  This assumes you’re familiar with the basic plot of “Gawain and the Green Knight.”  If not, look it up. It’s a classic Arthurian tale of Knightly Virtue.  I also draw on my story of the death of El Cid, which frankly comes from the movie with Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren.  It’s worth watching.  Ergo, spoilers galore below.)

A quick overview

What follows comes out of a class I teach about a four-step process for taking textual source material and turning it into a compelling storytelling performance.

The four steps are:

  1. Decide which story to tell
  2. Do research
  3. Edit
  4. Rehearse,  rehearse, rehearse, rehearse, rehearse…

1 and 2 often change order and/or intertwine.

Sometimes you read a lot of stories (Research) in order to find one that tickles your fancy (Decide).  Other times you Decide to tell a particular story but need to do Research to flesh out the details.

Same with 3 and 4.

In period, a storytelling might last for hours (cf the Beowulf and Njallsaga events).  But in most SCA venues, you’ve got… five minutes?   The stories you find in source material often (*koff* darn near always!) need to be cut down to fit within the time constraints of a bardic competition or bardic circles.

So, for my telling of “Gawain and Green Knight,” (which runs 30+ minutes even after Editing) I cut out the hunting scenes and most of the bedroom banter in order to focus on the plot and character development.

But I leave in the description of the shield, because it symbolizes  the Knightly Virtues which are central to the story.  The unapologetic religious symbolism also helps create the “time travel” aspect of SCA storytelling: transporting the audience to another time and place.

As for Rehearsal, I don’t write a story and then memorize what I’ve written.  I just tell it to myself  over and over again until I’m satisfied that I’m moving things along, covering the essentials with enough-but-not-too-much embellishment.

As I rehearse, I try out different turns of phrase at different points of the story.  When I find something I like, I repeat it until my voice muscles can reliably produce those phonemes with minimal oversight.

Which leads us to the point of this essay:  Words matter.

Point One:  Speak Easy

When you speak or sing, muscles in your face and throat form the sounds.  As with anything involving muscle movement, repetition equals reliability.  Serving a tennis ball, shooting an arrow, throwing a sword blow,  rattling off “When tweedle beetles battle,” riding a bike – the principle is the same: Do it over and over until you don’t have to think about it.

There’s a reason the old epic tales used rhyme and alliteration – the muscle movements are repetitive.  That makes things easy.  Conversely, tongue-twisters deliberately twist similar-sounding but differently-muscled phonemes.  Prove this to yourself:  Say each of these VERY slowly into a mirror, paying attention to your face muscles:

  1. “Harsh that hearing for Houston the Raven”* – pretty easy, right?
  2. “She sells sea shells by the sea shore” – that back and forth between “s” and “sh” is tricky, right?

So when you’re practicing a story, choose phrases that roll off the tongue – strings of words that are easy to say.  Alliteration and vowel-rhyme are your friend!  Say these out loud, slowly, paying attention to how your mouth muscles move:

  1. “And no dry eye saw his going.”
  2. “They defeated King Alfonso at the Battle of al-Fallaqa, where the fields were slick with blood.”

    These aren’t tongue-twisters.  That’s the point.

Point Two: Hit Home

Your words need to have an impact on the listener.  Listener, not reader. There’s a huge difference.

When you’re writing text to be read from the page, you know that the reader can stop and go back to re-read if they missed something.  Storytelling is different.  It’s live, in real-time.  There’s no pause-rewind-replay.

You not only have to be clear at every moment about what’s happening to whom, but you need to also choose your words to maximize the impact at that moment, even if you’re just introducing characters or moving the plot along.

For my El Cid story, I needed to introduce the hero’s wife, a princess in time of war who made The Thing in the story Happen.  Immediate problem:  The word “princess” instantly summons Disney in the listener’s mind!

We may play at being medieval folks, but in truth we’re modern.  As a performer, you have to accept and deal with that.  Indeed, it’s your task (and privilege) to draw them back in time.

El Cid’s wife is NO Disney princess!  So I can’t use the word, “princess.”  How about, “a king’s daughter”?  Might work.  But say it out loud a few times.  “DAUghtTerrr…”  It falls off into nothing.  Remember, you have listeners, not readers.

Now turn the words around.  Instead of “a king’s daughter,” you have, “daughter of a king.”  Say that out loud. Several times.  While stamping your foot in a steady beat on time to the words.

“DAUGH-TER… of-a KING.”  BUM-bum… buhbuh BUM!  That’s a march beat – a war drum!  Can you imagine a hall full of armored warriors shouting this?  “DAUGH-TER… of-a KING! DAUGH-TER… of-a KING!! DAUGH-TER… of-a KING!!!! YYYEEEAAAAAGGGHHHH!!!”

Beats “she was a princess” by a long shot, eh?

So in  my telling, I introduce her as, “Jimena, the beautiful… Jimena, daughter of a king.”  She is NOT the “beautiful daughter” of a king!!!  She’s NO Disney princess.  She is the daughter of a king,  who just happens to be easy on the eyes.

(Side note: Princesses being beautiful is expected in stories.  After all, what prince marries to have kids who look like him?  Yes, this is horribly sexist by modern standards. But just dropping the casual expectation can jar a modern, “woke,” audience back in time.)  Don’t stress it or make a big deal out of it, though.

As I was working up the El Cid story I realized that I could re-use that bit in the build-up to the climax:

“Jimena, the beautiful… Jimena, the wise… Jimena, daughter of a king, widow of a warlord, gave orders….”

Say that out loud, with accelerando and crescendo (musical terms come in handy with storytelling).  Note the repetition and especially the open vowels: “wid-Ow… Of A wAr-lOrd… gAve Orders.”

The vowel-rhyme reinforces the war drum in the rhythm.

Consonants matter, too. 

Read it out loud: “… who defeated King Alfonso at the Battle of al-Fallaqa, where the fields were slick with blood.”  (The q is a gutteral k sound)

There’s some soft initial-sound alliteration.  “deFeated king alFonzo at the battle of al-Fallaqa, where the Fields were..” That’s low-hanging fruit.  We already covered that.  Easy stuff.  Go deeper…

The fields were “slick.”  Not “slippery,” but “slick.”

“Slippery” is funny, right?   It’s a banana peel, a slapstick pratfall.  A fish getting away.

“Slick,” though, has hard, sharp edges.  It’s a hard stop.  “Slick” is dangerous.  It’ll hurt you.

Likewise, “The cruel sharp edge glittered in the flickering firelight,” (describing the Green Knight’s axe) has lots of sharp, dangerous edges.  Even the F sounds are ominous.

Contrast that with, “…her unbound hair and loose gown, glimmering in the dawnlight’s gleam…”

“Glittering,” surrounded by so many sharp-edged consonants, is dangerous.  But “glimmering in the dawnlight” is glamorous and downright sexy.

Choose words that make an impact on the listener.

Point Three:  Loop Back Around

Reuse phrases and forms. Remember that you’re playing to the ear – just as a song repeats a chorus, a story can repeat rhythms and phrases that help the listener keep track of what’s going on – or what might happen next.

This is especially important in children’s stories.  Think “The Three Billy Goats Gruff” (“Klopp, klopp, klopp…”) or “The Three Little Pigs” (“I’ll huff and I’ll puff…”).

Repetition helps the audience predict where things are going.

The example noted above:  “Jimena, the beautiful, daughter of a king,”  introduced the character.  The build-up to the climax goes like this: “Jimena, the beautiful… Jimena, daughter of a king, widow of a warlord, gave orders…” it repeats the war=drum rhythm.

While working up “Gawain ,” I had the Green Knight (in Arthur’s hall) sneer at Gawain’s oath, “On my honor as a knight!” with, “Certainly, that is small enough surety, but if it must suffice, it shall suffice.” (Lots of alliteration, right?)

Many weeks later, I’m bashing out the bedroom banter on the first morning of the three hunts. Lady Bertilak releases Gawain from being her “hostage” on condition that he give her “…some small token of affection, a kiss perhaps?”  He kisses her “chastely on the cheek, as a brother might his sister.”  (Note how easy “brOTH-er might-his-SIS-ter” is to say?)

And then The Muse strikes:  “The lady sighs, ‘Ah, certainly that is small enough surety.  But if it must suffice, it shall suffice.’ And she skipped lightly out of the room.”

Bam!  Thank you, Muse.  That’s golden.  I love to watch the audience’s reaction at that part.  It’s fun to see the facial expressions: “Wait, where have I heard that before? Whoah… whut???”

When you’re working up a story (Edit / Rehearse), don’t be afraid to re-use stuff if it impacts the listener.

Point Four: Who Said What?

When a story involves several characters, it can be helpful to cast them in your mind.  If you’re able to do different voices, that’s a bonus.

So with “Gawain,” the title character is played in my head by Nigel Terry (Prince John  in “The Lion in Winter”) as the young Arthur (“Excalibur”).  Ardent, headstrong, with a wee Irish lilt (Gawain *was* the son of King Lot of Orkney).

Arthur is Generic Noble Brit.  Launcelot’s one line is John Cleese’s taunting Frenchman.

The Green Knight is Geoffrey Rush as the sneering Capt. Barbossa in “Pirates of the Caribbean.” “I’m disinclined to acquiesce to your request. Means no.”

Lord Bertilak (the GK minus the enchantment) is the same gravelly mid-lower-class Brit accent, dropped a bit, with Barbossa’s sneer replaced by loud laughter and “hail good fellow well met!” bon-homie.

The Lady Bertilak is a husky, sexy contralto – mostly Marilyn Monroe. “Good morning, Sir Gawain…”  (“JFK happy birthday Mr President”)  delivered in a voice that makes 18yo males squirm. (I’ve seen it, though it’s a coin toss as to whether That Voice is every young man’s fantasy whispered in his ear or whether it’s TOO FREEKIN WEIRD for THAT voice to come out of my wrinkled, white-bearded face…)

The anonymous squire who leads Gawain to “the sinister path,” his fateful appointment with the Green Knight.  What better, more faithful squire, has there ever been (sorry, Sancho and Patsy) than Samwise Gamgee?

The voice… is tricksy, Precious!  We’ve been performing for what seems like hours, we has.  Our throat, it burns! But we has to do it, doesn’t we, Precious?  For the sake of the audience…

So I summon Nigel, but I mentally grab a mouthful of gravel and half-swallow it. Mentally.  It works, I think, most of the time.

But maybe you can’t do impressions.  So use what theater folk call “blocking” – who is standing where, looking in which direction?  Gawain talking to the Green Knight is always looking up and to the right.  The Green Knight always looks down and to the left (sinister).  And so forth.

Point Five:  Don’t be afraid to change things

After telling “Gawain” few times I switched things up a bit to make a bigger impact.

In the description of the shield I put the last point of the star as “The Five Joys of Mary,” and added in this bit which made up out of whole cloth, because I knew I was playing to a modern audience:

“The fifth point represents the Five Joys of Mary, Queen of Heaven, Mother of God, She whose image was painted on the inside of Gawain’s shield, whereupon he could gaze and draw courage when e’er he felt afraid. *pause*  I see confusion in your eyes.  Think it you strange that a hero should feel fear?  Nay, ’tis not so.

*lean forward*

“Only a FOOL knows not fear.  The hero! Takes his fear in hand.  Examines it from every angle.  Peruses each page, until he Knows His Fear In Full.

And then he sets it behind him *mime action* To Do The Thing That Must Be Done.”

Our deployed troops were taking a lot of casualties at the time I rewrote that bit.  It took me MANY repetitions to get through that part without losing it.  But it really ends the scene with a bang.

The next line is,  “And so, armed and armored as no knight before or since, Gawain set the gates of Camelot behind him.  And no dry eye saw his going.”

At that point I pause and take a drink of water.  And so shall I now.

 

*  “The Death Lay of Bowie Gizzardsbane” from “Silverlock” by John Myers Myers

Un-cited quotes are either by the author or (“She sells sea shells”) public domain

So, it’s been a while…

Has it really been almost two years since I posted anything?  Wow.  Reading through what’s here, though, I’m sort of reassured.  I wouldn’t change anything apart from fixing a couple of typos.  The Seven Bardic Deadly Sins are still the same, as are the remedies.

Not long after I posted that series, someone said that they should be countered with “The Seven Bardic Virtues.”  According to Wikipedia, the early Church combined the four classical cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, temperance, courage with the three theological virtues of faith, hope and charity.

What might the bardic analogs to those be?  Hmmm.   This is just a short musing; I might explore these in more depth later.

Prudence

This is sort of the opposite of Inappropriateness.  Knowing your audience and performing something that’s appropriate – or choosing not to perform at all.

Justice

Justice is generally thought of as setting things right (especially when they have gone wrong), or at the very least making sure that miscreants get their comeuppance.

That first definition?  That should be easy – word-fame!  Tell the story or write a song about that Wonderful Thing You Saw.  Even better if it’s something that DIDN’T happen on the battlefield or list!  When was the last time you heard a song about a fabulous feast and the hardworking kitchen crew?

The second definition brings to mind the bardic WMD of satire.  I’ve written exactly three satires in my career.

One was a reaction to a long-ago Pennsic that had gone very, very badly.  People were injured, apparently deliberately.  I posted the poem to the Rialto (I did say it was long ago) and a duke of the kingdom at which it was aimed got really mad.  The bardic community had my back though, and essentially told him, “Your Grace, if the shoe fits, wear it.  That’s what bards are supposed to do.”  Interestingly, I can’t find a copy of it anywhere.  The second was about a young squire who messed up Big Time.  His knight made him learn the song.  The third was a reaction to some really dumb event rules.

Temperance

“Everything to excess!  Moderation is for monks!”  “Moderation in all things – especially moderation!”  Cute t-shirt slogans.  Not a great way to live, not if you want people to invite you back.  I was That Guy for a long time.  Don’t be That Guy.

Courage

This is the opposite of Timidity.  Performing is scary for a lot of people.  Really scary.   But if you’re going to perform, you need to “screw your courage to the sticking place.”

Faith

Believe.  Believe in yourself, most of all.  Believe that by performing, you’ll be adding to someone else’s experience.  And rehearse like crazy so that you know you are.

Hope

Hope isn’t wishful thinking, or leaving cookies out for Santa.  Hope is simply expecting the best outcome.  (Hint: When you’re well-prepared and know your venue, this comes easy!)

Charity

Be kind.  Be kind to yourself, to your audience, and especially to other performers.

Competitions and Other Places*

Venues and Values

In the Seven Deadly Bardic Sins series I used the phrase “Bardic Safe Zone” quite a bit.  A BSZ is designed to be a low-stress performance venue where you’re not being judged, nothing is at stake, and the audience is very supportive and non-judgemental, appreciating that you have the guts to get up in front of people and perform at all.

The other end of the bardic-venue spectrum is probably the Bardic Competition (dum dum dummm….).  

Competitions

My relationship with competitions is, as Facebook might say, complicated.  Back in my youth I entered pretty much every one that I could – and in central Ansteorra in the 1980s, that was a lot.  There might well have been as many competitions as there were round-robin circles and free-wheeling post-revels.  It seemed that every barony and shire had to have a bardic champion.  

I won my share of them.  In ASXX I was the champion of both Bryn Gwlad (Austin) and Stargate (Houston).  I never did win the Kingdom championship, though.  I served a term as the Principal of the Queen’s College of Bards, but I never won the coveted title of Premier Bard of Ansteorra.**  (I did eventually win the title of Midrealm Queen’s Bard, with a story that I cooked up literally overnight three days before the competition.  That’s another tale, though.)

Competition produces stress.  Some of it can be good stress (inspiring you to do your best).  Some of it can be bad stress (feeling that you’re not good enough, or that you have to be better than everyone else).  And even good stress is still stress.  People under stress act a little different than they do otherwise.  

Me, when I enter a bardic competition, I’m in it to win it.  I’ll pull out all the stops.  I’ll pander shamelessly to the judges – they’re the only audience that matters, right?  I’ll typically have several pieces polished and ready to go, depending on what the other performers are doing, because my goal is to be better than them.  

Frankly, it’s not a real nice part of my personality that comes out in competitions, which is why I don’t enter them much anymore.  I don’t  much like the version of me that takes the stage in competition. I might turn in a top-shelf performance, but I don’t necessarily feel really good about it afterward.

But that’s me.  There’s no question that competitions are an excellent venue for up-and-coming performers to get noticed, especially outside their local area.   

They’re not the only venues, though.  I’m a big fan of encouraging non-competitive performance venues.  Let’s talk about some of those.

Circles

There are many different ways to structure a bardic circle.  Themed or not.  Pick-pass-play.  Pass the token.  Popcorn (whoever wants to go next, goes next).  And others.  Circles can be Bardic Safe Zones.  Low-key, folks who know each other, with an express purpose of trying new stuff or encouraging new performers.

But circles aren’t always BSZs.

Even in an informal setting, it can be very intimidating to a new performer to follow a Really Good Performance. (Hint: don’t be Timid!) Heck, it can be intimidating to an old hand!  Case in point: A couple of years ago at Pennsic I was sitting in a circle next to my old friend Owen Alun from Northshield. He did one of his signature pieces (Thorvaldsaga, aka Treefoot), and across the circle I saw Cariadoc – Cariadoc! – leaning forward on the edge of his seat.  I had to follow that?!?  No pressure…

Tips for performing a Circle.  #1 Shut Up and Listen for a Bit.  I totally violated this just a few months ago at Bardic Roundhouse.  I moved from the mostly-instrumental Jam Session to the not-mostly-instrumental Bardic Circle and, stupidly assuming that it was a free-for-all, got my Pride all wound up and said, “Ok, I’m here!  What do y’all want to hear?”  (In my meagre defense, when I walked in the group was in one of those talk-among-yourselves phases and it was not at all clear who if anyone was Up Next.) Fortunately, I was among good friends who gently informed me that Someone Else was Up Next.  Pass the humble pie, please.

Busking

Busking is simply picking a spot out in public, setting out a hat for tips, and performing.  Street performance.  I busked at the Texas RenFest for nearly a decade, and fed myself through grad school by leading beery singalongs of classic folk/rock favorites at the local watering hole.

When busking, especially in SCA contexts, be aware of your audible radius.  Set limits.  Share the stage: work out who-plays-where-when with other performers.  If you’re playing near merchants, don’t EVER interfere with sales.  Don’t outstay your welcome.

If you set out a hat to get tips, you really should be well-Prepared, not just noodling around.  You’re not just asking for your audience’s attention, but their coin as well, and all the rules of non-BSZ venue and performance apply.  

And play by the rules: don’t take tips for doing songs under current copyright (e.g., written in the last hundred years) that you don’t have permission from the artist to perform for money.

Feasts 

Frankly, feasts are a terrible performance venue.  People are there to eat and chat with friends.  Acoustically, the room is generally either very live (amplifies the slightest sound) or very dead (kills sound).  Either way you generally can’t be heard from one end of the table to the next, much less across the hall. Ever notice how often people are nearly shouting at each other across the table just to be heard?  

You absolutely do NOT want to be the person who says (in effect), “SHUT UP THIS IS ENTERTAINMENT.”  (If the Crown or Coronet says it, then I hope you are Prepared and can deliver on their promise!)

Other than that, If asked to perform at a feast, you might consider these options:

  1. Politely decline.
  2. Play background instrumental music (harpists who can noodle / improvise, or instrumental consorts with a decent repertoire have this totally sussed)
  3. Work individual tables, doing your best to command attention and be heard eight feet away.
  4. Do the wandering minstrel bit, not really caring if anyone is really listening.  You’re part of the hall decoration, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be subtle and clever.  Do “Rise/Baker’s Edition” while people are setting up and filling up on the bread on the table, “Greensleeves” for the salad course, etc.  (Do NOT do the Mousse Song for dessert unless all the children have left the hall!)

    or….

  5. Leeeetle tiiiiny tuuuube nooodles!  Emcee the feast, and make it memorable.  

    Many years ago, there was an Italian feast at a big event (Midrealm Crown?) in Nordskogen, Northshield (Minneapolis, Minnesota).  

    You must understand that this part of the country was settled by the descendants of Vikings, and the local SCA has, shall we say, a distinct and authentic Scandinavian flavor. Lutefisk (think fish Jello) was actually served at a revel.   “Racial integration” means Norwegians, Swedes, Danes, and Finns living in harmony.  You’ve seen the movie “Fargo”?  That’s NOT made-up dialog.  Yah, shore, youbetcha, dey really do talk dat vey up dere, don’t’cha know, dere hey.  They understand what Sesame Street’s Swedish Chef is saying. When I moved to Minnesota I was given a copy of the book, “How to Talk Minnesotan.”  It proved VERY useful.

    And an Italian feast was served.  

    Somehow, Baron Lewys Blackmore and I were roped into announcing the feast.  And somehow, we hit on the following idea:  Lewys, being a worldly, um. ah, “gentleman adventurer of the high seas” (who never sails without letters of marque, even if he has to pay a scribe to produce them), would announce each dish in proper (that is, floridly over-the-top) Italian…ish.  I, being a low-born fellow of Irish-Norse background, would “translate” into the local Scandihoovian dialect.

    So, “Siiiiigniores e Signorinas!  Aaa prrriiimo!  La ensalaaaada grrraaande e vvverrrrte con aoiio rrrobuuustooo!” became, “Vell, now, to start vit, vee got cha a green salad. But hit’s not de lime Yello salad you’re yoosed to in yoor Lut’ran church basement, don’t’cha’know.  Hit’s all plant leaves and stoff like dat, but choo can actually eat dem.  Ant on de side dere’s dis dressink stoff, vich might be a leetle bit spicy fer yer taste, so don’t joost slater it on, dere hey.”

    And so it went.  Totally improv, for all that’s worth. We just played off each other.  At some point I announced a pasta dish as “Leeeetle tiiiiny tuuuube nooodles!” People were in stitches. It was great fun.

    Flash forward FIFTEEN YEARS.  

    I’m cleaning up the kitchen after an event with a local knight in my new baronial home hundreds of miles away at the far end of the old Midrealm. I recount the story of that feast, just to make chat while we’re swabbing and sweeping.  He exclaims, “THAT WAS YOU!?!?! We were laughing all the way to Cleveland!  I complained that my arms were sore, and so-and-so said, ‘Yoost poot some leeeetle tiiiiny tuuuube nooodles on eet!’”  

Ubiquitous Bardic

Just do it.  A few examples:

Feast-kitchen sing-alongs, washing dishes.  If you can convince some hunky young squires to join you (and especially if they take off their shirts) you just might get a service award.  It’s been known to happen.  

Wandering an event site with a basket of goods for sale, singing short “hawking” ditties set to period tunes. E.g., To Greensleves: “Come buy my confits, very nice / Your fetid breath they will freshen. / I’ve anise, ginger and cinnamon / Your loneliness they will lessen.”  (Good advertising gets your attention!)

Sing on the way to a battle.  Some kingdoms are really good at this (Calontir, Northshield) but households can do it, too.  Or just gather your courage and start solo. You never know who might join in.

Sing during a melee!  Kari was belting out a song in the midst of a Pennsic field battle when a spearman nailed him.  The spearman’s shieldman hollered, “You idiot!  Why’d you kill him?  I was enjoying that song!”  

Be atmosphere.  Sing or play in your pavilion or under a tree, with no expectation of audience.  Let the music float out and help make the magic happen for others.  Even if you’re just noodling around, it adds to the event.

Just.

Do.

It.

Addenda

* Yes, I know that the line is really, “Competition (singular) IN other places.”  “Sultans of Swing” by Dire Straits is not only one of the best songs in the usually-whiney “Life as a rock star is SO HARD” genre (e.g. Rush’s “Limelight” and Bob Seeger’s “Turn the Page”), but also features some of the tastiest guitar work ever recorded.
**Years ago or so I made it to Pennsic and visited the Ansteorran camp.  An old friend spotted me and grabbed me by the arm.  “Brendan!” he said.  “There’s someone you have to meet!”  He dragged me through the camp to a tent and called inside.  “Lady so-and-so?  (I’m sorry, I really don’t recall her name.) You have a visitor!”  I was, to say the least, puzzled as a young woman emerged and looked around uncertainly.  She looked at me and her face took on that, “You look vaguely familiar…” expression.   

An aside-within-an aside: Around/about ASXX I had recorded a cassette tape on my kitchen table with a cheap four-track recorder.  The cover “art” was a digitized version of a photo of me at TYC that had been published in an issue of TI after the event.  I sold perhaps a dozen copies of that tape.

Back to Pennsic:  My friend flourished, “Lady So-and-so, may I present Lord Brendan O Corraidhe.  Lord Brendan, Lady So-and-so.”  I offered my hand and said something polite.  Her eyebrows shot up.  “THE Lord Brendan?  The one who recorded ‘Favorite Songs of Ansteorra?’”  

I stammered, “Um, yeah… that was me.”  The lady gushed, “That tape is the REASON I got into the bardic arts!  Thank you SO much!”  I stammered my thanks.

Then my friend dropped the mic:  “Lord Brendan, may I present the Premier Bard of Ansteorra!”  

I truly don’t remember anything after that. “Gobsmacked” is the appropriate term.

(My pride was later tempered somewhat when I recalled that Jimi Hendrix had said that he decided that he could get away with singing when he heard a Bob Dylan record.)

Seven Deadly Bardic Sins – Part 7

7. Timidity

If pride (see previous post) is being so sure of yourself that you think people should love you just because you’re there, Timidity is being so UN-sure of yourself that you wrap yourself up into a tiny little ball of self-inflicted terror and fail to project your voice beyond the tip of your nose (not to mention make any connection with the audience).

Even if you’re @#$%^&* AWESOME.

Getting up in front of people is scary.  We get that.  That’s the whole point of Bardic Safe Zones (BSZ) – a venue where the audience is gentle, friendly, supportive, appreciative, and non-judgmental (though we’ll give you constructive feedback IF you ask for it).

A BSZ is a place to try out new stuff.  It’s a place where it’s safe to be new, to be raw, to be a little (or a lot) scared.  It’s a safe place to reflexively apologize in advance, to flub, to crash and burn – and then laugh about it, because we’ve all been there and done that.

And it’s perfectly okay to never perform outside of that safe space if you’re not comfortable doing so.

Let me repeat that.  (Read this  s l o w l y . . . ): It is perfectly okay to never perform outside of that safe space *.

While it is generally A Good Thing to stretch the edges of your comfort zone, there is NEVER a requirement to leap well outside of it.  If you want to, you can.  But you should never feel forced.

No question, it is somewhat daunting to walk out on stage in front of several hundred people who have paid real  money to see someone else perform. (Back in the late 80’s I agreed to open a local club gig for guitar hero Eric Johnson.  I started my set with a two-chord song, “Horse With no Name” because I knew that I could play it even if I was in a coma.)

It’s kinda strange to speak into a microphone and hear your voice coming out of baseball stadium loudspeakers sixty yards away.  (We did a melee demo on the field after a local AA-ball game a couple of years ago.  I volunteered to herald.)

I’ve never been particularly bothered by stage fright, but I think I can understand it.  I’ve seen people who were clearly intimidated by the idea of performing something they knew well in front of a small group of really supportive people, in a friend’s living room.  Heck, I’m told that Barbara Streisand – one of the great voices of the past century – absolutely hated performing live.

I’ve seen people try to perform in non-BSZ venues before they were ready to do so. And in many cases, I’ve cringed.  Not because they were bad (though some were).  But because I knew that they had screwed their courage to the sticking place, stepped out as bravely as they could, (some of them apologizing!) and were going to be met with only polite applause.  (See Overreach, above.)

I WANT performers to succeed.  I WANT their audiences to be transported. I WANT to hear that moment of silence before the applause.  I WANT to feel that “Ohhh… WOW” myself.

You can’t make that happen if you’re emulating a mouse. (Reepicheep being the exception, of course!)

* Re: “…never perform outside of that safe space.”    Someone is certain to take that as me saying, “Some of you should never perform in public.”  As my high school drafting teacher was fond of saying, “WRONGO!!”  At the risk of riffing on Bilbo’s farewell speech, the point is this:

No one should ever feel pressured to risk making a mistake in front of people that they feel they can’t risk making a mistake in front of.

IOW, if you don’t want to, DON’T!  It’s okay.  This is a hobby.  It’s supposed to be fun.  If it’s not going to be fun for you to perform in a certain venue, do yourself a favor and don’t. It’s ok, really.  Better to not perform at all than to be so mouselike that people can’t even hear you!  Note that this absolutely Does Not Apply to giving it a try, getting your toes damp. and stepping way outside your comfort zone IN A BARDIC SAFE ZONE.  That’s what the BSZ is for!

Seven Deadly Bardic Sins – Part 6

6. Pride

This is mostly directed at those of us who’ve been at it long enough so that some folks recognize us as performers.  But it may serve as a cautionary tale for new folks.

Let’s be honest – it takes a certain amount of ego to get up in front of a bunch of people and ask for their attention even for a few minutes.  (It also takes a LOT of courage for many folks.  It’s said that most people are more afraid of speaking in public than dying.)  And – again, lets be honest – the applause at the end feels GREAT.  (Even better is that little moment of silence BEFORE the applause starts!  If you’ve experienced it, you know what I mean.)

If you work hard at your craft you may eventually get to the point where people simply expect wonderful things whenever you walk on stage.  (Or – and Here Be Bad Things – you might think that they should even if they don’t.)

You might be sitting in a bardic circle and a performing-arts laurel will ask you to perform, because they haven’t heard you in a while.  Or they’ll ask you to perform and then walk away, leaving you in charge of things for a while, because they have to Go Do A Thing and they have that much faith in you. Yow!  Or someone you’ve never met who’s heard of you, but never actually heard you, will ask you to do something.

You’ll have earned a reputation for excellence in performance.  That’s a really really really cool thing, and it shows that you’ve been doing things mostly right.

But it is also a very Real And Present Danger, and not just because you risk outgrowing your headgear.  If you ever get to thinking that you deserve the attention or applause “just because it’s you,” then you’re getting into VERY dangerous territory – a wilderness that I explored well in my foolish, feckless youth.  (See  That Guy)

Yes, you may have a well-earned reputation for entertaining folks.  But you have to keep on earning it.

EVERY performance is a NEW transaction between you and the audience.  You’re asking them to trade their precious, can’t-get-it-back time and attention  for… what?  Your ego?  Flip that around.  Would you make that trade?

Imagine shelling out $100 a seat to see That Legendary Band.  You’ve loved them for years, have all their albums, know all the words to all the songs.  You were thrilled just to get tickets.  And the house lights go down, the stage lights go up, and they’re just Going. Through. The. Motions.  Mailing it in.

Would you feel that you’d gotten your money’s worth?  Me neither.

As a performer, you should deliver the goods, every time. (See Unpreparedness.) That doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to have a bad night, even if you’re a performing arts Laurel with a Pelican for supporting the bardic arts in service to the Society as a whole, as well as a former bardic champion to a dozen kingdoms.  Master / Mistress Unobtanius can still experience that moment “”Right after the performance when your clothes tear, you moon the Queen, you forget the words, you forget the tune . .”” – @Charles Krug (FB/SCA Bardic Arts)

Of course stuff happens.  Remember that Babe Ruth held the record for strikeouts as well as home runs.  And of course, it’s perfectly safe to crash and burn in a Bardic Safe Zone – that’s what they’re for.

But when you have a “real” performance – for example, a pre-court or in-court performance – for ALL our sakes’ PLEASE don’t just phone it in and expect them to love you just because it’s you.  (Yesss, I’ve BeenThereDoneThat.  That’s why I’m writing this series, to spare you from making the same mistakes I made when I was young and stupid.)

Whenever I have a “big gig” coming up I tend to watch a couple of videos for inspiration: Jethro Tull at Madison Square Garden in 1978, and Queen at Wembly Stadium in 1986.  Both bands’ frontmen – Ian Anderson of Tull and Freddie Mercury of Queen – have larger-than-life, in-your-face,  big-and-bold-brass-balls personas when on stage.  Interestingly, they are both very quiet and introspective in off-stage interviews.  But on stage? They OWN it.  They strut. They swagger.  They stalk.  They play the crowd. They are huge. HUUUGE!

And in the camera close-ups, the sweat is POURING down their faces.  They may be playing the role of MASTER OF THE WORLD, but they are WORKING.  Hard.   They are earning the audience’s attention and applause.   Bob Seeger’s classic golly-being-a-touring-rock-star-is-hard song, “Turn the Page” has a great stanza: “Up there in the spotlight you’re a million miles away / Every ounce of energy you try to give away / And the sweat pours out your body like the music that you play.”  Some friends of mine recently saw Seeger in concert.  They said that he not only rocked the arena, but was genuinely thankful to his audience for coming out to see him.

(“Brendan, what’s with all the rock and roll stories? Where is this going?”  Bear with me…)

Some of you may be old enough to remember the band Van Halen.  Their first singer was David Lee Roth, a prototypical strutting-and-swaggering 1970’s rock star, both on and off stage.  In the 1980’s, established guitarist and singer Sammy Hagar (“I Can’t Drive 55,” “Why Can’t This Be Love”) replaced Roth.  Like other top-shelf rock frontmen, Hagar stalked the stage and played the crowd.

Offstage, though, it was a different story.

A few years ago I read about an event at a record store where both Roth and Hagar were to be greeting fans and signing autographs.  Sammy Hagar shows up a few minutes early, driving his own car, wearing jeans and a t-shirt.  He hangs out, chatting with folks, clearly pleased that people recognize him and still enjoy the music that he made years before.

Half an hour late, a limo pulls up and a jumpsuit-and-sunglasses-clad Roth emerges, a blonde babe on each arm.  This despite the fact that the decades have clearly taken a toll on his glam-boy looks.  The crowd was by all accounts not exactly overwhelmed by his “I’m all that and a bag of chips” entrance:  “Is THAT David Lee Roth?  Wow…” (and not a good “wow”).

So what’s the point?  You only deserve what you earn.

OWN the venue.  BRING IT.  ROCK the stage.  Leave them stunned while you go walk off the adrenaline shakes, mop the sweat, and re-hydrate.

But leave your rockstar persona on stage.  Be Sammy, not David Lee.