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Bore-us the spider

Ok, that was obscure. Waaay BITD The Who had a song called Boris the Spider. Great bass riff. Very late-60’s. Much “You can write a song about anything.” Check it out.

This is not about that. But blog post titles are supposed to grab attention, ya?

This is AKSHULLY about a terribly boring (actually sweat-inducing) but very important PHYSICAL exercise for fretted-string players. It might be useful for unfretted / bowed players as well. Here we go….

Choose a fret and string to start with. On a guitar with standard tuning, low E (6th string) at the 3rd or 5th fret.

Doesn’t matter, really. This isn’t about making music. It’s pushups.

So. Line up your fingertips on the same string (suggested, index on the 6th string 5th fret) Just touch them to the string.

Get used to that feeling. Maybe watch an episode of a show, checking now and then that you’re stretched out to *one finger per fret.*

Sit there and chill. Feel the stretch. It’s not pain (unless you have something to talk to w/ yer osteo-doc),

Now, sllloooowwwly press your index finger down. Pluck the note with pick, thumbpick, fingertip flesh. Is it a clean clear sound?

To be continued…

Stretch your strings

To avoid retuning and retuning and retuning when you change your strings, stretch them out.

The pitch of a guitar string depends on its length, unit mass, and tension. When you’re tuning up a new string, the length and unit mass (.55 low E vs .10 high E) are constant, so the only variable is tension. Problem is, when you tighten the string up, it stretches. It literally gets longer, which reduces the tension, making it go flat.

Most materials (including guitar strings) stretch when they are under tension. You can graph the stress (tension) versus the amount of stretch (strain). At first, the stretch is like a rubber band – when you let off the pressure the string returns to its original length. (That’s called elastic deformation.) But at some point, the “set” becomes permanent. (That’s called plastic deformation.) The string will continue to stretch up to a point, then it won’t stretch any more.

That’s the point you need to get to in order for the string to stay in tune. Once the string is stretched out, any additional tension just raises the pitch. (That is, until you reach the breaking point of the string! TOING!)

So here’s how to pre-stress your strings. Tune the new string up to pitch, then pick it up at the 12 fret (the midpoint). Pull it out an inch or so so you can feel it “give” a bit. (Light strings, especially the B and high E, may stretch a LOT. That’s ok. You want that.) Waggle it back and forth, then tune it back up. Bash a few loud chords, then retune. The stretched-out strings will stay in tune much better.

Guitar Notes

This applies to pretty much any fretted instrument, not just guitar.

Practice makes better.  What you practice determines what you perform. Repetition, time on task, muscle memory.  The great cellist Pablo Casals was interviewed on his 80th birthday.  The interviewer asked, “Maestro, I am told that you still practice six hours a day.  Why?”  He replied, “I am beginning to notice some improvement.”

My wife is fond of saying, “Little and often make much.”  Keep your instrument handy. 
Once you’ve learned a few basic chord shapes, practice the skill of changing chords. Pick two chords and practice changing back-and-forth between those two.  

Make the first chord.  Make sure you’ve got a clean sound on all the strings.  Fix issues with finger position and pressure. Look at your hand. If it’s correct, and sound is correct, then think of the sensations as stretch and pressure rater than pain. “This is correct. It feels … different, but it’s normal and I’ll get used to this” is a winning attitude. “OMG I’M IN AGONY” will tend to keep the instrument in its case under the bed. :-/

So holding that first chord, visualize where your fingers need to be for the second chord. Strum once, then lift all your fingers up simultaneously, and very very slowly move them simultaneously to the new position. Think of it like you were doing a stop motion animation and go frame by frame. Break it down into however many frames you need. Then when your fingers are in position for the new chord, put them all down simultaneously. Then strum once.

DO NOT “Build“ the chord one finger at a time.  Get in the habit of putting all the fingers down at the same time.  Play the chord one string at a time to find problems like not enough pressure on this finger, or that finger muting an adjacent string, or choking the fret causing a thump or buzz.

Repeat this over and over and over again. Form the chord. Strum. Just one strum. Pick up fingers, move them simultaneously, put them down simultaneously. Strum again. Just one strum. Visualize the first chord. Pick up your fingers all together, moving all together, put them down all together, strum once. 

Repeat repeat repeat. Take a break, then do the same thing with two different chords. Or the first chord or the second chord and a third. Then take them in a circle. One, two, three. Add in your fourth chord.  With four chords (assuming they’re in the same key) you can play 10,000 songs.  G, C, D, Em are probably the easiest on guitar/baritone uke.  I don’t know standard uke tuning – that high string on top throws me.  Capo to match your voice. 

It’s really important to do this with just one strum per chord, because the rate at which you can change chords between strums determines the tempo at which you can play.  It will be very very slow at first. But you may be surprised at how quickly can you pick up speed using this technique.

Strum down with your fingernails, up with your thumbnail. Or down with your thumb, then up with your fingertips.  You’ll get different sounds.  I tend to use nails.  You can also strum with a thumbpick (which I’ve never got the hang of) or a flatpick, but beginners often struggle with controlling a pick, and tend to hammer the strings too hard. 

There are two basic rhythms, and you already know them.  Walking and heartbeat. Practice strumming (just mute the strings) – JUST downstrokes at first – in a steady walking rhythm. Use a metronome app if you like to keep steady.  That’s the beat.  The tempo.  Walk slow, walk fast. 

Then add an upstroke.  That’s called subdividing the beat. If the downbeat is the left foot, the upbeat is the right. (In blues and rock, the upbeat is also called the backbeat, and that gives it that characteristic foot-tapping feel.)  On the guitar, that emphasized backbeat is typically an upstroke strum.  If you count One and two and three and four, you’d emphasize the ANDs. 

That’s a 2/4 time signature in modern written notation – two beats per measure, the quarter note counts as a beat.  It’s also 4/4 – four beats per measure, the quarter note is one beat.  

Now think about a heartbeat.  Buh-DUM buh-DUM buh-DUM. 1-2 3, 1-2 3, 1-2 3.  It’s a waltz. There’s a reason love songs are usually waltzes – it literally resonates with your heartbeat. You can strum with the 1 on the downstroke, pause for the 2, then 3 is the upstroke.  Or Downstroke 1, then do two upstrokes for 2 and 3.  You got a million country songs with that. Also Oom-pah-pah polkas.

Combine that triple rhythm feel with a march, and you get 6/8 – six beats per measure, written so the eighth not (with one flag) gets counted as one beat.  Welcome to marching band. Hello, Mr. Sousa. 
Break it down more. 1 2 3 4 … 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and ….  1 and a 2 and a 3 and a 4 and a … 1 ee and ah 2 ee and ah 3 ee and ah 4ee and ah   …

Then you get funky and don’t play on all the sub-beats.  Or put the emPHAsis on a diffRENT syllaBLE.  It’s called syncopation. Want to get crazy?  Instead of counting 2, 3, 4 or 6, try FIVE beats, or seven.  or 9, 11, 12… Dave Brubecks’s Take Five and Jethro Tull’s Living in the Past are in 5.  Tull’s Jack Frost and Hooded Crow is in 7.  

Remember though, when you’re changing chords do it on the beat, between single strums.  That defines the tempo you can play at.  DON’T be the person who sings over STRUM STRUM STRUM… pause… STRUM STRUM STRUM … pause… STRUM STRUM STRUM.  Somebody will stuff a hot marshmallow in your ear.  

Now, as regards fingerpicking.  I’m talking guitar, adapt for uke (I’m just learning baritone uke). Note that I am a self-taught folkie, not a classical or ragtime style player. 

Thumb on the three bass strings, EAD, 6, 5, 4.  (6 is a big round number, it’s the big round string.  1 is a skinny number, it’s the skinny string.).  It usually plays the root of the chord – the note the chord is named after – on the downbeat. That’s another way to practice changing chords, and paying attention to which string to play. Play the root while counting ONE, lift your fingers, change while counting to four and whatever speed works, plant the fingers and on ONE again play the root of the new chord with your thumb (or a thumbpick or a flatpick.)  

Are you detecting a pattern here?  Break things down to the very smallest movements and do them over and over and over, VERRRY slowly.  “Perfectly slow” as one teacher taught me.  So slowly you can’t do it wrong.  Some of the best advice I’ve ever gotten was from Jaime Andreas’ “Principles of Correct Practice for the Guitar”  If I had a dollar for every time I’ve recommended that book… Break it down.  Take it slow.  The name of the game is time on task.  Focus attention with intention.

So back to picking.  If your thumb is playing the 1 2 3 4 (on the 6 5 and 4 strings), then your other fingers are playing the ANDs on the 1 2 and 3 strings.  Rest your index (first) finger on the 3 (G).  Attitude (2nd) finger on the B (2), ring finger (3rd) on the high E (1) .  Your hand should be comfortably open, cupped, with room for an egg in your palm.  Wrist forward and down, relaxed, as though you’d done a “oh, you silly thing!” hand-flop gesture. 

So your thumb is playing the root (and bouncing back and forth to the other bass strings on the 2, 3, and 4), your fingers on 123 on GBE get the ands.  Or and-a.  Or ee-and-a, or however else you want to subdivide. 

The simplest thing is to pluck all three treble strings at the same time.  Combined with the thumb on the bass strings, it’s kind of like a rocking horse. Very easy to do with a waltz rhythm as well.  Thumb-fingers-fingers, thumb-fingers-fingers.

Now try a forward roll.  T 1 2 3 T 1 2 3.  Now a backward roll: T 3 2 1 T 3 2 1.  Now combine them:  T 1 2 3 2 1  or get tricky with T 2 1 3.  Do it with the strings muted at first just to get the motions down.  Switch the thumb back and forth between the bass strings. Then do it over an easy chord, like Em.  

By this point you may have noticed that with many chords, you have extra left hand fingers that aren’t doing anything (typically the pinky).  You may have experimented with 7th, Maj7, augmented, suspended, and add-4 or add-5 chords. Try putting that pinky down between strums or finger-strolls.  With a C or Am it lands happily on the 2nd string, 3rd fret.  That adds a lot of flavor.  

Now for hammer-on and pull-off.  Play a note, then wham your finger down on the same string, higher up. Now that you have two fingers on the same string, play the note, then pull the finger that’s higher up the fretboard off, pulling a little sideways so you pluck the string and let the lower note sound. Do that over and over and you have a trill.  With certain notes on certain chords, you do the hammer and pull between the fretted note and the open string. Am an C work really well with a combo double-hammer-double pull on the B string: open, 2, 4, 2, open.  Or a D chord, on the first string (high E) 2 3 2 open 2.  That sort of practice will build finger strength quickly!

Practice each of these things individually, then start to add them together like Lego blocks.  You’ll soon start to sound pretty fancy. 

Most lot of this probably makes much more sense demonstrated live rather than in text, so if you want to set up a video chat, let me know.. 

Please keep me posted on your progress. 


Class Notes

These are notes for some of the classes I’ve taught.

Introduction to Performing Arts in the SCA

Introduction to Performing Arts in the SCA class notes, from Known World Cooks and Bards XX, Sept 9-12, 2021

Text to Telling

From Known World Cooks and Bards XX, Sept 9-12, 2021

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.

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. 🙂


I covered that some detail in this post. (

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. (

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…


So I posted a link to what I had:
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:

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.


  • 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


  • 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.)


  • 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


  • 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