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Month: May, 2015

Seven Deadly Bardic Sins – Part 3

3. Overreach

To paraphrase Clint Eastwood, a bard’s got to know his limitations. (Or hers…)

This is the flip side to Apologizing: Trying to perform something that you simply can’t – e.g., a song that’s outside your vocal range, an instrumental piece that you can’t really play smoothly, doing a piece from memory that you don’t really have memorized, trying to perform in a gym when your voice barely reaches across the table.

Just don’t, okay?  Not in public, anyway. A Bardic Safe Zone? Different story.

If it’s new, if it’s a stretch, if you’re among friends, that’s great.  But if you’re not certain that you can deliver the goods, please find or create a Bardic Safe Zone (see previous post) before asking an audience of strangers for their time and attention.

Now then, I certainly understand that Stuff Happens at outdoor events.  I did eight years busking at the Texas Renaissance Festival, and about the same amount of time busking at local taverns.  I know very well how weather and circumstance can utterly wreck your vocal range. (That’s why God invented capos and licorice root.  Licorice root tastes nasty, fills your mouth with tiny splinters and yellow slime, but it absolutely restores a voice blown out by dust, humidity, or overuse.  The restored voice is generally a fifth lower, which is why the capo is handy).  So learn to roll with the punches.  But if you know that you can’t deliver a good performance, save it for your practice space or a Bardic Safe Zone.  Don’t experiment on your audience.  They deserve better than to be guinea pigs!

A couple of years ago, Lady Ursula told a terrific version of Pygmalion.  Afterward she asked me for feedback.  “It was great!” I said.  “That’s great,” she replied.  “I’d never told it before.”  “You mean that’s the first time you’ve done it in public?” “No, that was the first time I’ve EVER told that story.”  Did that break the rule?  NO. 1) She knew the story itself well. 2) She has serious storytelling chops – she knows about pacing, word choice, emphasis, etc.  3) This was at a Bardic Roundhouse event, during an informal sharing chill-out time to boot.  It was a Bardic Safe Zone, not a Royal Command Performance.

An aside about performing from memory…  

I tend to work from memory; I pretty much always have.  That’s my personal preference.  Being hands-free (if I’m not playing an instrument) gives me the most flexibility for posture, gesture, and other physical expression.

But… I’m fortunate in that I can memorize stuff pretty easily.  Not everyone can, for a variety of reasons.  And there’ve been a few times where I simply did not have the time before the performance to get up to  speed, and I really needed the print reference – for example, sharing a newly-written poem, or if I’m asked to do something that I haven’t done in a while. (Assuming that I have the text available; I don’t carry a “bard book”)

Remember Rule #1?  NO APOLOGIES

If you need to use a book, USE IT.  The audience would *much* rather have you read expressively from a book than stumble, stop, and (gah!) apologize just when the story is getting interesting!

Do this, though – figure out some way of making your notes look medieval so as not to break the mood.  Get a leather cover for the three-ring binder.  If you use a tablet, consider an amber filter so the light coming from it isn’t so glaring blue.

What about Freddie?  

(See previous post.)  If you’re a longtime Queen fan (I am) and if you’ve watched their 1986 Wembly performance with a critical eye (duh) you’ll note that there are many places where Freddie drops a fifth or even an octave below the note that’s on the recorded version of the song.

That’s ok.  Frankly, it’s a doggone good idea. There are many sad examples of singers who have completely blown out their voices and are no longer capable hitting the notes they did in their youth.  They try, and fail, and it’s not pretty.  This is mostly a 70’s and 80’s rockstar thing, but the lesson applies to all us older folk.  When Ian Anderson (of Jethro Tull fame) toured “Thick as a Brick II” recently, he had the good sense to bring on board a young man to sing the parts that the 70-yo Anderson could no longer manage.

Respect for the audience, people.  They are giving you something they can never get back.

Another aside.

Alcohol.  It’s not good for the throat.  But if you use it, know your limits.  Know the venue.  Don’t be stupid and make us all look bad, ok?

Seven Deadly Bardic Sins – Part 2

2. Unpreparedness

This is perhaps worse than Apologizing, especially if you didn’t warn the audience that you’re not ready to be up in front of people.

You have to practice, people, and if you care about your performance (or the gift of time and attention that your audience is giving you), practice WAY WAY more than you think you need to.

Have you ever seen a performance that looks effortless?  It isn’t.  It’s just that the effort all happened BEFORE the public performance.

Here’s the good news – this isn’t about talent.  It’s about time on task.  Repetitions.  Muscle memory – but using muscles you might not have thought of as muscles.
My son is a drummer.  In high school he participated in competitive marching percussion ensembles. He was seriously into serious practice.  After one weekend practice he told me joyfully, “Dad, it was soooo cool!  We spent FOUR HOURS doing paradiddles!”  (A paradiddle is a *very, VERY* basic drum rudiment – left, right, left, right….  Imagine a basketball team spending four hours practicing putting on their socks.)  He understood the value of focusing on fundamentals – as did his coaches.

Here’s the payoff – in costume, wearing 40 lbs worth of drums kit, on the field with the judges watching, dancing backwards and sideways playing insane rhythms on six drums at 128 bpm in unison with three other players and in concert with 25 other drum and brass players, he didn’t have to think about which stick height produced forte versus fortissimo.  He could focus on performing, not merely playing the notes.  His corps placed in the top ten globally.

My old martial arts instructor made us spend hours practicing just breathing.  Then we practiced walking – while breathing.  A few weeks later we moved on to a basic punch, which we repeated God knows how many times before doing anything else.  But the result was that we didn’t need to think about breathing correctly, or keeping our balance centered while moving, or throwing a simple punch.  We’d done those basic things so many times that we didn’t need to think about it.  It just happened.

In the world of education and training, this is referred to as “automaticity.”

The most complex task that human beings routinely perform is landing a 20-ton jet at 200 mph on a moving ship – and being able to do so when low on fuel, exhausted from a 20-hour mission, in bad weather, in a damaged airplane.  U.S. Naval Aviators do this every day as a matter of course.

How?  Incessant, relentless, unstinting PRACTICE.

The secret is to get the individual sub-tasks down cold.  The basics – flying the plane, managing the systems, communicating on the radio – become not just routine but completely automatic. The pilot doesn’t have to think about those things; they just happen.  The drummer doesn’t have to think about stick height or angle – it just happens.  The martial artist doesn’t think about breathing.

The muscles (actually, the parts of the brain that control those muscles) have learned to perform those tasks automatically.

Think back to when you learned to drive.  At first, just controlling the vehicle was a challenge – how much pressure on the gas or brake, how far to turn the wheel.  But eventually, those things became automatic and you could turn your attention to traffic and route planning.  On the daily commute, those become automatic as well, and you find yourself thinking about other things (or in my case, rehearsing repertoire).

What does that have to do with bardic performance?  The diaphragm, throat, jaw, tongue, and lips are all muscles.  They all have to work together to produce the effect you want.  That means that you need to PRACTICE USING THEM.

So repeat that tricky line a dozen times (or or a hundred) to get your mouth muscles used to saying those sounds in that order.  Sing that tricky passage over and over and over again until your diaphragm and vocal chords can nail the pitch changes, every time.  Make that fingering change or play that passage in super-slow motion over and over until you can do it with your eyes closed, and only then start to bring it up to performance tempo.

Before you perform a piece in public you should have run it through in private so many times that you are quite literally sick of hearing it. (Beware of being totally on autopilot, though – see previous post.)

Remember that you are asking your audience to give you something that they can never get back – their time and attention in this moment.  Make it worth their while by giving your performance adequate preparation.  And by “adequate,” I mean, “way more than you think it needs.”

At this point, new folks may be in panic and despair.  (I would have been!)  Relax. Remember that the SCA audience is a friendly and forgiving bunch.  People are NOT going to throw things at you if you make a small flub.  I’ve seen very experienced performers goof up.  I’ve done it myself, LOTS of times.  (Most of the times, though, I was the only one who noticed.  See previous post.)

You can find (or create!) venues that I call “Bardic Safe Zones.”  Places where it’s perfectly safe to try something new.  Where it’s safe to crash and burn.  It’s one thing to perform for your cat, or dog, and  sink full of dishes, or a windshield.  Having live people looking at you?  That’s something else.  So find or create a space where you’re among people who know you and  support you, and use that venue to work out the bugs and build your confidence.

And when you walk out in front of the populace waiting for court to start (a “pre-court show” is starting to become a thing, at least in the Midrealm), or just step out in front of the campfire, you can channel your inner Freddie Mercury and know that you’re as ready as you can be!

And speaking of Freddie… Well, that’s in the next installment.

Seven Deadly Bardic Sins – Part 1

The Seven Deadly Sins are a classic list of behaviors one is cautioned to avoid in order to lead a virtuous life.  Some of them are harmful to others (Wrath, Lust, Greed) while others are harmful to yourself (Gluttony, Sloth, Envy, Pride).

There are bardic equivalents to these – behaviors that you should avoid as a performer.  As with the original list, some hurt you in the eyes of your audience.  Others, while not strictly harmful to others, are certainly disrespectful of your audience.  And yes, I’ve committed most of them over the past few decades, so I think I speak with some authority.  In no particular order, they are:

Apologizing, Unpreparedness, Overreach, Staleness, Inappropriateness, Pride, and Timidity

In this series I will return many times to the fact that an audience is giving a performer their time and attention – something that is ephemeral and happening in the moment – and which they can’t get back. I am indebted to Lady Ursula Mortimer for pointing that out.  I’m truly blessed to have such wise friends.

1. Apologizing

“Um, this is the first time that I’ve done this, so I probably won’t be very good.”

This makes me want to scream.  (I have, in fact, shouted “DON’T APOLOGIZE!” at performers.)

Your audience has just agreed to give you a chunk of their life that they can’t get back.  And you start out by telling them that they’ve made a mistake and should probably be doing something else?  Are you NUTS?  That’s like starting a garden by working in salt rather than fertilizer!

SCA audiences know that everyone else in the room is an amateur – we do what we do for the love of doing it.  We don’t expect a Queen-at-Wembly* performance. We DO expect to hear people who are excited to have learned something and are eager to share it. We’re more than willing to extend simple courtesy and a generous measure of forgiveness for errors. (There are limits, though.  We’ll cover that in a future post.)

But when you start by telling everyone how bad you are, you do NOT sow sympathy in advance. Instead, you prime the audience to watch for your mistakes.




There are two and ONLY two scenarios where you should apologize.  One is if you totally misjudge the audience and venue, and perform something that’s completely inappropriate, such as a blatantly bawdy song with children present. (I’ve seen that happen, despite performers being advised of the presence of kids.  Not A Good Thing.)

The other situation is if you totally lose it during the performance.  That’s happened to me.  At a RenFair years ago I was in the middle of a long ballad in the key of G, and totally on autopilot. (A RenFair gig consists of doing the same ten songs over and over and over and over and…  it’s really easy to go on autopilot.) I played through the three-chord turnaround at the end of the chorus, and suddenly realized that I had no idea what came next.  Not only did I not know which verse was next, I didn’t know which song I was singing!  I stopped dead cold – what else could I do?  There was nothing to do but own up to it.  We all had a good laugh (at my expense), and I picked up and started over with something different.

Note that I did NOT include the situation where you make a small error during the performance, recover smoothly, and continue.  When that happens (not if, but when – rest assured that at some point you’ll forget a verse or flub a chord change), DON’T STOP AND APOLOGIZE!  95 times out of 100, no one will notice but you (and anyone who does notice probably won’t say anything, because we’re all amateurs here).  So don’t call attention to the error!

If you KNOW that you’re NOT ready to perform, THEN DON’T PERFORM!  Go practice some more, or find or create a “bardic safe zone” to practice new material or technique.  But don’t EVER stand up and tell the audience how bad you’re going to be before you even start!  If you’re as ready as you can be (see next post), then take a deep breath, square your shoulders, expect the best, and GO DO IT!

*Queen’s 1986 concert at Wembley in is widely considered to be the finest live rock and roll performance of all time.  I have it on DVD and I have to put it in at least the top five.  If nothing else, Freddie Mercury’s playing to a HUGE audience (~80,000) is nothing short of masterful. Freddie NEVER apologized.