Seven Deadly Bardic Sins – Part 2

by brendanthebard

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.