Seven Deadly Bardic Sins – Part 3

by brendanthebard

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?

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