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Month: June, 2015

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!

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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.

Seven Deadly Bardic Sins – Part 5

5. Inappropriateness

The Clue Bus.  Is it in your neighborhood?  Would you recognize it?  Can you haul your sorry, soggy self  on board (see “Another Aside” in #3)?  You might need to.

I have shut down a performer exactly ONCE.
Some years ago I hosted a bardic circle at a big event.  The format was “Who’s next?” and  the mood of the moment was very much the most noble aspects of the Society.  We were celebrating those things that set the SCA apart from other social groups, and it was way too early for rowdy and bawdy.

And then some fellow seemingly well into his cups lit into a piece called, “The Night of the King’s Castration” (It may have been the only thing he knew – see above.)

If you’ve been fortunate enough to have never heard this thing, it’s a double-plus-awful poem (in “dogtrot” meter no less) stuffed with really bad, very obscene puns.  Now, I like puns.  I like facepalmingly-bad puns.  I appreciate well-done double-entendres.  I even appreciate kennings (so long as they’re not so obscure that I don’t get them.)

IOW, I’m a big fan of clever wordplay. But gutter-ball-just-flat-out-vulgar, not so much.  And this poor clueless sot went there.  I stopped him.  Cut him off.  Shut him down, HARD.  “My lord, excuse me, but NO.”  I have no regrets about that. Never have.

More recently, a fellow (also rather deep in his cups) performed a piece that was clearly not appropriate for children, *after* performers had been reminded that A) it was still relatively early in the evening and B) children were in fact present.  People were clearly discomfited.  Why didn’t i step up and stop him?   A) It wasn’t my circle and B) the story appeared to be sailing over the heads of the children present (I could see their faces, and they seemed attentive but uncomprehending, their faces blank.  The story featured phrases such as “covered in whale spooge” rather than blatant Anglo-Saxonisms.)

I was up after him, and so I did something deliberately kid-friendly, taking pains to draw the children in with eye contact, body language, etc..  My intent was to provide some brain-bleach to counter the content to which they’d just been exposed.

“Why all this eagerness to shut down performers you don’t like, Brendan?  Who appointed you as Moral Arbiter of Bardic Circles?”  A fair question.  It’s simple:  I’m a parent.  Next question?  Now then, when there are no kids around (and the venue is right, e.g. the Knotty Dragon tavern at Northern Oaken War Maneuvers), I’ll happily belt out “The Lusty Young Smith” and invite the audience to jingle-bang along.

Performing something that’s glaringly bawdy when children are present is probably the most egregious example of this Bardic Deadly Sin.  (An aside – while “Bardic Deadly Sins” is mostly a convenient construct for discussing unforced errors, this one has the potential to be REALLY bad.  Imagine a newcomer, having been assured that the SCA is “family friendly,” bringing her 13 yo daughter to a circle where someone launches into the The Moose Song.  Think they’ll come back?)

But there are other ways to be inappropriate.

Throwing something silly and light into a mood that’s heroic and epic will get you the stink-eye.  Likewise, injecting a tragic piece into a raucous party will certainly earn you no friends.  And piling sad upon on sad can be bad as well.  (As Master Owen Alun puts it, “Going from ‘ose’ to ‘more-ose’.”)  Two “Calontiri love songs” in a row is okay.  Three is too much.

The lesson here is that it’s A Good Thing to have some depth to your repertoire.  (See previous post.)

An experienced bard can sense the mood of the venue and go with the flow, understanding that sometimes a change in direction is exactly what’s needed.  There is no science to this, no formula.  It takes experience and judgement.  I can offer no advice other than to go to a lot of bardic circles and observe.  As Yogi Berra said, “You can observe a lot just by watching.”

Someone once asked Andrew Carnegie (one of the most successful businessmen of the 20th century) how he learned to make good decisions.  “Experience,” he replied.  “But how do you get experience?” the questioner persisted.  Carnegie replied, “You get experience by making bad decisions.”

Bad decisions.  I’m a private pilot (and you thought the SCA was an expensive hobby….)  Bad decisions in *that* arena can make you – and others – very seriously dead.  So pilots tend to be avid readers of accident reports.  Not because we’re morbid, but because we Really Don’t Want To Be That Guy.  The guy who ran out of fuel over the mountains for lack of planning.  Who tried to take off from a too-short runway, or in an overloaded plane.  Who skipped the preflight inspection and missed the loose nut on a control surface.

No one’s gonna die if you sing the Moose Song to preschoolers.  But poor decisions have consequences nonetheless, which is why I’m writing this series.

As I said up front, I’ve been That Guy.

Read.  Learn.  Be better than me.

Seven Deadly Bardic Sins – Part 4

4. Staleness

Don’t just do the same few pieces over and over and over.  Learn something new.  Isn’t that what we’re all about anyway – learning new stuff?

Confession:  In one of my old shire newsletters from the early 1980s there’s a cartoon.  A character is looking up at a distinctive round-backed guitar sailing overhead (I still play that old red Ovation) and saying, “Looks like Brendan is playing Jethro Tull again.”

(In fairness, we didn’t have YouTube.  Heck, we didn’t even have the Web.  If you wanted to search the Internet, you used Gopher or Archie – text only, and you had to know what you were looking for and where it was stored.  Most of us did a lot of Steeleye Span, Silly Wizard, Pentangle, and Peter Paul & Mary, because that was what we had access to.)

Yes, learning new repertoire takes significant time and effort.  But you really don’t want to get tagged as a one-trick pony.  You don’t want people to wince (or worse, walk out) when you step up to perform.  (“Oh, dear gods, it’s Lord Blech.  I’ll *die* if I have to hear That Song again.”)

So stretch.  Try different forms.  If you’re a singer, try reciting poetry (think of it as lyrics without music) or telling a story (might be really hanging it out).  If you’re a poet, try singing (a poem with a tune, if you can carry it, and some people just can’t, and that’s ok.)  Or try telling a story (think of it as free verse).  If you’re a storyteller, try reciting poetry (think of it as plot and characters, with more structure to the words) or singing (ok, adding music *and* rigid structure might be be really hard for some people.)

JUST TRY SOMETHING NEW.  (See “Bardic Safe Zone” in previous posts).

If you’re just not able to add genres – some people truly *cannot* sing – then just add to your repertoire in your “home” genre.  Learn a new story.  Write a new poem.  Learn a new song.  Stretch.  Grow.

It helps you avoid… (see next post)