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.

Writing

  • 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

Performing

  • 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.)

Teaching

  • 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

Other

  • 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 creativecommons.org)
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