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So, it’s been a while…

Has it really been almost two years since I posted anything?  Wow.  Reading through what’s here, though, I’m sort of reassured.  I wouldn’t change anything apart from fixing a couple of typos.  The Seven Bardic Deadly Sins are still the same, as are the remedies.

Not long after I posted that series, someone said that they should be countered with “The Seven Bardic Virtues.”  According to Wikipedia, the early Church combined the four classical cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, temperance, courage with the three theological virtues of faith, hope and charity.

What might the bardic analogs to those be?  Hmmm.   This is just a short musing; I might explore these in more depth later.

Prudence

This is sort of the opposite of Inappropriateness.  Knowing your audience and performing something that’s appropriate – or choosing not to perform at all.

Justice

Justice is generally thought of as setting things right (especially when they have gone wrong), or at the very least making sure that miscreants get their comeuppance.

That first definition?  That should be easy – word-fame!  Tell the story or write a song about that Wonderful Thing You Saw.  Even better if it’s something that DIDN’T happen on the battlefield or list!  When was the last time you heard a song about a fabulous feast and the hardworking kitchen crew?

The second definition brings to mind the bardic WMD of satire.  I’ve written exactly three satires in my career.

One was a reaction to a long-ago Pennsic that had gone very, very badly.  People were injured, apparently deliberately.  I posted the poem to the Rialto (I did say it was long ago) and a duke of the kingdom at which it was aimed got really mad.  The bardic community had my back though, and essentially told him, “Your Grace, if the shoe fits, wear it.  That’s what bards are supposed to do.”  Interestingly, I can’t find a copy of it anywhere.  The second was about a young squire who messed up Big Time.  His knight made him learn the song.  The third was a reaction to some really dumb event rules.

Temperance

“Everything to excess!  Moderation is for monks!”  “Moderation in all things – especially moderation!”  Cute t-shirt slogans.  Not a great way to live, not if you want people to invite you back.  I was That Guy for a long time.  Don’t be That Guy.

Courage

This is the opposite of Timidity.  Performing is scary for a lot of people.  Really scary.   But if you’re going to perform, you need to “screw your courage to the sticking place.”

Faith

Believe.  Believe in yourself, most of all.  Believe that by performing, you’ll be adding to someone else’s experience.  And rehearse like crazy so that you know you are.

Hope

Hope isn’t wishful thinking, or leaving cookies out for Santa.  Hope is simply expecting the best outcome.  (Hint: When you’re well-prepared and know your venue, this comes easy!)

Charity

Be kind.  Be kind to yourself, to your audience, and especially to other performers.

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Competitions and Other Places*

Venues and Values

In the Seven Deadly Bardic Sins series I used the phrase “Bardic Safe Zone” quite a bit.  A BSZ is designed to be a low-stress performance venue where you’re not being judged, nothing is at stake, and the audience is very supportive and non-judgemental, appreciating that you have the guts to get up in front of people and perform at all.

The other end of the bardic-venue spectrum is probably the Bardic Competition (dum dum dummm….).  

Competitions

My relationship with competitions is, as Facebook might say, complicated.  Back in my youth I entered pretty much every one that I could – and in central Ansteorra in the 1980s, that was a lot.  There might well have been as many competitions as there were round-robin circles and free-wheeling post-revels.  It seemed that every barony and shire had to have a bardic champion.  

I won my share of them.  In ASXX I was the champion of both Bryn Gwlad (Austin) and Stargate (Houston).  I never did win the Kingdom championship, though.  I served a term as the Principal of the Queen’s College of Bards, but I never won the coveted title of Premier Bard of Ansteorra.**  (I did eventually win the title of Midrealm Queen’s Bard, with a story that I cooked up literally overnight three days before the competition.  That’s another tale, though.)

Competition produces stress.  Some of it can be good stress (inspiring you to do your best).  Some of it can be bad stress (feeling that you’re not good enough, or that you have to be better than everyone else).  And even good stress is still stress.  People under stress act a little different than they do otherwise.  

Me, when I enter a bardic competition, I’m in it to win it.  I’ll pull out all the stops.  I’ll pander shamelessly to the judges – they’re the only audience that matters, right?  I’ll typically have several pieces polished and ready to go, depending on what the other performers are doing, because my goal is to be better than them.  

Frankly, it’s not a real nice part of my personality that comes out in competitions, which is why I don’t enter them much anymore.  I don’t  much like the version of me that takes the stage in competition. I might turn in a top-shelf performance, but I don’t necessarily feel really good about it afterward.

But that’s me.  There’s no question that competitions are an excellent venue for up-and-coming performers to get noticed, especially outside their local area.   

They’re not the only venues, though.  I’m a big fan of encouraging non-competitive performance venues.  Let’s talk about some of those.

Circles

There are many different ways to structure a bardic circle.  Themed or not.  Pick-pass-play.  Pass the token.  Popcorn (whoever wants to go next, goes next).  And others.  Circles can be Bardic Safe Zones.  Low-key, folks who know each other, with an express purpose of trying new stuff or encouraging new performers.

But circles aren’t always BSZs.

Even in an informal setting, it can be very intimidating to a new performer to follow a Really Good Performance. (Hint: don’t be Timid!) Heck, it can be intimidating to an old hand!  Case in point: A couple of years ago at Pennsic I was sitting in a circle next to my old friend Owen Alun from Northshield. He did one of his signature pieces (Thorvaldsaga, aka Treefoot), and across the circle I saw Cariadoc – Cariadoc! – leaning forward on the edge of his seat.  I had to follow that?!?  No pressure…

Tips for performing a Circle.  #1 Shut Up and Listen for a Bit.  I totally violated this just a few months ago at Bardic Roundhouse.  I moved from the mostly-instrumental Jam Session to the not-mostly-instrumental Bardic Circle and, stupidly assuming that it was a free-for-all, got my Pride all wound up and said, “Ok, I’m here!  What do y’all want to hear?”  (In my meagre defense, when I walked in the group was in one of those talk-among-yourselves phases and it was not at all clear who if anyone was Up Next.) Fortunately, I was among good friends who gently informed me that Someone Else was Up Next.  Pass the humble pie, please.

Busking

Busking is simply picking a spot out in public, setting out a hat for tips, and performing.  Street performance.  I busked at the Texas RenFest for nearly a decade, and fed myself through grad school by leading beery singalongs of classic folk/rock favorites at the local watering hole.

When busking, especially in SCA contexts, be aware of your audible radius.  Set limits.  Share the stage: work out who-plays-where-when with other performers.  If you’re playing near merchants, don’t EVER interfere with sales.  Don’t outstay your welcome.

If you set out a hat to get tips, you really should be well-Prepared, not just noodling around.  You’re not just asking for your audience’s attention, but their coin as well, and all the rules of non-BSZ venue and performance apply.  

And play by the rules: don’t take tips for doing songs under current copyright (e.g., written in the last hundred years) that you don’t have permission from the artist to perform for money.

Feasts 

Frankly, feasts are a terrible performance venue.  People are there to eat and chat with friends.  Acoustically, the room is generally either very live (amplifies the slightest sound) or very dead (kills sound).  Either way you generally can’t be heard from one end of the table to the next, much less across the hall. Ever notice how often people are nearly shouting at each other across the table just to be heard?  

You absolutely do NOT want to be the person who says (in effect), “SHUT UP THIS IS ENTERTAINMENT.”  (If the Crown or Coronet says it, then I hope you are Prepared and can deliver on their promise!)

Other than that, If asked to perform at a feast, you might consider these options:

  1. Politely decline.
  2. Play background instrumental music (harpists who can noodle / improvise, or instrumental consorts with a decent repertoire have this totally sussed)
  3. Work individual tables, doing your best to command attention and be heard eight feet away.
  4. Do the wandering minstrel bit, not really caring if anyone is really listening.  You’re part of the hall decoration, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be subtle and clever.  Do “Rise/Baker’s Edition” while people are setting up and filling up on the bread on the table, “Greensleeves” for the salad course, etc.  (Do NOT do the Mousse Song for dessert unless all the children have left the hall!)

    or….

  5. Leeeetle tiiiiny tuuuube nooodles!  Emcee the feast, and make it memorable.  

    Many years ago, there was an Italian feast at a big event (Midrealm Crown?) in Nordskogen, Northshield (Minneapolis, Minnesota).  

    You must understand that this part of the country was settled by the descendants of Vikings, and the local SCA has, shall we say, a distinct and authentic Scandinavian flavor. Lutefisk (think fish Jello) was actually served at a revel.   “Racial integration” means Norwegians, Swedes, Danes, and Finns living in harmony.  You’ve seen the movie “Fargo”?  That’s NOT made-up dialog.  Yah, shore, youbetcha, dey really do talk dat vey up dere, don’t’cha know, dere hey.  They understand what Sesame Street’s Swedish Chef is saying. When I moved to Minnesota I was given a copy of the book, “How to Talk Minnesotan.”  It proved VERY useful.

    And an Italian feast was served.  

    Somehow, Baron Lewys Blackmore and I were roped into announcing the feast.  And somehow, we hit on the following idea:  Lewys, being a worldly, um. ah, “gentleman adventurer of the high seas” (who never sails without letters of marque, even if he has to pay a scribe to produce them), would announce each dish in proper (that is, floridly over-the-top) Italian…ish.  I, being a low-born fellow of Irish-Norse background, would “translate” into the local Scandihoovian dialect.

    So, “Siiiiigniores e Signorinas!  Aaa prrriiimo!  La ensalaaaada grrraaande e vvverrrrte con aoiio rrrobuuustooo!” became, “Vell, now, to start vit, vee got cha a green salad. But hit’s not de lime Yello salad you’re yoosed to in yoor Lut’ran church basement, don’t’cha’know.  Hit’s all plant leaves and stoff like dat, but choo can actually eat dem.  Ant on de side dere’s dis dressink stoff, vich might be a leetle bit spicy fer yer taste, so don’t joost slater it on, dere hey.”

    And so it went.  Totally improv, for all that’s worth. We just played off each other.  At some point I announced a pasta dish as “Leeeetle tiiiiny tuuuube nooodles!” People were in stitches. It was great fun.

    Flash forward FIFTEEN YEARS.  

    I’m cleaning up the kitchen after an event with a local knight in my new baronial home hundreds of miles away at the far end of the old Midrealm. I recount the story of that feast, just to make chat while we’re swabbing and sweeping.  He exclaims, “THAT WAS YOU!?!?! We were laughing all the way to Cleveland!  I complained that my arms were sore, and so-and-so said, ‘Yoost poot some leeeetle tiiiiny tuuuube nooodles on eet!’”  

Ubiquitous Bardic

Just do it.  A few examples:

Feast-kitchen sing-alongs, washing dishes.  If you can convince some hunky young squires to join you (and especially if they take off their shirts) you just might get a service award.  It’s been known to happen.  

Wandering an event site with a basket of goods for sale, singing short “hawking” ditties set to period tunes. E.g., To Greensleves: “Come buy my confits, very nice / Your fetid breath they will freshen. / I’ve anise, ginger and cinnamon / Your loneliness they will lessen.”  (Good advertising gets your attention!)

Sing on the way to a battle.  Some kingdoms are really good at this (Calontir, Northshield) but households can do it, too.  Or just gather your courage and start solo. You never know who might join in.

Sing during a melee!  Kari was belting out a song in the midst of a Pennsic field battle when a spearman nailed him.  The spearman’s shieldman hollered, “You idiot!  Why’d you kill him?  I was enjoying that song!”  

Be atmosphere.  Sing or play in your pavilion or under a tree, with no expectation of audience.  Let the music float out and help make the magic happen for others.  Even if you’re just noodling around, it adds to the event.

Just.

Do.

It.

Addenda

* Yes, I know that the line is really, “Competition (singular) IN other places.”  “Sultans of Swing” by Dire Straits is not only one of the best songs in the usually-whiney “Life as a rock star is SO HARD” genre (e.g. Rush’s “Limelight” and Bob Seeger’s “Turn the Page”), but also features some of the tastiest guitar work ever recorded.
**Years ago or so I made it to Pennsic and visited the Ansteorran camp.  An old friend spotted me and grabbed me by the arm.  “Brendan!” he said.  “There’s someone you have to meet!”  He dragged me through the camp to a tent and called inside.  “Lady so-and-so?  (I’m sorry, I really don’t recall her name.) You have a visitor!”  I was, to say the least, puzzled as a young woman emerged and looked around uncertainly.  She looked at me and her face took on that, “You look vaguely familiar…” expression.   

An aside-within-an aside: Around/about ASXX I had recorded a cassette tape on my kitchen table with a cheap four-track recorder.  The cover “art” was a digitized version of a photo of me at TYC that had been published in an issue of TI after the event.  I sold perhaps a dozen copies of that tape.

Back to Pennsic:  My friend flourished, “Lady So-and-so, may I present Lord Brendan O Corraidhe.  Lord Brendan, Lady So-and-so.”  I offered my hand and said something polite.  Her eyebrows shot up.  “THE Lord Brendan?  The one who recorded ‘Favorite Songs of Ansteorra?’”  

I stammered, “Um, yeah… that was me.”  The lady gushed, “That tape is the REASON I got into the bardic arts!  Thank you SO much!”  I stammered my thanks.

Then my friend dropped the mic:  “Lord Brendan, may I present the Premier Bard of Ansteorra!”  

I truly don’t remember anything after that. “Gobsmacked” is the appropriate term.

(My pride was later tempered somewhat when I recalled that Jimi Hendrix had said that he decided that he could get away with singing when he heard a Bob Dylan record.)

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!

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)

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.

NEVER, EVER BEGIN A PERFORMANCE BY APOLOGIZING FOR ANYTHING.

NEVER.

EVER.

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.

Just do it.

Saw a Facebook post about Integrity being Doing What’s Right Regardless Of The Opinion Of The Masses.

Yeah, true, but it’s not just that.  Integrity is sometimes just doing what you said you were going to do, even if it is merely a relatively minor inconvenience. This isn’t rocket science. It’s just follow-through. (I learned that from my Dad.)

Not very long ago, someone asked me to Do A Thing. It was a Thing that I knew that I Could Do, and so I agreed to Do The Thing. (Pro Tip: DO NOT agree to Do A Thing that you do not KNOW that you Can Do. It puts the person who then depends on you to Do The Thing in a bad spot. See Delegation, below)

Then (as is often the case) Life Happened and I pretty-much-completely forgot about It.

I was (luckily, and in time) some time later Reminded About That Thing I Had Agreed to Do. For a brief moment I panicked. Then I quickly took mental stock of the resources available to me. (Having a supply of Available Resources is a Very Good Thing, especially when said resources are Talented People and the Thing really needs Talented People.)

I then did some Fast Communicating, some More Communicating, and some Driving and Running-Around-To-Be-Sure-I-Talked-To-Folks-F2F. (Pro tip: Communication skills are Really Really Reeeaaaly Useful !!!)

And so I got The Thing pretty well set up (and contingencies covered; see below) in happily short order. (It hasn’t actually happened yet, though. I’ll keep ya posted.)

Very recently, the person who had originally asked me to Do The Thing checked in to see how Things Were Going With The Plans.

<aside>
(Pro tip: When you delegate Things To Do, even to someone you Trust Almost Completely, check in with plenty of lead time / PANIC MODE TIME to re-delegate in case things Go Boink. Life happens, dude. Cars spin out in front of you. Hospitalizations happen. Tornadoes. Etc. Old Russian proverb I learned from Ronald Reagan back in the 1980’s: “Doverai no proverai.” IOW, “Trust but verify.”

If you delegate, Know This if nothing else. And if you are Delegated To, don’t object when you’re checked up on! I was very happy last year when a feast steward (who’d asked me to slice and pepper some pork roasts) checked to make sure they were sliced and peppered properly. It showed me that he cared. I LIKE to work for people who care!)
</aside>

I was (very happily!) able to report that I had Talented People Resources X, Y, and Z lined up to do This, That, and The Other Thing, with Contingencies A and B covered This Way and That Way.

(Contingency C is Me Making It Up On The Spur Of The Moment, which is why I suspect I was asked to Do The Thing in the first place, because I Can In Fact frikkinmakeituponthefrikkinspurofthemoment if I have to, and have years of experience doing Exactly That. Contingency D is Muppet Arms All Around, and ALL plans are out the window.)

Bottom line: We’re good (or as good as we can know before the event).
Her response: “You are awesome!”

My reply: “I just have a fairly high standard for competence.”

She: “That’s what makes you awesome!”
Gawrsh…. *digs toe in dirt*

I’m grateful for the praise, but….

Frankly. I wish that doing-what-you-said you-were-gonna-do wasn’t seen as exceptional.

*Charlie Brown sigh*