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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.




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.

(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!)

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*

Making and Sharing

My day job is as an Instructional Designer in the Learning Technologies division of a community college. We’re in the Rust Belt, in a suburban county with a LOT of small-to-medium manufacturing firms.  Among other things, this means I get paid to keep up with Cool New Stuff as it might relate to our mission of preparing our students to enter the 21st century workforce.

3D printing and the whole “Maker Community” concept is clearly Becoming A Thing, so lately I’ve been reading up on it. (I got a low-end 3D printer a couple of years ago as part of a grant, with the proviso that we “play with it see how it might be useful in the classroom.”  That apparently has made me the campus expert in 3D printing.) I’ve also visited some local public-access makerspaces.

The thing that gets me is that people are all jazzed about the Big Idea of Making and Sharing as though it was something new and revolutionary.  A couple of recently-published books go on at length about the incredible value of creating things, finding out what you need to know to get the job done, sharing with others what you learn, and how that creates community and growth and and and…

I quite literally shook my head as I read this, because for DECADES I’ve been surrounded by people who do EXACTLY this – and don’t think twice about it. “Learn-Make-Share” describes the SCA’s Arts and Sciences (A&S) community to a T.  It is What We Do, and How We Do It, and it’s been that way for as long as I’ve been around the group.

My old friend Lewys Blackmore recently posted this (reproduced with permission):

“I was asked recently what skills I had in making things to which I responded with this abbreviated list:  [LONG list of skills that reads like the table of contents of Theophilus, plus some.]

The important question is why?

I was taught first, to be curious, and second to do whatever I did to the best of my ability, no matter what. But the underlying factor was a compulsion to make, to do, to act. …

But more important than all of this is my earnest desire to help others acquire the skills and knowledge to make, to do, and to act. …  If I don’t know, I most certainly know someone who does.

Because … simply as a human being, it is the natural culmination of our existence to create.”

That’s the “maker culture” in a nutshell.  I don’t know whether to be amazed, amused, or deeply saddened that this combination of ethos and praxis is thought to be something new and revolutionary.  OK, so Modern Makers are creating things that have never existed before, using tools that didn’t exist ten years ago, while SCA artisans are re-creating ancient artifacts using ancient tools and methods.  But the only differences are the tools and desired output.  The mindset – I want to make this thing, so I need to learn how to use these tools, and I can learn from someone who has recently learned about them and is willing to teach – that mindset is EXACTLY the same!

I suppose that it’s just another proof of the truth of, “Plus ςa change, plus c’est la meme chose” – “The more that things change, the more they stay the same.”


At the recent Known World Cooks and Bards event, there were quite a few conversations about what I call the philosophy of the performing arts:  Why do we do this bardic thing?

I can’t speak for anyone but me, so I’ll put it this way:  Why do I do this bardic thing?

I mean, really.  Think about it:  I dress up in clothes that have been out of fashion for centuries, and tell stories, sing songs, and recite poetry for other people who are also wearing clothes that are centuries out of date.  What a strange thing to do!  And I’ve been doing it for quite literally decades.  Why?  It’s a reasonable question.

The answer, as with most things in my life, is a) somewhat complicated, and b) at the heart, really about serving others.

Let’s start with the funny clothes.  In case it’s not glaringly obvious, I’m a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism. Funny clothes are part and parcel of that experience.  The role I’ve carved out for myself is that of an early-period Irishman.  There’s been a fair amount of scholarship about what the early Irish wore – and it turns out that some things I thought were the case back when I got started are no longer valid.  Bottom line, I need to / get to learn some new things about my choice of historical clothing, and I need to / get to make some new kit, which will probably involve hand-sewing linen.  Because why not go the extra mile and enjoy knowing that my leine is as authentic and accurate as I could make it?

Then there’s the performing piece.  It’s said that most people are less afraid of dying than they are of public speaking.  Personally, I’ve never had a problem with stage fright unless I was unprepared.  (Years ago I got asked to be the opening act for a pretty well-known musician, and I was worried that I’d freeze up in front of a crowd of several hundred.  Didn’t happen.)

Anyway, aren’t performers all egocentric narcissists whose sense of self-worth is really microscopic, requiring them to constantly seek the limelight and the approval of others?

Sorry.  It’s not about the applause. (Although applause is very nice, don’t get me wrong.)  Most of what I do is for the sheer pleasure of making something lovely.  I enjoy making music, just because I can.  Most of my playing is for an audience of zero.  I get happy when I learn a new piece, or add an embellishment to an old standard.  Sometimes I’ll sing a song simply because I want to hear it.

Stories and poetry are a little different.  I don’t tell stories or recite poetry to myself unless I’m rehearsing. Why do I tell them to others?  A big motivation is that I get to make their world a bit better.  I entertain, sometimes educate, but again, it’s because I can.   Two cases in point:

Siverthorn’s Blue Fighting-tunic was an exercise in silliness.  From a one-line email (“I left my blue fighting tunic at practice.  Did anyone pick it up?”) I concocted a wild fantasy out of whole cloth (pardon the pun), and wrapped it in an entertaining package – just because I could.

In contrast, The Legacy of the Northshield Coronet was meant to inspire.  It was designed to remind not just the new Prince and Princess, but the populace as a whole, that this place we called home was special.  Northshield became a real place in large part thanks to Owen, Wyndreth, Chandler, and others whose stories, songs and poems made people realize that they live in a very special place – and that what makes it special is the people who live there.   The poem was based on an idea that my old friend Owen had been saying for years:  Fine words well spoken do not of themselves make an event important.  They simply force you to slow down so that you can realize that the event *is* important.   This event – the first Coronetting ceremony of a new Principality – was important.  It wanted some words to remind folks of that, and to remind them that they were part of it.  And so I wrote and performed them, because I could.

For the same reason, I’m writing a long poem about the history of Oathbinder, the Midrealm sword of state – and doing it in the style of the Chanson d’Roland.  It’s certainly not easy – that’s a challenging form in English – but it’s something that I can do, even if it stretches me.  And in being stretched, I learn and grow, and that’s A Very Good Thing.  And it’s not about me – when people understand that Oathbinder is no mere stage prop, but that it has a story, well, doesn’t that add a certain “something extra” to the oath taken upon it?  “Now I am part of This Great Thing.”  I can tell that story.

It’s the same reason I wash dishes at feasts.   It needs to be done, and I can do it.   Ok, so maybe washing dishes is a little more necessary than telling stories, singing songs, or writing poetry in archaic formats?   Maybe.  But washing dishes correctly just means that folks won’t get sick the next time a meal is cooked and served with them.

Stories, songs and poetry create reality and invite people into it.

This past weekend I was surrounded by people who do that.  And I can do it, too.  Wow.

That Guy*

*Male pronouns are here used in a gender-neutral sense.

That Guy.

You know him.  I know him.  Heck, some days I still see him in the mirror.  Back in the day, I used to see him in the mirror pretty much every day.  Funny thing, though – I didn’t recognize him at the time.

I’m sure others did.  But no one told me.  No one took me aside and said, “Hey, kid.  You’ve got some talent, and it’s clear to everyone that you’re well aware of the fact.  In other words, you come across like a pompous, egotistical jerk.  I just thought you should know.  Wanna talk?”

I really wish someone had.

But it takes a lot of … something (love, maybe?) to approach someone who is as totally self-involved as I was and say, “Dude.  We need to talk.”

An old mentor of mine used to say, “The first step of any procedure is to decide to use the procedure.”

Is it worth doing anything at all?   If the experience of people who’ve dealt with substance-abuse interventions is any guide, things may not go swimmingly.  The person who needs to hear the message is often not in a good place to hear the message. (There are a BUNCH of Bible verses that say exactly that.)

You’re certainly taking a risk by saying something to That Guy.  They could blow up on you.  But you’re also taking a risk by saying nothing, especially if you’re in a position to do something *koff Peers? koff*.  Because That Guy could blow up on everybody else and cause a lot of collateral damage.

So you have to ask yourself: What’s the risk?  What’s the potential upside of saying something? The downside?

And NO, it is NOT a horrible thing to think in those terms!  This is essentially a *parenting* task, folks. Every decent parent understands that you pick your battles – especially with adolescents, and That Guy is usually an emotional adolescent.

If That Guy appears utterly cast in concrete, with no hope of changing, then, well, you’re just going to have to deal with it and do what you can to avoid collateral damage.  Avoidance, containment, mitigation.  It’s like the rhino-hide fighter – if enough people decline to play with him, he either goes away or asks why no one wants to play.  (That of course begs the question of whether That Guy has enough talent that you’d want him around if he weren’t such a jerk.)

At the opposite end of the spectrum, if That Guy is simply young and talented but clueless, then saying something might do a great deal of good. (As with parenting teens, though, timing is everything.)

And then of course, there’s the Great Muddy Middle. (Isn’t it great that the correct answer to the most difficult questions of life is usually, “It depends”?)

So if you decide to “use the procedure”, what IS The Procedure for addressing That Guy?

You’re presumably in some position of influence, but you’re in no position to command.  (Laurels can drop a hammer on Apprentices.) You can only point out and suggest, and hope that That Guy has enough respect for you that your words carry some weight.

So start with not being your own edition of That Guy.  (When TWO of That Guy get together, things rarely end well.  There was a Pennsic once where, as an old friend who was there said, the kings of the East and Middle stood toe to toe punching the button each wore on his chest with the label, “Push Here to P!$$ Off”.  I had to write a satire about that one.)

Your job is not to Correct The Errant Miscreant.  It is to minimize further damage.  (Think about the difference….)

“B-b-b-but Brendan!  I don’t want to confront anyone!”  Or, “That Guy doesn’t even know me!  He won’t take a suggestion from me!”

Likely very true.  But that’s not an excuse to Do Nothing.  You can still Do Something, even if that Something is to Not Be That Guy.

How does that work? That Guy thrives on praise, but over time Not-That-Guy gets more praise.

We can at least hope that eventually he’ll notice.

This is a test post

Hello world.