How to Bard
(as interpreted by Mistress Adelaide de Beaumont)
The first question many people ask is, "Just what is a bard, and why do some people call themselves bards, others minstrels, others harpers, etc.?" I hear you cry. Let's take a look at some...
Bard -- Gaelic word now translated as "poet"1 (Welsh term: bardd)
Gesteur -- Old French for "teller of exploits" (became "jester"2)
Gleeman/Gleoman -- Old English for bard/minstrel/chorister (source of modern "glee clubs")
Harper -- Middle English (Latin term: cytharista), "player of harp", though it is often applied
to any instrumentalist)
Histrio -- Latin, specific to actors, but also applied to minstrels in general
Jongleur -- OF from Latin joculator, "entertainer" (became "juggler"2)
Minstrel -- from Latin ministrellis, "little servant" and Middle French menestral
Scôp -- OE/Old High German for bard/minstrel from scof, "mockery"
Skald/Skaldinna -- Icelandic/Scandinavian term for "poet"/"poetess"
The above terms, while not precisely interchangeable, all refer to an individual whose livelihood depends upon the bardic arts. They would most likely play an instrument, sing, and tell tales. They would most likely be a member of a lord's household and be responsible for chronicling the lord's exploits as well as entertaining, or they would hold a more-or-less official position in a village or town (generally Northern cultures like Germanic, Celtic, and Scandinavian had a stronger oral tradition and would look on these people as historians, whereas generally Southern cultures like French and Italian would view them purely as entertainment, since their histories were more likely to be written down). Many societies where the bardic arts flourished expected everyone from king to stable boy to harp, sing, and relate stories to some degree, so the terms above were applied only to those who earned their living from it. Generally the only traveling these people would do is at the behest of (and subsidized by) their lord in order to spread his personal fame. The lone "wandering minstrel" is mostly an out-of-period romantic invention. Professional traveling performers, although sometimes called minstrels or jongleurs, were of a much lower social station, though even they usually traveled in troupes and kept regular itineraries.
Bards in the SCA are generally far less accomplished than their historical counterparts (but then again, our livelihood usually doesn’t depend on it). A poem by the 13th c. Provençal troubadour, Giraud de Calanson, defines a true jongleur or minstrel as one who is able to "speak and rhyme well, be witty, know the story of Troy, balance apples on the points of knives, juggle, jump through hoops, play the citole, mandora, harp, fiddle, psaltery..." He is further advised (for good measure) to learn the arts of imitating birds, putting performing asses and dogs through their paces, and of operating marionettes. Few SCA performers can cover more than two or three of those skills (though sadly there seems to be no shortage of performing asses).
Several other terms exist for performers who weren’t necessarily singing for their supper:
Goliard -- Latin/OF/ME, "drunkard" or "glutton"; applies to usually itinerant scholar-poets whose works celebrate high living and sensual pleasures, hence the name. (This term is still used in Italy today for university students!)
Mimus-- Latin; like histrio, more properly applied to actors (and in period in no way implying silence as it does in modern use), but used for minstrels in general. Usually only applied to traveling performers, not a minstrel in paid service.
Musician -- Greek, a practitioner of "the art of the Muses"; usually applied to singers and instrumentalists, but as there are Muses for dance, history, poetry etc., technically applicable to much wider bardic use.
Seanachaidh -- Gaelic for "storyteller" (pronounced roughly “shanna-key”); as likely to be some old gaffer who simply is the most proficient "yarn spinner" in the village as anyone who gets paid for their performance; a seanachaidh is typically a wordsmith rather than a musician.
Troubadour/Trouvère -- OF from trouver, "to compose"3; applied to the French composers of the chansons de geste. They were often, though not always, members of the nobility. This term generally implies that you write your own material.
As you can see, the name alone is a complex thing; if you are going to actively use a bardic term for your persona, I recommend further study to come up with a term appropriate to your era, locale, and choice of material. In general, I find the term "bard" to be the best understood and the most flexible for SCA use.
Now that we've got our terms straight, it's time to talk about turning yourself into a bard-- for this we'll need some bardic weaponry...
Words, sung or spoken -- the Material
Although the term "harper" and its cognates can be applied to instrumentalists, the fact that the Gaelic word "bard" is usually translated as "poet" should be a clue that the chief hallmark of a bard is performing with words. Songs, poetry, stories, prose, plays, letters, history.... all of these are the province of the bard, who is not only the entertainment, but in some cases the education as well.
Sources -- Only steal from the best
I joke, obviously. Never steal from anyone-- at least not from anyone living. But even if your primary source is your own fertile little mind, you have to have an idea from somewhere, like...
1) Period sources -- Chaucer (The Canterbury Tales, et al), Boccaccio (Decameron), Bede (The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles), chansons de geste, the laïs of Marie de France, etc. will give you hundreds of story ideas which can be told as such, or adapted to create songs, poems, and dramatic scenes (okay, Bede is a bit dry, but it contains the story of Caedmon-- how the most famous bard of his day received his bardic gifts, which should be required reading for any aspiring bard!) Don't overlook preserved letters (they were better at writing them in those days-- I have seen letters turned into dramatic readings with very good effect) and histories; truth is stranger and often more entertaining than fiction. Also the Arthurian legends, other works of legend (like the Mabinogian, Homer, etc) and the Bible contain some real page-turners (the Bible would have been one of the greatest sources of material and influence in a medieval life, and it is rarely tapped by SCA bards). Along with period sources, there are many out-of-period neo-classical works; Tennyson and Sir Walter Scott chronicle many period events in a romantic yet modern-English style which offers the beginning bard a safe starting point.
2) Modern sources adapted -- Modern works (songs, poetry, etc.) feature pretty prominently at most bardic circles. Unfortunately, beginning bards use modern works because they are accessible, and these bards lack the judgment (that comes only with experience!) to determine whether a work is really SCA appropriate. A few things to look at:
i) Is the subject matter anachronistic? All it takes is one reference to a modern item, person, event, brand name, etc. to bring your audience right back to the mundane world (and if we wanted to be there, we wouldn't be at an SCA event). If changing a word or two will solve the problem, you are probably okay; any more and we enter the filk/plagiarism debate (see discussion further down), so you should discard the piece (as far as performing at events is concerned).
ii) Is the accompaniment anachronistic? I don't care how perfect the words may be, if it's a twelve-bar blues number it is NOT appropriate for the SCA, for the same reason as point #1, namely, you can't hear certain styles of music without being brought back to the 20th century with a thump.
iii) Is it a copyrighted work subject to royalties and performance protection? If you do not have the author's permission or an ASCAP/BMI performance license for the site, you could be causing legal trouble (if they sue churches, and they do, and they sue the Girl Scouts, and they do, they're not going to balk at our good intentions and not-for-profit status).
iv) Is the author (or their friends) present? You'd better give a lot of credit (and get into the habit of giving credit whether the author is there or not)! Prefacing a piece with "I would like to present a beautiful song written by xxxxx on the occasion of xxxxx" is only polite. It does not "break the mood" of the bardic circle if done properly (that's the usual excuse I get from people who don't); in fact, I do a couple of songs for which the story is better than the song! Even if you learned the song from the performance of someone local, it's a good idea to say, "I was inspired to learn this piece after hearing xxxxx perform it so movingly, and I can only hope that my version does it as much justice..." On the other hand, I personally feel that prefacing a song with "Here's a little song I wrote..." sounds arrogant; it is much better to be asked, as you will be, especially if people are accustomed to your crediting your material, and await the delighted response when you reveal it as an original (you hope!).
Other modern sources abound--many “current events” can be adapted to create SCA material. Bureaucracy is period; Idiocy is period; Intolerance is period; a few changes are all you need. I could tell you the story of Aethelwald the Saxon:
Aethelwald was sleeping it off one morning after a long night at the tavern when he awoke to discover not only that his haughty Norman wife, Catherine, and her Norman lover, Walter fitzHerbert, had been foully murdered, but that he was the prime suspect! Well, this was a cause of some concern for Aethelwald, not because of his wife, of whom he was happy to be rid, but because the local sheriff, the Norman Roger de Marque, hated Saxons so much he had been known to plant evidence against them in order to insure a guilty verdict; furthermore, Aethelwald's best pair of gauntlets and a pair of his hose had gone strangely missing.....
Of course, you know I'm talking about the OJ trial, but it works perfectly well as a period tale (and the beauty of it is, it's YOUR story, and you can make it come out any way you like!), and you can tell who's really listening by how fast they get it!
3) Traditional -- "Trad" is the grey area between period and modern (while period material can certainly be called traditional, not all, or even most, traditional material is period). Material, usually songs or rhymes, credited as "traditional" can mean any or all of the following:
i) Everyone knows it, and it's been around for years (like 50 at least);
ii) The editor of the source book did not know the author and was too lazy to try to find out (or believed in good faith that it really was an old piece);
iii) Either we don't know who wrote it, or we know, but he's dead (beware the recently deceased --most copyrights run for the life of the artist plus 70 years) and no one has any right to claim royalties as his heirs (this is the definition of a much more specific term, "public domain"; because this is a term in law, publishers do not use it lightly, so for anything listed as "public domain" you can be fairly certain that your use of it is safe).
The appropriateness of trad material can be judged by the same tests listed above for modern material, with a couple of additional points to consider:
i) Before you perform a piece and credit it as traditional, you need to do a little research to discover which definition of traditional was used, and whether it is true. There are many sloppily researched folk song books available which list songs as traditional that are not. A good test is to look for "The Whistling Gypsy Rover" (you know, ah-dee-doo-ah-dee-doo-dah-day); if it's listed as "traditional" or "adapted from Child #200", take everything the book says with a grain of salt, because you've already caught them in one error. If it's listed as "copyright Leo Maguire, Waltons Music Dublin, all rights reserved" you are safer trusting the book. Yes, believe it or not, that song is modern and under actively enforced copyright.
ii) Beware learning a traditional song exactly like they do it on the recording. When you see a credit like "traditional/arranged by J. Baez", it means the piece is in the public domain, but her performance is not. Since you can't tell whether her "arrangement" included altering the words, altering the melody, altering the song structure, or simply developing the background accompaniment, you'd better bring something noticeably new to the piece or you could be in copyright trouble again. A more experienced musician who may have heard several versions of the piece can possibly tell you what the hallmarks of a particular arrangement are.
iii) Is it period? As I mentioned above, some trad material IS period. Child was gathering his ballads in the 1800s, but many came from manuscript evidence and are demonstrably period. Scrutinize the lyrics-- does that sound like a description of events or life in period? Then it probably is, or was in some earlier version. Virtually all sea chanteys, on the other hand (in fact, most pieces that mention "our gallant ship") are out-of-period. Even if you cannot document a piece itself as period, you can document lyrical components, so don't dismiss your favorite piece from entry in the Arts Competition just because its only pedigree is "trad".
4) The "F" word -- Filk is a perfectly period practice. Period filk came in two flavors; for the first, called “contrafact” or “contrefait”, a writer would set new words to existing tunes, either instrumental pieces (dance tunes were wildly popular), canonical music, or well-known secular tunes. It’s far easier to get people to accept a new song if they can sing it right away, so using a known melody was and is a great short-cut. Consider, from the collection "A Handefull of Pleasant Delites" printed in 1584: "A Sonet of two faithfull Louers, exhorting one another to be constant. To the tune of Kypascie." (This was a dance tune, actually titled "Qui passa".) Then there's the even more easygoing example, "A proper sonet, Intituled: I smile to see how you deuise. To anie pleasant tune."
For the second, nearer to most SCA filk, a writer took an existing song and substantially altered the words, usually to create a parody. Richard Jones licensed “Greensleeves” with the Stationers' Company (the late period equivalent of applying for copyright) in 1580 ("A new northern dittye of the Lady Greene Sleeves" [--all 18 verses!]). Jones was evidently tardy in getting his license, because on the same day that Jones received this license, the Stationer’s Company grants to Edward White, "A ballad, being the Ladie Greene Sleeves _Answere_ to Donkyn his frende". By the time the shouting was over, there were over a dozen “original” works based on Greensleeves. Many other popular tunes suffered the same fate.
HOWEVER, in our modern world, if your filk uses not only the tune, but many words and major ideas from the original piece, it's called plagiarism. It is stealing, and if the original work is copyrighted it is actionable in a court of law. You must have the author's permission to make any substantive changes in the lyrics (that's why I said a word or two is probably okay). The best test I know is to give the new lyrics to a musically knowledgeable person; if they can tell without the tune what song you are filking, it is probably too close. The safest course is to write a song lyric first, then pick a melody that complements it (thus you cannot even unconsciously be influenced by the original words). I recommend avoiding really well-known tunes (like Christmas carols) because your audience will be mentally singing the original lyrics in their heads instead of listening to yours, and where's the creative satisfaction in that?
Select for the Audience -- Will it play in Peoria?
Once you have a stock of source material, you'll have to further sort your sources on the basis of appropriateness for the audience. This again comes with experience, but here are some points to consider:
1) Do they want to sing along? (Do you want them to?) If so, you should learn some local favorites, as well as selecting new material which features a chorus or other repeated lines which they will have a chance to learn. You may also try teaching the repeated bits before you begin the piece, adding a comment like, "This is your part." [NOTE: the reverse is also true; if you can't abide sing-alongs, keep your repertoire fresh so no one has a chance to learn your material that well, and choose pieces without a chorus or obvious repetitive parts. If necessary, you can ask that people not join in (if you are singing with a partner and need to hear each other to balance your harmonies, some over-zealous person standing between the two of you can ruin your act--I've had it happen).]
2) Does the audience include children or easily offended individuals? Then avoid bawdy material. Our medieval counterparts were a lot less sensitive about sex and bodily functions, and there are many fine pieces of period material which are downright X-rated-- you cease to be an entertainer when you make people uncomfortable. Really crude stuff should be avoided altogether, in furtherance of the "we are all lords and ladies" ideal, but for the right audience, bawdy material works well. By bawdy, I mean that class of songs where you know exactly what they are talking about, but nothing is ever said except in allegory ("Your ale, I see, runs very low..."). Songs like "The Good Ship Venus" go beyond the titter and blush phase and say everything in the rawest fashion possible. Beware also starting bawdy material at a circle-- less experienced performers may take this as an invitation to bring out their crudest ditties and it's really hard to bring a circle back from the Oblivion of Sleaze.
3) How educated are they? If this is a particularly erudite audience, they may expect (nay, demand) a higher standard of period-style material. If the circle is composed mostly of bards, it may be a good time to bring out a piece you're not sure of and get some input from more experienced performers. If the circle is mostly audience, and they are not very sophisticated in their musical tastes, start with more accessible material and maybe you can lead them in the direction of meatier bardic stuff.
4) How drunk are they? Seriously, stick to the sing-along stuff, and don't get dragged into the Oblivion of Sleaze. If they're already there, excuse yourself to the privy and don't come back.
Know your strengths and weaknesses -- Make the material fit YOU
I believe in the adage, "Never try to teach a pig to sing; you'll only frustrate yourself and annoy the pig." Everyone has strengths and weaknesses; here are a few you should consider in tailoring material to fit your style:
1) If you know you are tone-deaf, then tell stories, recite poetry, do dramatic readings-- you will be no less a bard, and probably much more so. Who do you think an audience would rather hear: a mediocre singer or a first-rate storyteller? As Coleridge put it:
Swans sing before they die, t'were no bad thing
Should certain persons die before they sing.
2) Work within your range. If you do choose to sing, experiment a little with range. You may have been told all your life that you're a soprano, but it may not be true. Karen Carpenter went through her school career as a mediocre soprano until her brother suggested she try the alto range, and she became a star. Not only can your early teachers have been wrong, but your voice changes over time; as a 15-year-old I used to wonder how Karen Carpenter could hit those low notes, and now they're not even a challenge. In general, higher notes are clearer, but lower notes are richer. Even if you can hit the high notes, your tone may be nasal and reedy, when your low notes are mellow and smooth (and your high notes may be clear and bell-like when your low notes sound like mud-- experiment!).
3) Vocal exercises are for storytellers, too! Any time you are going to use your voice strenuously, warm it up first. Do scales, tongue twisters, whatever works for you. Also use some common sense about eating and drinking; water is good (clears the throat and hydrates the tissues), lemonade is often bad (too acidic-- constricts the throat and coats it with sugar... my husband, however, swears by straight lemon juice for clearing throat gunk ), alcohol is really bad (even a little can affect your control over the muscles you need to get the right sounds out, and a lot makes you downright stupid), bread and fruit are good (carbo loading keeps energy up!), milk and cheese are bad (dairy products will make more gunk in your throat than a cold will), spicy or scratchy foods are really bad (do I need to explain that one?). Not only will you prevent damage to your "instrument" (would you play a guitar you hadn't tuned?) but you will relax and build confidence, which will help you....
4) Deal with stage fright. Even the most experienced performer feels stage fright; it means you care about what the audience thinks of you, and when you stop caring, you should stop performing. It should ease up once you begin your piece, and you will feel less nervousness if your voice is warmed up, your piece is suited to the audience, and your delivery is practiced.
5) Drama covers a multitude of sins. If you are bottoming out on the low notes or breaking on the high ones, speak them dramatically instead (hey, it worked for Rex Harrison). Even if you sing them, the emotional level at which you "sell" the piece to the audience can make them forgive a flat note or two (it may not help you in competitive situations-- check the judging criteria).
6) Believe in yourself. If you truly feel the Muse inside you, don't let anyone poop on your dreams. A studio executive reportedly said of Fred Astaire after seeing an early screen test, "Can't act, can't sing, can dance a little...." Everybody gets better with practice. Seek some honest feedback (in a non-competitive setting) from bards you respect and listen to their advice, then do what your heart tells you.
Build a repertoire -- One-trick ponies go to the glue factory first!
No matter how good any piece is, you can't make a meal on one dish. What happens if you're at a bardic circle, and the person before you does the number you were planning (it happens, believe me)? You aren't ready for a bardic circle until you have several pieces performance ready (that doesn't include, "I'm working on this one, you won't mind if I stumble through it, will you?"), unless you truly ARE a one-trick pony and are so known for one piece that no one else dares do it (in which case, sorry, you are not a bard, you couldn't make a living that way). A couple of reminders about repertoires:
1) Don't suffer by comparison. Do not pad your repertoire by taking from other local bards. Not only will you become unwelcome around the bardic community, but you will be compared to the other performers. No matter how good you are, you will run into someone who will say, "Oh, I think only xxxxx can really do that song right." Even if you are a superior musician to xxxxx in every way, people are comforted by the familiar -- you'll find that you will make few fans and no friends.
2) To notebook or not to notebook. After you have a substantial repertoire, you will probably begin toting a notebook. A notebook is good for two things only, jogging your memory before a performance, and providing access to pieces which you no longer regularly perform (this should be done only by request of the audience, not because you were too lazy to brush up on the piece before the event). A notebook is bad for several reasons; first, it breaks your connection with the audience (and if you play an instrument, you already have a physical barrier up, you don't need another one); second, it causes you to rudely leaf through it looking for inspiration while other bards are performing; third, it prevents the well-deserved death of old pieces you'd rather not perform anymore. If you are going to use a notebook, refer to it as little as possible, never let it substitute for rehearsal time, and keep it pruned of expired material. Depending on your culture, your persona might well be illiterate, so why are you reading your material?
How you get the words out-- the Delivery
In the "Material" section, I covered some points about delivery, like range, but there are several other factors to consider:
1) Speed -- My general rule is, faster is usually better, mostly because you will slow down over the course of a piece. The longer the piece, the more difference in speed from start to finish. Speed also tends to get the audience moving with the piece, especially if it involves "moving" images like horses galloping, armies marching, etc. This can of course be taken to extremes; nerves will tend to make you go faster, and if you're really scared, you may find a piece takes you half the time it took you in practice, and the piece is bound to suffer. Consider the subject matter. Love songs will not benefit from speed, nor will spooky pieces (except where the monster is just about to attack) or sad pieces. Adjust your speed to the mood of the material.
2) Volume -- Louder is not always better; it's a lot like speed. Many darker pieces need to be somewhat quiet. Consider the acoustics of the site, as well as the ambient noise level when choosing a piece. If you know you will have to turn up the volume to be heard, and you fear the piece will suffer, pick another piece. There are enough bardic circles in quiet places that you'll get to do that piece eventually. Likewise, no one wants to be blasted out by a really loud piece when the circle is being held in a closed, quiet space. A note about volume: if the fates did not gift you with a naturally loud voice, you may have to skip certain venues (like noisy feast halls), but anyone can be coached to be louder (do NOT simply try to yell, as this will mess up your pitch and damage your throat). It's all about breathing, pacing, and posture; if there is no one in your local area who feels qualified to teach you about voice, check out your local junior college. One voice lesson can work miracles.
3) Tone -- Voices can be happy and sad as well as loud/soft and fast/slow. It takes a bit of acting ability, but you should try to match your vocal tone and facial expressions to the mood of the piece. It may sound obvious, but watch several performers at the next bardic circle and I bet you'll find happy voices doing sad pieces and vice versa. If you are so naturally one way (chirpy) or the other (dour) that you have trouble switching, stick to material that complements your natural demeanor.
4) Gestures/Acting -- Can you pull it off? Many bards have very theatrical styles; many don't. How much acting you do depends again on material, the audience, and your own strengths. Very funny and very dramatic pieces benefit from theatre; sad pieces generally don't. Large venues, stages, and open spaces lend themselves to movement on the part of the bard; tiny rooms and dim campfires don't. As for your own style, can you incorporate theatre and still play an instrument? Which is more important to you? And do you feel silly doing it? Practice a while. Still feel silly? Then scrap it. I promise you will look almost as silly as you feel (but ask another bard first just to be sure), because your discomfort will be communicated to the audience as forcefully as your gestures.
5) Instrumental Playing -- It has its ups and downs. The ups: accompaniment helps keep you on pitch and gives a richness to the piece (some songs simply cannot be done properly a cappella); the additional volume is often helpful in louder halls; it gives you a polite way to quiet a potential audience--playing an instrumental introduction is much more genteel than saying, "Hey, pipe down, I'm getting ready to sing!"; it gives you something to do with your trembling hands so you look less terrified; it provides a very real "shield" between you and the audience (take away a harper’s harp or a guitar-player's guitar and many of them get really nervous....). The downs: that "shield" is also a barrier you have to overcome in order to really connect with your audience; your hands are so busy they are unavailable for gesture or other dramatic movement; it's harder to be subtle or spontaneous-- there's a lot of opening of cases, tuning, etc. which must precede any actual bardic activity, by which time you've drawn a crowd; it locks you into one key for one song (usually) so you can't just drop the pitch a little if your throat is feeling tight; it gives you something else to remember (or forget)--not only do you have to keep the words straight, now you have to remember the music as well (and if you can't do this without using a songbook or music stand, please skip the instrument). Remember, the choice is yours-- an instrumentalist is not a bard, and a bard need not be an instrumentalist. You may find, as I have, that you want your accompaniment sometimes and not others.
What if you want accompaniment and you don't play? That's what friends are for. Find an instrumentalist who would like to be a bard, or another bard who would like a partner (or just a little more time in the spotlight). Teaming up brings new possibilities (and problems!) that you never considered on your own, like harmony, duet or conversation pieces, scenes for two instead of one. It's great fun if you find the right friend.
Advanced Bardic Concepts, Including Bardic Etiquette
Our Society is meant to be a haven where courtesy may flower; this concept should be even more sacred to the bards, because although we may not be the arbiters of taste (then again, we may be), we have one of the most vocal and visible platforms in the SCA. Bardic Etiquette can be broken down in several categories, as what is right sometimes is not right always.
General Rules -- The Commandments
We have covered one of the most important, which is to refrain from adopting the local bard's repertoires (“Thou shalt not steal!”). In many areas, a hierarchy forms around favorite songs; xxxxx has the monopoly on a certain song, but if he's not at the event, yyyyy has dibs, and if she's not there, it's fair game for whoever does it first. The important thing is to be aware of local bards' repertoires and AVOID them! (There is an exception to this rule-- see Bard's Circles, below.) Some other general niceties:
1) Be a blessing, not a curse -- Wait to be asked to perform; volunteer if volunteers are asked for (and feel free to offer to play for the Royalty during a long dull tourney day; not only will they likely enjoy the break, but it's one of Their responsibilities to foster the arts -- just don't stay too long), but never intrude your art on innocent bystanders. Many people would rather converse, dance, watch fighting, etc. but they are too polite to tell you to get lost once you have begun. Find a quiet place and start performing softly for yourself, and I guarantee that unless you are truly terrible you will be invited into a pavilion, or an audience will gather around you (this will draw other bards, and before you know it, you have spontaneous bardic circle generation!).
2) Wait your turn with good grace -- You will seldom if ever be the only performer, and you will undoubtedly have to wait to perform. Be patient, be cheerful, and be a polite listener to the other performers; not only do you expect them to listen to you, but you might otherwise miss a terrific bard that you could learn a lot from.
3) Cherish your fans, but don't be ruled by them -- After awhile, you may develop a fan following. They are a joy, so treat them as such; however, you will find that they will always request the same four or five favorites, and after a time, the general audience will assume that these are the only songs you know. There is nothing wrong with turning down a request, politely ("I'll be happy to play that for you later if time permits, but right now I'd like to do a new song which I hope you will enjoy just as much."). There may even be songs which you performed in your bardic youth (like bad filk) which you would just as soon forget, and you need to educate your fans gently that songs in that category will no longer be forthcoming ("I'm trying to keep a more period feel in my event music these days -- how about I sing that one for you at the after-revel?" or if you're not that brave, "The dog ate my last copy of the words.").
Bardic Circle Performance Etiquette -- So many songs, so little time
Most bardic circles will have several bards and more audience. Since each bard may only get to perform two or three pieces, it's important that you choose shorter songs so more performers get a turn. Leave the 80-verse traditional ballads for another time. Here are a few other points:
1) If you sponsor a circle, you should encouraging performers (and at times you may be in a better position to encourage performers than the sponsor); in this case, you should firmly encourage the shy, but not bully them. Encouragement means more than saying, "Come on, I know you've been working on something..." For example, if the circle has turned dramatic (the last few songs have been of the death-and-destruction-for-forty type), and you know there is a new bard who wants to sing a funny song, you might jump in with a funny song to lighten the mood so the new bard feels more comfortable.
2) Sing along with other performers only when encouraged to do so (remember how you feel in the same situation), but when encouraged, do so-- it shows a camaraderie between performers (if you ever see me NOT joining in when asked to, it's a good bet the song is modern, bad filk, or something else I’d rather not encourage by participation).
3) At larger events, you may find yourself "circle hopping". This is a great way to get a lot of mileage out of one song, and many performers who do it play their "greatest hit" all night at many camps, but it's a pretty lazy habit for a performer to get into. Also, do not descend on the circle like the second coming, do your song with a flourish, and then leave with equal flourish (this is the bardic equivalent of "wham, bam, thank you, ma'am" and is much less likely to leave the circle thinking "What a terrific song" than "What a $%#&#!!"). If you do circle hop, stay long enough to give them more than one song and to listen to more than one other performer; you might find the one circle you'd actually like to stay at!
Bards' Circles -- A chosen few
Bards' Circles are composed almost entirely of bards with almost no audience; they are held in private places where the uninvited can be excluded without being rude (this is pretty difficult at events, so it might make for a good mid-week bardic activity). The point is not to make an "A" list social event, the point is to make better bards. The circle is most effective with about 6-8 bards; any more and the distractions become insurmountable. Properly run bards' circles are an important and inspiring part of ongoing bardic development; they provide an opportunity to...
1) Ask questions -- Pick the brains of other bards. You can share tips on good source material, performance tips (grapefuit juice-- it tastes terrible, but it sure clears the gunk out of your throat!), etc. It's rude to discuss these issues at a bardic circle, because the non-bards would get bored.
2) Showcase your newer, longer, more complex pieces -- We all have pieces which are so difficult that only another musician can truly appreciate the work that went into it, and this is your chance to receive pats on the back from a more discriminating audience. This is also your chance to get other opinions on whether the piece is appropriate for an open bardic circle.
3) Acquire pieces -- This is your opportunity to perform a piece for which another bard is famous, for that bard. ("I'd like to play xxxx for you and show you the new slant I put on it.") Of course, you risk the person saying "Thanks a lot" and using your idea, but you might find he'll say, "That's really interesting -- I'm kind of tired of doing that one anyway; why don't you do it at the next bardic circle?" You have successfully received the pass of the baton and now the piece is yours, and the blessing of the original performer usually quiets the critics. Also, you may find pieces offered to you; I have a personal bias about females, myself included, doing pieces which are clearly meant to be sung by a man, so when I find a really cool piece for a man (and I can't figure out how to change it so I can sing it), I suggest it to a male bard of my acquaintance. At Pennsic, a “bardic song swap” was held precisely for this purpose.
4) Invite criticism -- you'll learn faster. Bards' circles are a great informal way of getting feedback from knowledgeable people when they are not being asked to give you a score (see Competition following). You can have a two-way discussion about choice of material, delivery, tone, in fact any aspect of the performance, and you will have the added benefit of getting a group consensus (which will prevent any single criticism from seeming more dire than it really was meant to be).
Competition -- Judging and Being Judged
Many bards dislike the "c" word and feel that competition has no place in true bardic appreciation; these people have either run into badly run competitions or have not approached the competition for what it can be -- a challenge to a bard to hone their performance. Remember:
1) Rules are everything -- 99% of the problems with competition can be avoided if the organizers, the judges, and the competitors agree upon and understand the rules. I avoid like the plague a contest which is billed as "best bard". Best bard what? Best bard how? [In my opinion, a good "best bard" competition should include several different competitions like vocal performance, poetry, storytelling--everything a good bard should know how to do, with other competitions for skills which should be encouraged like period pieces, original works and pieces in other languages.] Style is a totally subjective thing, and any competition which relies on taste in the judging area is doomed to cause hard feelings. A good friend of mine, an accomplished bard, always avoids the “audience favorite” competitions, because she has lost too many times to the lady with the most cleavage; on the other hand, it’s the only kind my husband enters. He hates writing documentation and he knows he’s a better performer than most SCA bards, so he usually beats the cleavage. I like to see a competition with reasonably objective and clear judging criteria, which might include:
i) Pitch--if the judging criteria include pitch as a scoring factor (and in a category like "vocal performance" you can bet they will), you should know that if you hit three clunker notes and your competition doesn't hit any, you're probably going to lose. If pitch is weighted more heavily than complexity of the piece, choose a simpler piece that you know you can really nail.
ii) Presentation-- Again, if you deliver your piece like a deer caught in the headlights and your competition gives a moving dramatic performance, don't be surprised when she wins. Presentation can include pitch, tone, volume, gesture, and even a costume appropriate to the piece, so be clear on what the judges are looking for.
iii) Complexity--You will get higher marks for complexity for pieces with a broad vocal range required, pieces which are faster and more intricate (and likely to trip up the tongue), pieces in another language (including older forms of English), and pieces which vary in tone, pace, etc. You MAY receive extra credit for original pieces, but not necessarily, so again, be clear on the judges' position.
iv) Originality-- An original composition will not, ironically, max you out in originality points; your folk-style ballad about a common theme can still be beaten by a well-researched obscure piece with a quirky twist in melody or storyline.
v) Documentation-- I have seen way too many bardic entries whose documentation said "I wrote it." If the work is original (and even if it's not), document the style of both music and lyrics, the lyrical content (is it based on a period story or incident?), the style of your performance, your clothes, whatever you can think of. In many parts of the Known World documentation is judged, alas, more by weight than content, and an original piece will (again, alas) put you at a scoring disadvantage in the documentation department. You can fight it! They can be taught! We have nothing to fear but the idiots who think a research paper deserves a higher score in "communicative arts" than a well-written song! Sorry, I'm feeling better now. <scraping sound of soap box going back in closet>
2) Leave your ego at the door -- Isn't that a target on your chest, my lord? As I write this, I realize it is impossible, because we are ego-based beings, especially those of us who choose to perform in front of people, but be fair; you did voluntarily enter a competition, and by entering you agreed to have the stated judging criteria applied to your performance. Honestly appraise your own performance (this is easier in places where all performers sit together and can hear their competition perform) as if you were the judge; since we are almost all our own worst critics, you are likely to come out with a much lower score than the judges will actually give you. Remember some other points:
i) Everyone does their own thing. The judges are trying to judge everyone by an absolute scale in order to compensate for differences in material; if I don't judge you based on what I think is the perfect execution of your piece, how do I fairly rank your performance of a humorous tale about what the king did in the tavern last night against a lady singing a moving dirge over her husband's dead body after a battle? It would be much easier on the judges to have everyone perform the same piece, but that would unfairly penalize performers whose style doesn't lend itself to the piece selected. Judges allow competitors to be different; please allow the judges to be fair.
ii) Standards differ all over the Known World. If you do much moving around, you will discover that areas have radically different judging styles and criteria. I have been criticized in one area for being too rough, and in another for being too lenient; my personal judging philosophy hadn't changed, but the neighborhood sure had. Don't be surprised if you enter a competition in a new area and your results are radically different than they were at home. When you enter a new area, talk with the judges and become clear about local criteria.
iii) Don't enter until you are ready (and for some, this means never-- if you know yourself to be the type who is crushed by the slightest criticism, competition will only bring you grief). The judges expect (and deserve) a certain degree of professionalism, even from a beginner, and if you have already had some positive feedback in informal settings, it will help insulate you if you are unfortunate enough to draw the PMS judge from Hell. And speaking of her....
iv) Everyone has bad days. Just as you will have days when you sound like a toad and your fingers just don't seem to work, judges will have their slow and crabby days as well. It's not fair (except that a cranky judge is likely to be no more harsh on you than the next performer), especially when the judge knocks you for being the third competitor today to perform this piece, or for performing the song he hates the most in the entire world, but they are HUMAN (contrary to rumor). If you have a problem with a judge, going to him (after the competition) and asking him about it is far more likely to create a good result than accusing him behind his back. Maybe he really is a jerk, but you won't know for sure unless you talk to him; furthermore, anyone asked to judge is probably pretty knowledgeable and prominent-- who do you think is going to be hurt more by your complaining about him?
3) Judging--Things look different from this side of the table. Judges have to walk a tightrope; be too nice and the person won't learn or progress (and if everyone is "excellent", who gets first place?), too tough and they might go away and never come back. Here are a few rules I try (and often fail, ask anyone -- but judges need to work on their skills as well!) to apply:
i) Be unemotional. Avoid both positive and negative emotional declarations; for example, "Your pitch was flawless, and your tone was precisely appropriate for the piece" is a more fitting (and specific and helpful) judge's comment than "I loved your presentation!" You are not here to be a caring nurturer; you should do that at bardic circles, bards' circles, and in classes and workshops, not in a competition. Also, "There were several flat notes (negative comments are usually easier to take in the passive voice--less personal), and your intensity should have increased as the climactic moment of the piece approached" is better (more specific, less personal) than "You didn't really hit the notes, and I didn't like your presentation". Saying "I liked" or "I didn't like" fosters the belief in the competitor that it's more a matter of taste than a fair criticism.
ii) Be attentive. You'd be amazed how many judges do not look the competitors in the eye. Meet their gaze, and try to give them a reassuring smile (they haven't started yet, and they might be wonderful), then keep your expression as neutral as possible throughout the performance. If you make notes during the performance, make them quickly and subtly, then return your gaze to the competitor. The least they deserve is to feel that you really listened.
iii) Be fair. TRY to leave as much personal bias at home as you can. Again, strict judging criteria are your friends; if you feel tempted to offer a criticism or deduct from their score, force yourself to find the judging criterion on which the comment is based. Can't find one? Then the comment isn't fair; don't make it. This practice will help keep you from scoring up songs in styles you like, and vice versa.
iv) Be competent. Avoid language in your written comments like "I think I noticed..." or "Maybe you should..." If you sound unsure, the competitor will rightly question whether your comments are grounded or whether they are all speculation, and if you are that hesitant, why did you agree to judge? Be sure you feel qualified; you can learn the judging rules and criteria on the spot, but if you are not comfortable with assessing someone's pitch, tone, material selection, etc. you are not ready to be a judge. Nevertheless, once you are there...
v) When in doubt, ask another judge. There are multiple judges for a reason. There is no shame in asking, "Were there really a lot of bad notes, or am I just remembering them from hearing xxxxx practice this piece so much?"; likewise, "Was that really superior presentation, or is it just because I like snappy songs where the woman gets the better of the man?" Just don't allow another judge to change any points that you feel strongly about, and don't try to sway the other judges to your way of thinking. There are multiple judges for a reason.
Afterword -- "A word? You wanna talk some more?"4
This work is a combination of my experience as a bard over many years and several different kingdoms, and my own opinions about what the ideals of the SCA bard should be. I recognize that other people have other opinions and perspectives, and I am always happy to debate any point with anyone who cares to. I recommend that any aspiring bards seek out a mentor in their local area, because there is only so much about performing that you can learn by reading about it. Experienced bards, take on some students; not only can you help them, but their enthusiasm will do as much for you as your experience will do for them.
I found that this piece turned into many different things; a starting point for beginners, a nudge for people who may have been performing but want to get more serious about it, and a discussion generator for more experienced bards. We never (should) stop learning, and since the SCA is a world unto itself, we can only learn from each other. I hope that reading this will (one way or another) spur every bard to renewed action, and that we can create together a greater place for the bardic arts in our Society and our lives.
1 Isn't it interesting that in nearly all languages which recognize gender, the term for poet is a masculine noun and the term for poetry is a feminine noun? BTW, if you don’t get the joke from the cover, “barding” refers to the armor and/or flounces that jousters put on their horses. It comes from an Arabic term for a pack-saddle, barda’ah, and has nothing whatsoever to do with the bardic arts.
2 It's a funny old language, isn't it?
3 Isn't it interesting that in Old French the verb "to compose", trouver, was also the term for "to find/discover" as though one "finds" a song. Alas, by the advent of Middle French the verb "composer" was in use.
4Baloo to Bagheera, "Walt Disney's The Jungle Book"
Abaír! (A Gaelic-English English-Gaelic Dictionary), Martin's The Printers Ltd., Berwick-upon-Tweed,
Hill's Swedish-English English-Swedish Dictionary, Wahlström and Widstrand, Stockholm, 1986.
Webster's Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language, Portland House, New York,
Chappell, William, Old English Popular Music (a new edition with a preface and note and the earlier
examples entirely revised by H. Ellis Woolridge), New York, 1961. Chappell’s work originally
appeared in 1838.
Rollins, Hyder, ed.,
_A Handful of Pleasant Delights_
(1584) by Clement Robinson and Divers Others,
Dover, 1965. A reprint, the original was published in 1924.
Southworth, John, The English Medieval Minstrel, Boydell Press, Woodbridge, Suffolk, 1989.