The SCA Bardic community is a mixed bag. It is a very big tent, though, and it is easy to step inside. If you are new to performing, it may take awhile for you to find the corner of the tent where you fit in best, so we’ll look at some of the busier corners and see where you might like to start.
First word of warning: Being a bard in the SCA has little to nothing to do with performers in period. When someone says they are a “bard” in the SCA, they usually mean they sing or recite at various performing venues, including bardic circles, feasts, and courts to campfires. Their material can run the gamut from pre-1600 material to modern music. If you are looking to develop a persona who is a period performer, most bards cannot help you on that path, because it is not theirs. At the end of this article, see Appendix I: Period Performer Terminology, for some types of period performers that might work in developing your persona. If that’s the way you want to go, you’ll need more specific directions to a tiny corner of the tent, so look for the most experienced bard you know and ask for recommendations. The good news is, these options are not mutually exclusive; you CAN be both. The fact that I can break out a tune in Middle French does not mean I can’t also sing a folk song about bad feasts.
First, You Need Material: Words, Sung or Spoken
Although we see terms like harper, more generally applied to instrumentalists, the fact that the Gaelic word bard is glossed 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 can be the province of the bard. Eventually, most bards want to create their own work, both because it is artistically satisfying, and because it helps guarantee that someone isn’t going to sing the same song you have planned. But starting out, there is nothing wrong with performing things that already exist. Even when you start writing, you’ll need ideas, and most medieval writers borrowed heavily from those who came before them. Jump on the train.
There are great songs and ripping yarns to be had from pre-1600 sources. If you associate period music with slow, boring, etc., you have been listening to the wrong stuff. But there are also modern transcriptions of period material that are much easier for a beginner to wrap their head around. The Internet abounds. You might want to look at Chaucer (The Canterbury Tales, et al), Boccaccio (Decameron), Bede (The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles), various chansons de geste, the lais of Marie de France, all the way to Shakespeare. Pick a country, pick a century. If you only read modern English, obviously your sources are somewhat limited, but most of the great medieval works are there to be had in modern English versions. These works 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). Many Vitae (the lives of saints) are full of cool things like people walking around with their heads severed, or taming a wolf to plow their fields. Take a look.
There is a ton of period material on YouTube that is fairly easy to learn from (lyrics are often included). Go there and search, say, “15th century Spanish songs” and they will come up. (You have no idea how lucky you are to be doing this after the advent of the Internet. Now get off my lawn.) If you want to go directly to the hardcore corner of the tent, you’ll want to read my article Research For Bards and Performers which has more period sources than I normally include for a beginner course.
Pre-20th Century Sources and “Traditional”
The Victorians loved tales of derring-do just like we do. There are many out-of-period neo-classical works; Tennyson and Sir Walter Scott chronicle or fictionalize many period events and legend in a romantic yet modern-English style which offers the beginning bard a safe starting point. Songs and stories from the 18th and 19th centuries feel more accessible to a modern audience, and they are fair game to everyone. “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: Everyone knows it, and it’s been around for years (like 50 at least); 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); 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 last 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 it is copyright-free.
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 was written in the 60s. The 60s Folk Revival was a boon in many ways, because there are great recordings of Joan Baez and Peter, Paul, and Mary singing traditional ballads that you can learn in five minutes and start building a fine repertoire. Unfortunately, the ones who got good at understanding ballads wrote some original work that is hard to tell from traditional; people are often surprised that the popular “Johnny Be Fair” was written by Buffy Sainte-Marie in 1965. Also, 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. You may not be able to tell whether her “arrangement” included altering the words, altering the melody, altering the song structure, or simply developing the background accompaniment. 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. Eventually, you will learn how to look things up on your own. Start at Wikipedia; there are many fine articles on traditional pieces that will show you how the piece developed.
And it might be period; some trad material is. Child (Francis James Child, compulsive collector and organizer of ballads) 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, but they are suitably romantic, and unlikely to drag a listener into the modern world, so there are far worse things to perform.
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. Questions you should ask yourself:
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). Honest, when someone breaks out “Music, Sex, and Cookies” I have to leave the circle.
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. Again, if you want to write a funny song with a jug band solo, there are venues where it’s okay to play that. There are venues where it’s not. When in doubt, ask a more experienced performer.
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). You need not be making money. The site is making money. And almost everyone is carrying a recording device. The time of “how will anyone know” is long gone. And really, you’re at a medieval event with knights and ladies. Why would you want to sing “Music, Sex, and Cookies”?
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! If someone sings a song around me and doesn’t know the provenance (a fancy word for “where does it come from?”), I will quiz them, and then give them the answer if they don’t know. If a song is worth learning, it’s worth giving credit for. Otherwise, you might find yourself singing a song for the person who wrote it, and their band, and they may take over when the chorus rolls around. (True story.)
For accessible songs that are mostly SCA-friendly and appropriate for beginners, try Cantaria and Mudcat Café. YouTube has all the tracks for “The Joan Baez Ballad Book.” In fact, go to YouTube and search “traditional ballads” and you’ll get more material than you can sing in a year, and if you learn it off YouTube rather than at a bardic circle, there is a much smaller chance that you’ll be singing things that EVERYBODY knows. It won’t all be wonderful, but it’s a great starting point. As you get more experienced, you’ll have a better idea what you like to perform, and where you want to come down on the period-perioid spectrum. For lots of links to online books and websites where you can find material, see my article Research For Bards and Performers.
The F Word (Filk)
Filk is a perfectly period practice. Period filk came in two flavors; for the first, called contrafactum, 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, sometimes to create a parody, sometimes to make the song more serious, and sometimes just to have a conversation (and make money). 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 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. 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). Yes, this means you can’t make musical jokes like Weird Al. Weird Al pays the copyright holders of those songs, plus they are a joke of the moment. If it occurs to you, it has occurred to someone else (and if I hear one more filk to “Royals” I may not be able to control myself). I also 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? There are centuries of songs you can legally use; currently, anything published before 1924 is good. Personally, I don’t get why someone wants to use current Top 40 numbers to sing in a medieval group. I certainly don’t want to hear a song about honor and chivalry when I know you stole it.
For much, much more on Period Filk and related issues, see my article Period Filk and Contrafacta.
Quantity and Quality
No matter how good any piece is, you can’t make a meal on one dish. I like to tell people that one-trick ponies go to the glue factory first. What happens if you’re at a bardic circle, and the person before you does the number you were planning? 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. Don’t suffer by comparison. But don’t pad your repertoire by taking from other local bards, either. 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.
It’s possible to go the other way and have too many songs to hand. This is the person who shows up to the circle with a 4″ binder, or their iPad which they page through and then sing by, bathed in the sickly green glow of its light. To notebook or not to notebook. A notebook is good for two things, 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? Professional performers have a set list. These are songs that they have practiced currently, for which they are hopefully off-book, that they can perform well. If you ask for things that aren’t on the list, 9 times out of 10, they won’t play it. If you haven’t seen someone in five years, and they ask for their favorite song, feel free to bust it out of the notebook, but try to make that the exception.
Second, 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. If you know your pitch isn’t good, 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 poet or storyteller? MOST of the period bardic performers were NOT singers. If singing isn’t your strength, don’t. As Coleridge put it: “Swans sing before they die, t’were no bad thing/ Should certain persons die before they sing.” Don’t let that be you. Some of the most stunning bards in the SCA can’t sing a note. Try doing a song you find as a dramatic reading instead. Experiment.
If you are a singer, make sure you are reasonably proficient. Work within your range. If you aren’t certain what your best range is, do a little experimenting. 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!). Drama also 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 perform the piece can make the audience forgive a flat note or two.
Vocal exercises are your friends. 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), 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….
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 you, and your delivery is practiced. Believe in what you’re doing. Most SCA audiences really want to support you. 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.
Third, You Need a Place to Perform
I was lucky to join the SCA at a time and place where there were many camping events, and a big bardic circle was one of the highlights of Saturday night. I was never without an audience if I wanted one. My husband joined later, in a place with fewer camping events, so he would often go off under a tree and start playing for his own enjoyment. He typically found after fifteen minutes or so that a small crowd had gathered (and THAT’S how you know you’re a bard 😉 ). If you don’t notice open bardic circles in your local area, there is probably a point person, whether a Royal Bard, or a Kingdom Arts Performance deputy, that you can ask. Some feast stewards actively look for performers. Stroll around the event and listen for people singing or playing music. Consider hosting your own circle. If you build it, they will come.
It’s likely not every piece you have prepared will play equally well at every potential venue, so there are a few questions you should ask yourself:
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).]
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.
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.
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.
Taste is a thing. What you choose to perform at Enchanted Ground will probably not be what you perform at a loud party in the Bog. Good is good; there are performers like Wolgemut who can play period music on period instruments and be cheered at the drunkest parties, mostly because they are LOUD, but also because they are good. But there are a lot of great performers who can’t. Some questions to consider about your performance:
Fast versus slow? 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.
How loud? 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.
What’s the prevailing mood? Your tone may not match. 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.
Is it better to gesticulate or stand quietly? What can you pull 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 theater; 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 theater 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. You likely 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.
Instrumental accompaniment? 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. And 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.
Fourth, Now What?
Get to work, and get out there performing! You should be aware of some basic bardic etiquette before you go to dinner and use the wrong fork, metaphorically speaking. 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! Here are some other things to think about:
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!).
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. 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. Sing along with other performers only when encouraged to do so (remember how you feel in the same situation), or if it is clear (everybody is) that sing-along is intended.
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 few 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.”).
Encourage. If you sponsor a circle, you should encourage performers, and at times you as a participant may be in a better position to encourage performers than the sponsor. 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.
Circle hopping? At larger events, you may find yourself “circle hopping”. This is a great way to get a lot of mileage out of one or two songs, 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.
I hope you have found some good information in this article. Being a bard is definitely a “learn by doing” occupation. People will offer advise; take it in the spirit it was given. Better, when you see a bard that really knocks your socks off, tell them so, and ask them for tips. Starting a conversation with “I think you’re awesome” is usually a plus when you want something. Happy barding! And if you don’t get the joke from the cartoon, “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. Words are funny, but that’s why we love them.
Appendix I: Period Performer Terminology
If you want to develop a persona that would have performed in period, these are some of the terms you might apply to yourself. Most of these terms 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 court, village, or town. The earlier you go, and the farther from centers of learning, the lower the literacy rate; 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 these terms 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. Then, as now, a stranger passing through was viewed with suspicion, unless they had the protection or sponsorship of a nobleman or churchman, such that people could trust them not to be a crook. Here are some jobs to consider, depending on where your persona is from.
Bard, Gaelic word usually glossed as ‘poet’. Under the Irish system of Brehon Law, bards were strongly regulated, and viewed very differently according to their education. A bard was a rhymester, an itinerant poet performer, who had not completed much of a course of study. They would create their own rhymes, because they hadn’t studied long enough to memorize existing stories. A fili/filidh would have stayed in school for many years, and would know the lineage of kings and the great stories of legend, and they would accordingly be more sought after. An ollamh (sounds kind of like ‘olive’) is a master, the highest level, a great teacher, or a king’s minstrel. You might also be a senchaid/seanchaidh (pronounced roughly ‘shanna-key’); in the medieval period, this term was applied to a learned historian or reciter of lore, but in modern usage has become ‘storyteller’ and is as likely to be some old gaffer who simply is the most proficient “yarn spinner” in the village as anyone who gets paid. These terms are all for wordsmiths. They would likely have had some familiarity with an instrument, but words are their bread and butter. Terms like cruittire ‘harper’ would be for exceptional performers on a specific instrument, and they would likely neither write nor perform words.
Many English terms come from French, since after the conquest, French was the language of the upper class for quite some time. Minstrel, from Latin ministrellis, ‘little servant’ and Middle French menestral, a minstrel was an all-around performer, nearly always attached to a specific lord. You might serve decades, and be fed and clothed by your lord, and eventually pensioned off with a nice manor property. Likewise jongleur, Old French from Latin joculator, ‘entertainer’ and gesteur ‘teller of exploits’. Over time, jongleur became juggler, and gesteur became jester, not only because English is weird, but as with senchaid above, the later you go in period, the higher the literacy rate, and the more a minstrel goes from historian to performer for entertainment. A purely English term is gleeman/gleoman; this might be a commoner minstrel, or a chorister performing as part of a group. We still have “glee clubs” because of this term. Oldest of all, the scop (pronounced either like shop or skop), Old English for bard/minstrel from OE scof ‘mockery’; the scop is the Anglo-Saxon equivalent of the Norse skald (below). A scop would have recited Beowulf to his lord. All these terms would again have vocal performance as their bedrock. A harper translated from Latin cytharista ‘harp player’ as above, would likely be a virtuoso in their instrument. If you are going to recreate a period English performer, you should get your hands on this book by whatever means (it’s expensive, so ILL might be your best bet): Southworth, John, The English Medieval Minstrel, Boydell Press, Woodbridge, Suffolk, 1989.
The Welsh princes typically had several poets in official court positions. The highest ranking was termed prydydd (or brydydd, according to Welsh grammar) ‘a maker, a composer’. Known as the “poets of the princes,” they wrote praise poetry for native Welsh rulers from around the 10-13th centuries. The bardd, cognate with bard, were poets less celebrated and sought after. A clerwr was an itinerant poet.
The Norse skald ‘poet’ (feminine skaldinna) was an important person at any court, composing praise poetry and reciting eddas. Skalds were sought after through roughly the 13th century.
Serving minstrels, jongleurs, and gesteurs, would have used those terms. France, however, birthed an entirely different genre of performer, the noble performer. Troubadours, the authors and performers of courtly love poetry from the 12th century, spread from the south of France in all directions. In the south, where the language is Occitan, not French, you find the trobador and feminine trobairitz; in the north of France, you are a trouvere, and in northern Iberia a trovador (from trover/trobar ‘to compose’). Most, though not all, were noble, but even the non-nobles were well-educated and highly placed. These are writer-performers, but not anyone who has to sing for their supper. Sadly, the movement was dying out by the time it spread to Italy, so there is not a strong tradition of noble poet-performer in Italy. It was the Italians, though who resurrected the classical notion of the poet laureate, beginning with Albertino Mussato in 1315. Poets so recognized were typically scholars, historians, and often statesmen.
The troubadours were quite similar to the minnesinger tradition, again from the 12th century, again mostly about love, again mostly nobility, though commoners might be recognized as meistersingers to the improvement of their station. The Codex Manesse, a collection of minnelied ‘love song’, shows us a number of these noble writer-performers, in some of the most reproduced of medieval images.
Terms from Latin were applicable throughout most of Europe, including histrio ‘actor’, also applied to minstrels, and mimus, 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. Goliards began as young clerics writing satirical Latin poetry in the 12th and 13th centuries, but over time became young university students writing about wine, women, and song. The century you choose affects the terminology greatly!
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). Giraud could doubtless do very few of those things; being a noble writer-performer is a lot less work.