“You’re only as good as your next performance.” If it will be your first, how to be ready. If you have performed before, how to be better each time.
What are the Bardic Arts?
In the SCA we use the term “bardic arts” as a catch all, allowing it to encompass a wide variety of activities. We tend to use it when we’re talking about singers, poets, and storytellers, but it applies just as well to riddlers, jugglers, and court heralds. There is a great diversity in the bardic arts, but most bardic activities have two things in common.
- Bardic arts are driven by the narrative. The story can be told, or sung, it can be in rhyme, or be hidden in a riddle, but there is always a narrative.
- Bardic arts acknowledge and value the presence of the audience. There is no “fourth wall” in bardic, the performer is occupying the same time and space as the audience. Because of this, the bardic arts are by nature more a communal activity than some other performance arts, such as drama.
Who is a Bard?
As a job title we apply the term “bard” to people working in many different areas, regardless of skill or style, and to the best of my knowledge no one has yet come up with a comprehensive definition. Period terms, all of which would be considered “bards” in the Society, include: bard, skald, senachie, troubadour, trouvère, jongleur, and more. There are many other names, in many languages and from every culture. Some are titles for professionals, some are not. For the purposes of this class we will use this definition:
BARD = A person who participates in the bardic arts.
Yes, that’s it. Everyone who puts on armor and enters the lists is a fighter. Everyone who makes costumes is a costumer, and everyone who illuminates scrolls is an illuminator and everyone who dances is a dancer. Bardic is no different. Do you participate in the bardic arts? If so congratulations, you’re a bard!
Different Approaches to Being a Bard
Let’s start by looking at a different and familiar activity: martial arts. Some fighters enter the lists to have fun, and some enter to win a crown. What does this tell us about the quality of the fighting in each case? It tells us nothing. The fighter who entered to have fun may be every bit as skilled as the one who strives for the crown. Likewise, the one who enters to win crown may enjoy the sport just as much as the one who enters for pleasure. On a different day, these two may find their goals reversed. Clearly, having fun in a tournament and winning a tournament are not mutually exclusive.
The Bardic Arts, and the bards who participate in them, are just as diverse. Some bards enjoy the comradery of the bardic circle and their goal is to have fun as part of the group. Others find their enjoyment in carefully crafting a performance, and their goal is to move the audience to laughter, or tears. Just as with the fighters described above, these are not mutually exclusive ambitions.
Excellence and inclusiveness can sometimes seem at odds with one another when it comes to the Bardic Arts. Let me assure you, this is not the case. One need not sacrifice inclusiveness to achieve excellence, nor surrender excellence to promote inclusiveness. Bardic is a big tent, both wide enough to encompass everyone who wishes to participate, and tall enough to accommodate the loftiest of ambitions.
It’s true that bards tend to fall into two very broad categories, social or performance. However, the thing that they enjoy tells us nothing about the level of skill they bring to their work. One may see themselves as someone who enjoys telling stories at camping events, another may see themselves as a professional performer. But regardless of how they see themselves they are both bards, and both work from the same underlying foundations.
Types of Bardic Material
At its most basic, bardic material can be broken down into a few general categories.
Sometimes simply called “Bardic.” It’s a modern style of music which includes many SCA classics such as “Burden of the Crown” as well as works created for the modern world such as “The Queen of Air and Darkness.” Included in this are “traditional” pieces such as “Whiskey in the Jar” and modern traditional pieces like “Witch of the Westmerelands.” Unlike the other categories, Folk is almost exclusively the domain of song.
The term “filk” was born in fandom, and refers to the practice of putting new words to existing tunes, or new tunes to existing words. “The Seneschal’s Song” is a filk of “My Favorite Things” and there are countless others from “The Woad Ode” to the tune of “Men of Harlech,” to “I Am My Father’s Teen Aged Daughter” to the tune of “Savage Daughter,” and “Speaking For Suess-ly” which is a filk in the style of a Dr. Seuss story. While many filk pieces are intended to be humorous, there is wide latitude in the genre.
New Material in a Period Style or “Peri-oid”
Every day, people are creating new pieces in a period style. This is material that is composed using themes, language, and, if available, music that is closely modeled on pre-17th century compositions. A Spenserian sonnet, or a piece created in the troubadour style of southern France are examples. “Víðadrápa” by Eyja Bassadóttir is a praise poem in the Old Norse style, created by a member of the SCA.
Documentable as having existed before 1600, there are a host of pieces to choose from. Perhaps the most commonly known is “Greensleeves” published in 1580. Research is changing our idea of what is, or is not, period. Fifty years ago, we thought all the Childe Ballads were period; thirty years ago we thought none of them were. Today we know that some are, and some are not. It’s worth noting that while some Shakespeare is pre-1600, some of it is not, though I have never heard anyone quibble about the historic authenticity of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, published in 1609.
Is the period term for pairing new words with existing tunes, or a new tune with existing words. While it may at first seem like this is simply another term for “filk,” in practice its focus on authenticity makes it very different. It is entirely possible to create a Contrafait using a period melody and new lyrics, provided the lyrics are constructed on period model.
All the Rest
In the Society, you will hear many types of bardic presentations, not all of which are described above. Many pieces are hybrids, combining bits and pieces into a unique, and often quite enjoyable, whole.
Bardic Circles, Squares, and Other Geometric Shapes
As in so many areas, the place where the SCA really shines is in creating opportunities for people to do the things they love to do. SCA events are a chance to wear that garb you worked so hard on, to test the skills you learned at armored practice on the list field, to display the scroll you created, or exhibit the dances you’ve learned.
The most common bardic activity at an event is the Bardic Circle. At its most basic, a bardic circle is simply a performance venue where bards gather to share their work. There is no formal structure, no central organization, and no recognized rulebook. People show up, they take turns telling stories, singing songs, and generally enjoying each other’s company. Bardic circles are not competitions, no one is empowered to judge. In today’s parlance we could refer to bardic circles as a “safe space” for performance.
In most cases, there is one person, sometimes a few people, who take it upon themselves to moderate the circle and make sure that everyone has a chance to share something. Sometimes this is a person who was asked to run bardic, but sometimes it’s just a person who’s comfortable keeping things moving. Whoever is that person is, their main goal is to make sure that as many people have an opportunity to participate as possible.
There are many ways a bardic circle can be conducted, but perhaps the most common is called “Pass, Play, or Request.” The moderator will pick someone to start, and then move around the circle, calling on each person in attendance and asking if they have a piece they’d like to share. The person being called on can then elect to pass (the moderator moves to the next person), play (perform whatever piece they chose), or make a request (ask someone else in the group to perform).
While bardic circles are the most common performance venues, they are by no means the only place where bards can perform. Bardic often has a place at feast, before, after, or even during court, around the household fire at a camping event, or in competition.
The Five Basic Tasks of Bardic Arts
Task #1 – Collecting Material
I recommend reviewing all the material you can, from as many different sources as possible. There are a host of books on period music available commercially, and many good songbooks published by and for the people of the Society. Check your local university library for obscure and out-of-print works (used bookstores, too.) You need not limit yourself to resources that deal solely with our period—or that deal with it at all for that matter—as much useful information can be found in books on related topics. You will find some that are not very good, but you won’t know that until you’ve read them. The more information you have, the more likely it is that you’ll be able to find a niche that suits you. Finding just the right piece is like finding a needle in a haystack. But before you can find the needle, you’ll need a haystack to look in.
Task #2 – Choosing a Piece
In order to perform, you must select a performance piece. This is usually a difficult thing for the novice bard. There are many factors to consider:
Is it something I want to do?
Not everything appeals to everyone, and bards are sometimes asked to select from topics that they might not really like. In most cases you’re better off politely refusing participation when you’re not excited about the topic.
Is it something I can do, and if so what will it take?
Not every performer can do every piece. If a good performance of a given piece is beyond your range, or requires accompaniment you cannot provide (or have provided), you should postpone performing that piece until you can give a good performance.
Is appropriate for the group I’ll be performing for?
Every group has a personality and a tone which you will learn to recognize. If you will be singing in an area where period music is considered the standard, save the war songs and perform your most period or period-sounding material. If filk or folk are more to the local taste, don’t feel that you can’t do period pieces, but choose ones that are light, accessible, and shorter rather than longer. If the audience includes children, small or otherwise, you should never perform bawdy pieces, and be cautious regarding raucous ones.
Is it a piece that someone else is doing and if so will that person be planning on performing it?
In many areas, one bard is associated with a piece, because they wrote it or because they have made a point of performing it often. In either case, it is considered good manners not to perform material that has already been, or is likely to be, performed by someone else. Master Baldwin of Erebor has sat through more than one performance of his very popular song “Burden of the Crown”, and for many people in Caid “The Great Silky” can only be done justice by Sir Charles of Dublin. This does not mean that you must never perform these songs, but you should be sensitive. If the piece you’re considering was written by, or is regularly performed by, someone who lives in the area, it’s best to avoid it when you’re there, or when they are present at the event.
Task #3 – Practice, Practice, Practice
Researchers have found that “irrespective of skill level, stimulating deliberate practice will likely improve performance.” Cultivating good practice habits might be the best investment a bard can make. Practice strengthens muscle memory, reinforces neurological connections between actions and words, and provides a bard with a cognitive buffer against the unexpected. The benefits of practice are ongoing, building from session to session and lasting a lifetime. But, to be effective and beneficial, practice needs be done correctly, so you don’t come to face the difficult task of unlearning bad habits. These are some things you should keep in mind:
Practice is performance for an audience of one.
When you start learning a new piece, start slowly. The most important things are the words, so pronouncing them correctly and clearly takes priority over speed or pacing. Once you have the pronunciation correct you can devote more attention to the cadence or melody. When you encounter a section that’s challenging, break it into smaller parts, even down to a single line. When you stumble, finish that small section before starting over from the beginning. If, in practice, you get in the habit of stopping, or exclaiming “Darn it!” when you make an error, it’s likely that you’ll do the same thing during your performance. Because of this, it is critical that you practice from a point before the difficult area, and that you don’t stop until after you’ve passed the part that’s tripping you up. Once you’ve learned that part, add it back into the whole.
Practice is performance for an audience of one, part two.
Don’t trust to luck what can be ensured by preparation. If you plan to walk around, gesture to the clouds, whatever, you need to do that thing in practice. You may feel slightly foolish, beckoning to phantom fighters alone at home, but the action will be much smoother and more graceful in front of an audience if you’ve done it before—and the more often before the better.
Be consistent in practice.
Don’t rearrange words or change melodies or meter from one practice to the next. If you have an idea for a change you’d like to make, give it a try, spend a little time and play with it. If you decide to keep it, practice the piece that way from that point on.
Be consistent in practice, part two.
Find a regular time to practice, every day if possible. It may be while you’re waiting for a bus, in the shower, or after the kids have gone to school (or after you’ve gotten home from school). Whenever it is, it will be more likely to happen if you’ve set time aside for it. You will find that as you become more and more familiar with a piece it will require less time to maintain a solid working knowledge of how to perform it.
Live performances include the audience reaction. Test-perform pieces in front of a test audience and be brave in asking for and accepting honest opinion. You cannot completely gauge your own performance. Testing with an audience will also reveal common reaction from the audience and allow you to fine tune the piece to lessen the chances that reaction will throw off your performance “flow”. Practice performances will also allow you to learn to read an audience and to know when to continue after an audience response (like laughter, applause, emotive quiet).
Task #4 Performance
You can ignore everything up to this point and still be a bard, but the one thing you must do is perform. You may have the greatest voice and the finest material, but if you haven’t shared it, what have you accomplished? It’s not easy to work up the courage to stand up in a bardic circle with all those strangers out there, but it’s got to be done, and you knew the job was dangerous when you took it.
Perform every chance you get.
And that means every chance you get, for anyone who’ll stand still long enough to hear you. This is the best cure for many illnesses: Stage fright, lack of confidence, inability to read an audience, and so on. Almost everything you need to know can be learned from the experience of performance in front of an audience.
Learn to keep a critical eye on your own performance.
Learn to distance yourself from your performance. This might be the single greatest benefit of practice; it lowers the cognitive load of performance, freeing up “processing” power for other things. You can use that extra processing power to evaluate your performance while it’s happening. Are the people listening to you? If not, what are they listening to? Maybe you need to be louder. On the other hand, if people in the front flinch every time you hit a high note, maybe you should back off a bit.
Don’t let yourself be intimidated.
We’ve all had it happen. We sit down at a bardic circle, and bard next to us stands up and blows the crowd away. Maybe they play an instrument, maybe they have a voice to die for, or maybe they are a brilliant poet. They finish amidst thunderous applause, and then all too quickly, everyone is looking at you. You may think you have choices, stand or flee, but in fact there is only one choice, STAND! You came here to take be a part of the bardic circle, and though you may not be the best bard in the room, you are still a bard and you deserve to be there. You’ve done your homework, you’re ready to go, so GO!! Once you’ve started running, it’s very hard to turn and face the foe, so don’t run.
After it’s over, let it go.
You’re not only as good as your last performance; you’re only as good as your next one. The last one is gone for better or worse: it cannot be called back. If you were great, that’s good, but it’s over now. If you were less than great, that’s bad but it’s gone, too. So, either go on to your next performance, or go back to practice and get better. No matter what, you cannot allow yourself to carry around feelings from the last time you performed. If you were good, you may not feel the need to practice, which has helped you do well to begin with. If you had some problems, you may be sorely tempted to abandon the quest, or too frightened to continue. Both are traps you must avoid.
Task #5 An Honest Evaluation
You did it. You researched material, you chose the piece you wanted to do, you practiced until you could do it in your sleep, then you went to the bardic circle and did it, and it went great! Now what? After the tourney’s over and you’re back in the real world, you need to ask yourself some questions, and you need to be honest about the answers.
What did I do wrong?
Did you forget the first line of the second verse? Need more practice? Did you do an eight-minute piece in under three minutes? Need more practice? Were you so quiet that no one more than three feet away could hear you? Need more practice? Get it?
What did I do right?
Was the pace perfect? Was your voice in good form? Did you change the tempo at just the right moment, and give it that gentle push from good to great? Pat yourself on the back and remember what you did for next time.
What would I change?
Things you might consider include: Next time don’t try to sing to everyone in the feast hall at the same time. Next time you do that piece hold the final note a little longer, say the last line a little slower, pause before revealing the answer to the riddle. Smile more, frown more, and make more eye contact.
Where to go from here?
There is no right—or wrong—way to be a bard. Bards come in all shapes and sizes. Some bards are interested in comedy, some in drama. Some bards are poets, some are storytellers, some love riddles, and some love songs about love tragically lost. The one thing they all have in common is a joy in sharing with others.
There are paths outside the bardic circle. There are bards who specialize in entertaining at feast and court, and others that find their pleasure in entertaining around a household fire. There are others whose passion is memorializing great deeds by individuals or groups, and some whose forte is in songs to lead an army to war. There are bards who do all of these things, and bards whose interests lie outside the scope of this primer. As you become more familiar with the scope of the Bardic Arts and their place, both in the context of history and in our Current Middle Ages, you may choose to take one of those paths, and I wish you all the success in the world.
But the bardic circle will always be your home, so come back and visit as often as you can.
Baron Thomas Bordeaux
*This document was written by Thomas Bordeaux (modernly JP Andrews) and reflects his personal views on the bardic arts and performance in the SCA based on his experiences in Caid, the West, Northshield, and other parts of the Known World. This is by no means the definitive text on bardic activities.
*** In addition to the author the following people have contributed to this document:
Alais de St. Germain
Adelaide de Beaumont
Charles of Dublin
The Nordskogen Bardic Workshop
 Christian Jarrett. “Practice, practice, practice … the benefits are ongoing,” The British Psychological Association Research Digest. 9/29/08. https://digest.bps.org.uk/2008/09/29/practice-practice-practice-the-benefits-are-ongoing/