by Gwendolyn the Graceful, Brehyres, Sylvan Bard.
Have you ever heard (or made) any of these statements?
“Oh, I am not really a ‘bardic arts’ type person.”
“I really don’t care for bardic.”
“Filk just isn’t my idea of fun.”
“The problem with bardic arts is that it’s all so bad.”
I’ve heard those statements (and similar sentiments) a LOT over the years.
Last Pennsic, I was lucky enough to have a great conversation with some amazing performers from Ansteorra. We got onto the topic of the bad reputation that the “bardic arts” gets in the SCA, and I pointed out that most of the time, what people really *mean* when they say one or more of the above statements, is not, actually, that they hate the Bardic Arts – or even that they don’t think the Bardic Arts have a place in the Society. What they mean are things like this:
“I’ve been scarred by bad performances.”
“Bards demand attention whether or not I’m willing to give it to them.”
“Performing artists are a disruption.”
“It’s all filk and out-of-period music. Silly Wizard ruins my Medieval experience!”
Along with the bad reputation, there’s also another component inherent in the allergy some people have to the “bardic arts” – it’s that as a Society, we are supposed to encourage the arts, or in terms that the bardic community itself has used, provide venue. This means that if a bard comes and performs at you, you’re supposed to listen and be appreciative, and sometimes that’s a disruption. It could mean suspending a conversation or waiting to speak to someone. It could mean having to sit through a story that seems to have no end. It could mean listening to a song that does not fit one’s mood, or to a singer who can’t seem to find her key with a two-handled bucket.
But I submit that, if you find yourself in the grip of these damaging experiences, then you are not a victim of the “bardic arts” themselves, but rather, an unwitting target of a Bad Bard, or worse, a Rude Bard.
Let’s go back to my conversation at Pennsic for a moment, because I want to be careful in defining a Bad Bard. There are actually *four* types of Bards in the SCA, as my Ansteorran friend pointed out: Beginning Bards; Learning Bards; Improving Bards; and Bad Bards. There may be overlap, but it’s important to recognize the major differences, in order to save any members of the first three categories from becoming forever a member of the fourth one. I’ll cover each one briefly in turn.
Beginning Bards are usually new to the Society and possibly to the idea of performing altogether. They may have some background in theatre, or not, or they may have been told by someone that they had a good voice and should pursue being a bard, or they may have just decided this is something they’d like to try. Beginning bards usually have little to no real repertoire. The songs they do have are from pseudo-SCA-friendly sources, reflecting the type of stuff that probably attracted them to the SCA in the first place. Irish folk music, Stan Rogers, modern folk songs, the inevitable filk song, and for storytellers, shaggy dogs and no-kidding-there-I-was stories are the hallmark of a beginning bard.
Beginning bards are often beginning performers in general, so it’s to be expected that they may not have good control over their instruments, as well as their limited stash of material to get them through a circle. This means their pitch may wander; they may lack breath support or the ability to reach an entire hall with their voice. They may not have pieces memorized. They don’t have a well-developed sense of *when* their contributions are appropriate or not.
The beginning bard, above everything else, fears rejection. She fears to be told that her efforts are wholly inadequate and unacceptable. She is afraid her audience will dislike her, and afraid that her skills will meet with others’ discouragement.
What she craves is to be pointed toward material that will help her gain a foothold. Remember that the same music she’s performing may have been part of what disposed you toward the SCA, too! She may need some lessons in the proper use of her voice, or some gentle advice about how to practice so that she will not wander through different keys in the course of her presentation. But above all, she needs to practice to develop the confidence that will produce a learning bard.
Learning bards have taken their first steps toward correcting the most common mistakes of a beginning bard. They are building an appropriate repertoire, they have started working on breath, pitch, dynamics, and all the other nuances of a performance that captures its intended audience. They recognize that they still have a long way to go, however.
Learning bards are eager to find venues in which to practice. They are similar to the novice weaver or illuminator who brings work to any and every event, not only to pass the time but to actively seek others who can observe, critique, and encourage the work in progress. Learning bards need venue because they *know* they need to improve, but they don’t know *how* to improve. They’re dissatisfied with their performances–not because they receive only criticism, but because they see others’ performances and know they can do more and better, also.
A learning bard can practice all he wants at home, but without the feedback of performance, he can’t tell what works and what does not. He needs to learn to analyze his piece for its natural peaks, valleys, characters, and interpretation. He may need reminders about habits that he relies on, but which detract from his performance. Mostly, the learning bard is actively looking for ways to grow into an improving bard.
Improving bards have a solid repertoire, but are always looking for new pieces to learn or to explore. They have enough experience to know what pieces work well for their voice, style, persona, or otherwise “fit” into the rest of their material. They know how to separate their performance into “beats,” or sections, with emphasis on dramatic lows and highs. They prepare their pieces well and tend to workshop their work in friendly spaces to finalize it. They know how to alter, shorten, transpose, or otherwise tailor their repertoire to their own strengths. The improving bard is always looking for opportunities to perform, not necessarily just to receive feedback, but because the act of performing is itself how they “have fun” with their art.
That doesn’t mean that all improving bards have to perform all the time. Most improving bards have been around long enough that they understand when it’s appropriate and when it’s not, when it’s desired, and when it would be an imposition. They look for chances to give their art in the same way that scribes ask for assignments or seamstresses volunteer to make garb for others – because it’s how they pass the time, it’s how they contribute, and because it’s fun.
In contrast, “bad bards” are the ones that make the other bards cringe, because, generally speaking, they are the ones who make little or no effort. They are the bards who do not learn, who do not improve, who think they can perform on the fly without having prepared, without having practiced a piece, without having shaped and crafted it, without making sure that it’s wanted, without fitting it to their strengths, and without regard for the impact their performance has (or doesn’t have). Bad bards, in short, don’t think they have anything to learn, and they don’t think they need to improve.
The corollary to this is a “Rude bard” – one who perhaps has practiced, at least a little bit, but who generally shows little regard or little sensitivity to whether their song, story, poem, or other offering is really desired by the people in the immediate vicinity.
Our goal as bards is to transform “bad bards” into learning ones, or even improving ones, by treating them exactly like their beginning or learning compadres. Grant venue, listen, compliment what’s good, make suggestions if you have them, and point them toward someone who can help them with their trouble areas. ALL bards need practice; ALL bards need to work on their songs before they perform them publicly. ALL bards need to know when and where and how to present their art.
How to Listen
Okay, that may be true, but then what about someone who isn’t interested in listening to bards at all?
Most bards are working on some performance or other, and even if they’re not, they still enjoy getting together and singing, sharing tales, and hanging out. It takes a minimum of three to make a bardic circle. (We’ve tested this!) When three or more get together and break out the tunes, the instruments, and the stories, don’t panic! Mostly they are just having fun for and with each other. Stop and listen for a bit. It won’t kill you, honest. Audiences are appreciated, they make bards grateful, and you just might hear a song you like.
If you really don’t want to listen, that’s fine. Just like not everyone wants to sit in a sewing circle, or listen to battle stories over and over, not everyone likes attend a concert all the time. If a circle is going, though, then most of the bards in it are not depending on every audience member’s rapt attention. They’re performing for each other, and for the joy of being able to perform in a place where they have reason to believe it’s welcome.
So, if you stumble on a bardic circle, but you don’t want to give it venue, stay on the outside of it. Please be respectful and have quiet conversations or move away to converse. (It’s totally okay to walk away, especially if a circle is not going well.) But if you do find yourself the target of a new or learning bard, or even a bad bard, I hope you’ll bear in mind ways to assess their level of experience and then constructively point them toward performers who can help them improve.
One word about the accusations that bardic music is all bad filk or out-of-period. A lot of it is filk. A lot of it is kinda iffy. A lot of it is out-of-period, too. But the array of music performed in the bardic arts of the SCA is much wider than it was twenty years ago. Just as our feasts, garb, feast gear, footwear, hats and nearly everything else have become more finely tuned over the years, so too have bards been busy writing new music on historical or SCA-appropriate subject matter, and learning how to sprinkle in period music in ways that are accessible to modern audiences. Bardic arts still may not be everyone’s bag, but they’re not what they were. And bad bards can only be improved by recognizing what they need to fix.
Over the next months, I hope to highlight some amazing performers within our Kingdom, expose you to some inspiring music, poetry, and tales, and raise the profile of the bardic arts in Æthelmearc.