The bardic audience

Prompted by a very good point made on Facebook by Robin Herne, I want to explore a set of skills that have huge value, but are seldom talked about. I’m warming up to teach a Pagan leadership course over at . Robin pointed out that there may well be as great a need for information on how to be a good follower, and I think he has a very good point. These are not skills we teach, either. It does not help that normal culture muddles this kind of thing into being subservient, which it isn’t.

It is really hard to do well as a performer if your audience are crap. It doesn’t matter how skilled or talented you are, a really shit audience can wreck an evening. Bad audiences aren’t listening, don’t care, talk to each other, have their mobile phones go off, get up and walk around in the middle of things, break atmospheres, show no respect and generally make the job hell for the poor sod at the front. Gigs where this kind of reception can be expected, are called ‘wallpaper gigs’ because that’s all you are – a musical backdrop. Performers take them because they need the money, but being wallpaper is soul destroying.

Being a good audience is about more than just sitting there quietly with the phone turned off. It is a skill, and you can hone it. A good audience is not merely listening, but engaged. It cares, it responds, it sings along, and participates, taking an active role in making the event work. One determined bardic audience member can shift the whole tone of an event.

As a young human, I always used to get up and dance if there was live music. I loved dancing and was not self-conscious about being the only person on the floor. I have observed repeatedly that most people are not willing to be the first one up, but when someone goes, others will follow. All of a sudden that which would have been a wallpaper gig turns into a meaningful interaction between performers and audience. The performers are boosted by this, so they play better, give more. The audience responds, and so a powerful feedback loop is created.

I’ve done it in the street, actually stopping to listen to buskers and applauding them at the end of a tune. Other people will feel able to join in. I know perfectly well that I’m capable of being an influential presence, and if I give someone my focused attention, it’s discernible. Other people get on-board.

Anyone can do this. Just give of yourself bit. Give your care and enthusiasm, your applause, your willingness to dance. Give your stillness and quiet, your respect. These are all good bard skills, and well worth honing. They also turn what might have been lacklustre evenings into engaging events. A performer cannot do it on their own. Singing, playing, storytelling into the void, or the noise, is unworkable. Just one person who is listening, who you can address things to, changes the entire nature of the arrangement.

We are too used to amplified entertainment over which you need to shout to be heard. We’re used to the darkened anonymity of big performance spaces, and we are accustomed to entertainment as wallpaper. It takes a bit of a wriggle to leave those ideas behind, and get back to a real engagement between performer and audience. That’s what bardic work is all about, but the performer cannot do the whole thing themselves.

About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, polyamourous animist, ant-fash, anti-capitalist, bisexual steampunk. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

22 responses to “The bardic audience

  • Robin

    Joyce Grenfell had some interesting things to say about how a performance is an interaction between the artist and the audience.

  • Robert Leland Hall

    Then a Taoist thought on this bardic mind set would also include the promethean posture of ” Do not lead I may not follow and do not follow I may not lead” Neither leading or following is a requirement and being engaged is a personal expression of self that is not subject to the tyranny of the audience or an subset thereof.

  • Talis Kimberley

    *Stands and applauds* Oh, world of YES!

    Never ever underestimate how much it means to a performer to see you smile, nod, light up at a resonant phrase, or mention afterwards ‘I really liked the one about…’ – because however long we’ve been doing this, and however confident we may be that we are capable performers in the right setting, the question each time is not ‘Did I do the right notes and words?’ but ‘Did I connect with the audience? Did I move someone? Did I take them places and bring them back changed?’

    I’ve had gigs utterly *made* by the smile of the woman in the front row at *that* line, or the chap over there who was drinking in every word despite all his mates ignoring the music completely…

    It’s an energy exchange, at its best. And I can go on and on about this, so I shall shut up now. Nimue, as ever, thank you for your wisdom and clarity.

  • BART Station Bard

    You make some very good points. Audiences can indeed push the energy higher and we make something more together than we can separately. But having just come off Grafton St. in Dublin, and made shite, I have to say that the responsibility always lies squarely on my shoulders. When I play for the love of the song, it doesn’t matter who’s listening. No one can destroy my performance but me. When I forget everything but the story, I catch ears. When I catch ears, yet more magic can happen.

    An audience has always been a gauge for me. I can tell how I’m doing, particularly on a street or in a transit station, where I have an ever-changing audience, by what the people passing by do. It is the very opposite of soul-destroying. It is the best education a performer can have. I get constant feedback. The size of the circle around me not only tells me how well I’m doing, it tells me exactly where I can and cannot be heard clearly. The looks on peoples’ faces, the smiles, even the sneers, tell me the effect I’m having. They tell me which songs work, and in what venues. Best of all, busking makes you absolutely fearless if you let it. I can jump into anything now, and if it doesn’t go over well, I learn from it and don’t take it personally.

    An audience owes me nothing. If I can get them to give it to me willingly, I win. I am the performer, it is my responsibility to give a good performance. Like Ogmios, I need to attach those golden chains to my audience’s ears and lead them where I will.I concentrate on the ones who are willing. The rest don’t matter.

    • Nimue Brown

      I have busked, and agree with everthing you’ve said about that. BUT in a busking context, people aren’t expecting you necessarily, they aren’t there for any kind of entertainment, so the dynamic is different to start with, and it is playing for the love of the music that has the most power to engage. You have to busk for yourself, precisly becaue there is no fixed audience to bounce off. Totally agreed that a shite performance won’t engage people and that’s as it should be.

  • Busking in Ireland | bardicrose

    […] This is partly inspired by a recent post by <a href=””>Nimue Brown</a>, which had some excellent points to make about the quality of the audience and its […]

  • lornasmithers

    I think at any performance you’re likely to get people who are disinterested in your particular style or theme or disengaged due to tiredness or other concerns. I think it’s a performer’s job to be engaging, to explain the work in a way most people can connect with and deliver it with passion in a coherent way. Still, best efforts don’t always work. I tend to try to focus on the few who are clearly hooked and nodding along. And analyse objectively afterward whether the fault lay with me, the setting, mood or if people were disengaged for other reasons.

    • Nimue Brown

      I entirely agree that when you come at it as a performer, you have to think in these terms. With other hats on, I’ve done a lot of facilitating over the years, and setting out to be a good audience can enable people to do that which they might not otherwise have even tried. I think there’s much in current culture that teaches us very uch how not to be a good audience. We’re over stimulated and encouraged to have short attention spans, for a start. Takes some getting over, and I think there’s much benefit to the individual in learnng how to do that.

  • Robert Leland Hall

    So much well meaning but none-the-less self indulgent prattle—–The performer has only one obligation and that is to be true to his or her vision and the audience is but a collection of empty vessels shaped by their here-to-fore experiemces. The Zen is in the moment.

    • Nimue Brown

      Easily said and far harder to achieve, especially if we don’t talk about it. I happen to consider that there is much value and merit in discussion and sharing experience and ideas. That’s the whole point of this blog, Robert. If you find it to be self indulgent prattle, it would be better for you, and for the rest of us to take your energy into a space or activity that works for you. And for what its worth, I think there is no reason whatsoever to view and audience as ’empty vessels’ people come full of ideas and experiences of their own, bringing their on energy to the occasion, and when we honour that and work with it we get far better performances than if we assume these are empty jugs waiting to be filled. I think that’s a counterproductive attitude at best, actully quite disrespectiful of the majority and missing out on the power of the audience to be co-creators.

      • Robert Leland Hall

        Your self indulgence is now replace withan ignorantlack of understanding —Note—The meataphor is the shape and volume of each vessel is what each member richly brings—–You are so self absorbed that you choose to lecture others rather than listen to the thoughts of others with clarity—— Your response is exactly what I was cautioning about——Yes , we learn through discourse—–You on the other hand appear to need the audiience to justify your existence and feel needed—-A true artist( ie. performer) will play to an empty house and still feel fulfilled by the joy of expressing his or her vision—–BUT you are so much smarter than the rest of us —-I will yield to your GOD like Pressence.—–You indignation is quit dissappointing !!!!!

  • Talis Kimberley

    I will not sit idly by and see a friend so treated. Nimue, stand your ground; you speak grace and wisdom with dignity. I am shaking with anger on your behalf and stand beside you in every word you have said here.

    Your measured and mannerly response to this gentleman’s first comment here says so much that is strong about you.

    I will not say in public what his words say to me about him. They speak volumes.

  • Robin

    Maybe there’s a future blog post on the nature of the “artistic temperament”?

    • Robert Leland Hall

      To the overly emotional—-I listen because I want to hear everything including what I don’t agree with—-I speak to share my promethean thoughts (Do not lead I may not follow—Do not follow I may not lead) If we only listen to the people we agree with—- we will never grow—I had hoped the Druidic nature of this site and it’s following would rise to a greater calling—MAYBE NOT?—I enjoy the thoughts contained here in —–even when I disagree—-What you want is my silence and others, so you can avoid true growth—“The Death of the Forest”—–I will obstain from any further truths or questions that come to mind—- I am obviously to stupid to have any ideas worth the time of the devoted reads of this blog on this mortal plane. Say Hi to Zeus the next time you gather and talk!

  • Chantelle

    I can only speak from my own (21 years) of performing as a musician, but I find a lot of what Nimue has said rings true for me.

    I perform not just to make music but to communicate with an audience. I have felt the deep, dragging sensation of trying to drum up the energy to give a good show to an audience who look like they’d rather be dead than be sat down, listening and engaging with my art. I have had a really crummy day pulled up to the greatest heights by an audience that listens, smiles and feeds back with their own energy (and, sometimes, voices).

    There’s energy there. The audiences who make a gig enjoyable and worth all the time practising and travelling are the ones who take the energy the performer gives out, adds a bit of their own and then throws it back to the performer (who then, give it back to the audience etc.).

    The best gigs I have been to as a performer or a punter have been the ones where there is a tangiable connection between the performer and the audience through the link of the music. I enjoy being on both sides of that emotional, intellectual and energetic ‘conversation.’

    As a performer, I open up so much of myself on stage as to be vulnerable. It’s akin to opening oneself up to a new friendship or relationship but not exactly the same. When I sing, I’m holding out a piece of my soul to the audience and saying “will you join me?” When the audience looks back with blank faces and no intention of bothering to meet me half way then, quite frankly, I wonder why I’m wasting my energy and making myself vulnerable.

    (I should not that I really some audiences look emotionless because they are either focusing on listening intently or they don’t quite know how to do the emotional feedback to a performer thing. It’s not wrong, it just makes thing bleedin’ hard for the person giving their soul and creative spirit on stage!)

    For the record, I do make music just for the pure joy of doing so. I do that in my own home or with friends in an informal setting. I don’t have to haul myself up on stage to get a buzz from making music. It’s a completely different thing (for me, at least).

    Coming from the other side of the Looking Glass, I do try to be an actively ‘good’ audience member. Even if I’m listening to something that isn’t my cup of tea, I focus on the performance so the performer knows they’ve got at least one person who isn’t considering them to be a commodity. It takes guts to get up on the stage in the first place – I’ll at least give someone my attention for that.

    In general, I treat people how I would like to be treated; being a member of an audience is no different. I hope that comes across to the performers I go to watch.

    As a slight addendum: Nimue, please keep writing your interesting and insightful posts. I enjoy them and I look forward to seeing your latest post pop up every day in mt Facebook feed. Trust me, I choose to read what you write; if I didn’t like what I was reading then I would have the maturity and good grace to not read and I would go and spend my time reading things I did want to read.

    I’m still here. I’m still reading.

    You share so much. Know that, at least in my corner of the world, your generosity of spirit and your sharing of words is much appreciated. Thank you, lovely lady.

  • Nimue Brown

    Thank you Chantelle, Tallis, Robin, much appreciated. The thing is that despite whatever a person might choose to read into my blogging, I’m not much of an ego. Each post is a risk, offered up in uncertainty, often nervously, a best guess based on what I have today. I know I get things wrong, or more often simply do not know things that would extend and enrich the debate, and that’s inevitable. I greatly enjoy the wisdom and insights that other people bring here. I’ve always welcomed challenges to go deeper, push harder, look further. I’m delighted to talk to people who see differently, and there have been many such on many topics. There is nothing I can do with a person who has decided that I am a certian way. I recognise that there is no way I can defend myself from someone who has decided who I am and feels entitled to attack me based on that. I don’t usually censor such input. I delete obvious spam – ie that which has nothing to do with topic, site or Druidry – but I will let Robert say what he likes, so long as he does not attack or harass anyone else who posts here.

    But, I mention this on the offchance Robert is still reading: Don’t come at me with abusive insults, don’t denigrate me, and then expect me to welcome your ‘insight’. Argue points, by all means, but do so respectfully. You get touchy about far milder come backs from me than the phrases you fling out.That’s your problem, not mine, but I’m really not interested in whether you like me or not, I don’t owe you anything, and if you do not like my blog, please go away becaue you aren’t doing anyone any good here.

    • Chantelle

      A respectful and thoughtful response there, Nimue, and a calmer one than I would have given in your place.

      I would add, to the last sentence in your first paragraph, that you should be included in the number who should not be harassed or attacked. You have as much right to be treated civilly as the rest of us.

  • Robert Leland Hall

    Rather than asking me to expand on my philosophical thoughts you attacked me inaccurately at best—-I am the injuried party—Re-Read carefully—You and some of the sycophants have no interest in expanding your universe——-I have said that I find your writing and thoughts to very enjoyable——However It appears that you are not able rise above the conflict created by sometimes diametrically verying view points——-Your solution is take your ball and go home (METAPHORICALLY SPEAKING).

    I embrace the concept that if two of us have the same opinion one of us is unnecessary.

    You may believe in the concept if two of us have a different opinion one of us should go away.

    • Nimue Brown

      Please share your philosophical insights with us, Robert, we would all very much like to hear them. In fact, I will offer you a guest blog space (I recommend about 1000 words) if you want to lay out whatever it is that you feel so strongly about and that I have thus far failed to pick up on and treat with the respect you feel it deserves.

      • Robert Leland Hall

        I intend to read your Blog much more passively for now—You don’t need my thoughts, its’ your space and your voice and your vision that the audience has come to enjoy( myself included), each according to their own strengths —some passively and some proactively—-I tend to live outside the box that will never change

  • Robert Leland Hall

    “Dru” refers to truth – making a “Dru-id” a truth-knower. It is said that the Druids could walk between two armies waged in war and dispel the hostilities causing them to discontinue the fight.

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