Tag Archives: bard skills

Learning things by heart

Memorising is a traditional bardic skill and it’s a wonderful thing to do. In learning something you form a much deeper relationship with it, and it becomes part of you. It is scary – performing from memory without a safety net is a really exposed thing to do and you can fall and fail – but you really feel it when you fly. And if you sauntered onto the bard path the odds are that you crave the applause, the audience response and the glory to some degree.

There are people, and my son is one of them, who seem able to absorb vast amounts of text with very little effort. For most of us, it is a slog taking time and repetition. To learn things by heart you also have to learn how much work that takes. It’s easy to be put off and to assume you can’t do it… but it can just be a case of needing to make more effort than you expected. The more you learn by heart, the better your memory becomes and the easier it gets.

Not everyone can commit things to memory. Not everyone who can memorise finds they can perform from memory. It’s worth investing time and effort in building familiarity with material even if you do then need the safety net. It’s vitally important that bardic spaces don’t require you to memorise – that’s abelist. Further, no one should have to explain what their issues are if they don’t perform from memory.

Here are some things I’ve found helpful when trying to learn something by heart…

Little and often is better than big sessions. Go over the material every day.

Start trying to do it – or bits of it – from memory as soon as you can. It doesn’t matter how bad you are. If you just work from the paper you get used to the paper. Trying to reconstruct the piece from memory will really help you, even if you spend most of the time going ‘tum te tum’ between key words.

Play with the material. Messing about helps with learning. But also be careful because you don’t want to learn the wrong words. Comedy versions can be great, but don’t set yourself up to remember the wrong words!

Don’t worry about getting it wrong. The chances many people – or for that matter any person in your audience knows the material better than you do, are small. If you present the piece with confidence and a smile, people will be persuaded that you know it. Mistakes delivered with certainty are seldom noticed. If you need to brazen it out, that was how Granny always said it, or ‘folk process’ are always options. As a bard, a good story can be more pertinent than a disappointing and useless truth. If you go off-text you can also always say that you were in the grip of the Awen and that’s simply what turned up!

Bard Skills – getting off the page

When it comes to performing in public, it’s certainly better to go out armed with a piece of paper or two than not perform at all. For the new bard, singing or speaking in front of people is intimidating enough, and anxiety does not improve a person’s ability to remember the words. However, the piece of paper can become a barrier between performer and audience. Paper is nothing but trouble in the dark, the rain or the wind, and the person who knows their stuff can bard whenever the opportunity arises, they don’t need their songbook…

How do you make the transition from sheet of paper to no sheet of paper? Many people assume they can just keep singing or reading from the sheet, and they will learn it that way, and then they won’t need the paper. Unhelpfully, it doesn’t work like that, and the longer you spend with the paper the more dependent on it you can feel.

The trick is to start working without the paper as soon as you can. Read it all through a few times, get familiar with it, and then put the paper down and start seeing what you can remember. You will spend chunks of time having to go ‘la la la I don’t know this bit but I do know the line that comes next’. That might seem like making a mess, but it isn’t, it’s a good way to learn. Try and work from memory. Every now and then, go back to the original and see what you’re missing, and look at what hasn’t stuck, and make mental note, and carry on.

One of the consequences of working this way is that you will ‘folk process’ the material. You’ll swap in words and turns of phrase that better suit your voice, dialect or speech style. Maybe you’ll modernise bits, or change the rhythm, or make other changes. This is actually a good thing. We aren’t in the business of doing faithful cover versions, we’re doing this to engage with a living tradition, and in a living tradition, things are allowed to grow and change. They have to. Over time, archaic language falls out of older songs, and new words sneak in. Some songs have multiple tunes, different lyrics – a consequence of things changing as they pass from one performer to another, or being deliberately updated.

If you’re working with your own material, the learning process can be a developing process, and you may find this works as a way of editing your creations.

What starts out as a mistake, can turn out to be a valuable innovation. It may be the thing that helps you make this piece your own.

Learning the material in this way makes it easier to adapt it for the moment. If you know the words in a more flexible way, you can change them if you need to – and for a bard, being able to slip in the odd contemporary reference or play to the audience is a good idea. Knowing the song, or the story can be a lot more about knowing the shape of it intimately, than being bogged down in exactly which words go where. Poetry can be a bit more rigid in requiring the same words, but if you look at Shakespeare, you’ll often find multiple versions of that, and the folk process at work there too. Alas Poor Yorick. Lead on MacDuff.

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 http://www.patheos.com . 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.