Tag Archives: bard

MCing as a bardic skill

At first glance, taking on the role of master of ceremonies for an event might look more like organising than bard craft. However, to do it well, you need a quicksilver tongue and the ability to improvise. A good MC is a good bard. The job of MC means reacting off the cuff to all the performances and to any other unforeseen events. To shape the enthusiasm of many into something coherent takes skill, and to make an evening out of a bunch of people doing stuff isn’t as easy as it looks.

If an event is being run by someone who gets up to introduce and thank performers, then the style of that person will shape the whole gathering. Whether it feels competitive or inclusive, whether there’s a sense of hierarchy or an equal footing, whether some performers are more valued than others, will often be determined by what the MC does.

Of course the being judgemental is important – the bard praises the excellent, and may try to find ways to quietly re-direct the people who are way off the mark, and will act to stop the disruptive and so forth. That judgement will often come over in the nuance of a turn of phrase, or a hint in the body language because if you are heavy handed you can lose the audience.

When the MC is relaxed, good humoured and encouraging, more people may feel empowered to have a go. A good word at the end of a piece can lift a performer and inspire them to renewed efforts and greater confidence.

The MC creates the flow of an event, smoothes the transition between performers, gives shape to what might otherwise be chaos. The MC is the one who makes sure that a bardic space does not simply get taken over by the loudest and most confident, but holds room for those who aren’t as brash and assertive. Without someone in this role, it’s easy for a dominant few or a clique to take over a performance space and exclude anyone who is not one of their own, or not pushy enough to get in.

Often, when an MC does a good job, you barely notice them. They foreground the performers and keep things running smoothly, and they will barely feature in your memory of what happened. Those who have taken MCing to another level may be doing it as performance in its own right, which is also a fine way of working. MCs who can make the audience laugh, and can drop their own gems into the mix without breaking the flow can be very engaging to watch. MCs who are performers can be the opening act for the event, using their own performance to warm up and settle down the audience to the benefit of everyone else.


Bardic – creating spaces

One of the things you may be called upon to do as a bard, is to create a performance space. There’s no way of doing this that is right, it’s a case of considering the space, and the intention and nature of the gathering.

If you use a performer/audience model with the audience in rows and the performer(s) at the front, then you elevate the status of the performer and encourage the audience to be an audience. It can take longer to get performers on and off, and if there is more than one performer then someone must act as master of ceremonies and handle the changes. In some venues, this layout raises issues of who can see and hear – a stage is often essential, amplification may be necessary. If there are a lot of people, this is often the best layout to use.

Working in the round puts everyone on an equal footing, there is no ‘front’ and everyone is able to interact, so there’s much less divide between audience and performer. If most of the audience are also performing, this can be preferable, and quicker. It does create a more casual atmosphere, and does not give the same status lift to performers. It can make the space slightly harder to control. In a circle of under thirty people, this layout is viable, but if it gets to be a larger crowd, you may have to have inner and outer circles, which will cost you some of the inherent democracy.

When you’re running a space, it’s good to test the acoustics of it and find out if there are any sweet spots for getting your voice to carry, or any dead spot to avoid using altogether, or encourage the accordion players into! They don’t need any help to be heard.

Never try and run an event from a position of having your back to the door. Make sure you can see the majority of movement in the room. If you’re outside, try and find something to have at your back – a tree for example – so that people can’t creep up on you. To hold a space you need to know what’s going on in it.


Finding a direction

It’s been clear to me over the last few weeks that one of the underlying problems for me with my creativity, has been a lack of direction. I needed a sense of what the work would be *for*. I’ve long since established that money does not motivate me to write, and most of us in this industry will never make much money anyway. I came to writing as a child, wanting to say something that would make a difference, but that’s far too vague.

It’s been like finding the pieces of a puzzle, and those of you who read posts every day may have noticed the trajectory that’s been developing. I didn’t know there was a trajectory even until a couple of days ago, but sometimes you have to keep doing a thing before it becomes properly conscious and visible.

I’ve made several bardic dedications in the past, and they’ve tended to be about using my skills for the good of the tribe, and the good of the land. I’m returning to this concept with some very specific ideas about what it means in the current climate.

Many of us are alienated from our own bodies. Most of us live in ways that are deeply at odds with what our animal bodies need. We don’t experience those alienated bodies as being in the land, in the seasons, in the soil as a culture. Certainly there are individuals who do, but most people are alienated from their natural mammal selves. Provoked into thinking about this by Becoming Animal by David Abram, I think he’s right and that our treatment of the Earth is only possible because of our deep alienation.

I’ve experienced that alienation – trauma caused a retreat into my head, a dislocation from my feeling self. Stress and anxiety kept me there. I’ve spent years finding my way back towards my own body, and finding my body in the physical realm it inhabits. I can speak to the being lost, and to the process of returning. Dedicating to reconnecting person and planet serves my own journey and healing, but it also means I should have enough insight to be helpful to others.

Having just read a book that has greatly impacted on my life, I am reminded that writing is powerful, and can change things for people. I can’t fix everything, but I can work in a way that supports the idea of all the changes I want to see being possible. It’s a place to stand, and as I’ve managed to write a poem and a song in the last week, I think it’s a place I can work from.


Where is my inspiration?

To be creative, to be innovative, a person needs inspiration. We call it the fire in the head, with reference to Yeats. For much of my adult life, it’s been a given – a head full of ideas and a heart full of a passion for creating. What happens if it isn’t there, or if it goes away?

When finding the words for a blog post, or a simple email takes considerable effort.

Last summer, I decided to change tack and try to sort out more of my general body and mental health issues rather than worrying about where my inspiration had gone. My theory was that fixing those things might well solve the awen issue anyway. I can’t say it has. I take more time off, rest more, I’ve tried to increase the amount of stuff I’m exposed to that could inspire me, but the fire in my head is just old, cold ashes.

A few observations on life for this blog is the best, and often the only writing I do in a day. I’m not often motivated to get out an instrument, or to learn new music. I’ve written a couple of poems in the last six months. Nothing comes. Nothing sparks. Nothing flows.

I know if I was talking to anyone else about this, I would tell them that inspiration is something we’re all entitled to, and so is creativity. I’d tell them that their creativity mattered, and was wanted and needed.

Part of the trouble is that I know that fiction and poetry are the least helpful things I can do with my time. There are so many creative people struggling right now, because the creative industries are an exploitative mess. The world has more writers than it needs, by factors of a lot. It needs more reviewers and book bloggers and readers and people who support the idea of creative culture. Doing that has become my day job, and I do it well.

Being a creative person can make you the centre of attention, make you feel important, and valued. That’s attractive, and it’s part of why so many people want to write books and so forth. Giving up on the idea that my vision (now absent) my creativity (now lacking) is important is part of the process I’m in. I think what I can make as a creative person is less useful, less needed than what I can do by spending my time and energy on blogs and social media supporting other writers and creative people.

How do I justify giving time over to writing, when I could be helping other people? And that’s without opening the can of worms that is activism and the need to change and fix so many things in the world. Fiction is the least useful thing I can do right now. I think it’s this awareness, beyond all else, that has cost me my creative inspiration. Nothing has come into my head that seemed big enough, powerful enough, intense enough, passionate enough to be more important than any of the other things I could do with my time.

Maybe, if I push the other way, I can make it more feasible for other creative people to create. I do believe that has worth, and the more I can do there, the more worth it will have.

Last autumn I thought long and hard about rededicating to the bard path, but am increasingly thinking that what I need to do is dedicate myself to other people’s bardistry instead.


Bardic initiation

Many Druid gatherings offer bardic initiations, although what’s meant by this can vary. My first initiation was at Stonehenge, in the dew of a midsummer morning, and I repeated back the words and wasn’t sure about them at all, but such is life. As a bard of the Lost Forest I both initiated bards, and re-dedicated myself.

It’s natural to want rites of passage to mark important points in the journey, but it’s also important to ask, and keep asking what initiation does, what it’s for, what it means.

Some people may experience a bardic initiation as opening them up to the Awen. For some, it’s an affirmation – community recognition of what they’re doing. For some, it will be a doorway opening onto a new path, and for some there is very little effect.

It’s good to make dedications, and to have them witnessed, and rituals can provide the ideal opportunity for this. I think the essence of dedicating to the bard path is dedicating to creativity, to honouring and working with the flows of inspiration and using that inspiration for the good of the land, and tribe – however you identify those. It is creativity as a spiritual journey, but to be a bard is to be public facing as well. Dedicating to this is powerful, if it’s meant and as is always the way of it, the more you invest in it, the more powerful it will be.

I feel quite strongly that true bardic initiation doesn’t happen as a thing that is done to you, or given to you in a ritual. It happens when you perform, and it happens repeatedly. The first time you step up as a bard, is a rite of passage. The first time you take any new way of performing into a public space. The first time you face a microphone, or you cock up in public – these are all rites of initiation. Either you go through them and grow, or you falter. Every time something magical happens while you’re creating or performing, there is also an aspect of being initiated into a new level.

No one can do this to you, or for you. It’s between you and the Awen, and the odds are each round will be a private process.


Bardic: Performance and the Awen

The awen (a Welsh word) is invoked by Druids in ritual, usually by chanting it. This is one of the traditions we owe to revivalists, not to ancient history. However, the experience of flowing inspiration is something that can and does happen – during periods of creativity, but also sometimes when performing.

For me, it’s a sensation of being completely taken over by what I’m doing and being able to do it in a totally different way – with more drama, intensity and depth than usual. On rare occasions, it’s had some very odd effects indeed. I recall a ritual when three of us spontaneously improvised music together, and another ritual where I re-wrote one of my own songs as I went to better fit the situation. I had no real memory afterwards of what I’d sung.

Awen is something that turns up when it does – it cannot be summoned by force or will. You have to be open to it, welcoming of it, ready for it, and also perfectly able to keep going if that other level of magic doesn’t happen. Sometimes it comes as a trickle, adding a sparkle to what you were doing. Sometimes it’s a tidal wave that will wash you away.

When it comes, it is best to let that flow direct things rather than trying to control it. If you want the kind of magic controlled by will and personal intent, this is not something to try and court. If you are willing to be a flute the awen can play its own tunes through, it may do just that.


Bardic Skills: focus or diversify?

It’s impressive to do something well, and it is more impressive to do many things well. Thus the temptation can be to try and develop a vast array of skills, to write and recite poetry, and tell stories, and sing, and play four different musical instruments… Over time, having a broad skills base is a wholly realistic aim, but how much and how soon is worth pondering.

There are more advantages to diversifying than just looking good. If you just sing, a cold can wipe you out. Musical instruments do not benefit from going out in the rain. If there are four storytellers and you, choosing not to be a storyteller that day will help you stand out.

One significant risk of diversifying is that you end up being the sort of person who is forever starting new things, but never getting any of them anywhere. Picking up a new skill can be a way of not risking exposing yourself. You throw everything at the new thing, but never take it out because before you do, another new thing has come along. It can be a means for being really self-defeating while feeling like you’re making lots of progress and doing good work.

There are lots of very good reasons to focus on just one thing – not least being if you love that thing above all else. The person who invests all the time at their disposal in one discipline will move further and faster than a person with a more scattered approach. However, not all of us are psychologically cut out for that sort of focus and devotion – I’m not, I get bored easily, and so I can play several instruments passably, I can sing well enough, I’m an adequate sort of poet and a mediocre storyteller. But, I can usually find something to suit the situation, and I mostly get away with it.

It’s important to know who you are – obsessive or procrastinating, a one trick pony, an old dog with a hunger for new tricks… Who you are is the single biggest factor in deciding how much to focus and how much to diversify. That said, I recommend having one thing you’re invested enough in to feel confident and relaxed about, and at least one thing up your sleeve to cover for the times when what you normally do won’t really work.


Bardic Magic – collaboration

There are a number of aspects to bardic magic, but I think inspiration and the flow of it in a creative context lies at the heart of the experience. If you’ve set out to walk the bard path, creativity obviously speaks to you already, but how does a person take that up a level?

Working with other people offers some options. For me, just being around people whose work I find exciting and inspiring can have a huge effect. Being in a space where other people are being creative – be that a workshop or something less formal – can be an encouragement to create. Having people to share your own creativity with can be an incentive to get busy.

Doing creative things with people is really interesting stuff. I’m going to write about singing just to give it a focus, but from experience anything you can do collectively will create similar possibilities, although I think collective singing has a particular magic of its own.

There’s an intimacy, and a sense of involvement when you put voices together – as true for chanting protest slogans as it is for songs. There’s a real sense of being together. Any participation will give you that if you are open to it.

When people are skilled and experienced, they can fall into singing together really easily – improvising together, playing with the playing. This can be possible just from a depth of musical experience. It can be a powerful and moving experience to share with people in this way.

However, sometimes, for reasons that defy explanations, something amazing happens. It’s not always about the quality of music produced – although often the results are beyond what could have been expected. People sing together, and something emerges that is more than the sum of its parts. For me, it’s a sense that the music is coming from somewhere else, as though between them, the people involved have opened a doorway into magic. A sense of enchantment enters the song. It’s hard to put into words what is, for me, a deeply numinous experience.

When music becomes magic, it’s a soul nourishing, heart lifting sort of thing. I’ve been blessed, in my past, with two long term musical collaborations that reliably had this effect, and I’ve sung and played with a few other people where magic showed up.

So, how to do it? It’s not the sort of thing that can be reached by any kind of mechanical process, but it is about having your heart open, and being willing to be open to the people or person you are singing with. Willing to bare your soul, and give everything of yourself, and open to their baring of soul, their complete giving.


Bard Skills – seasonal material

There’s much to be said for having material that covers the seasons and the festivals, allowing you to express where you are in the year. The folk tradition has a lot to offer – but not, it should be noted, much specifically for the equinoxes.

There are however a number of issues with learning seasonal material, so it’s worth being aware of those before you embark on your journey.

  1. In any given year you may only get a couple of opportunities to perform a piece. Learning something, and keeping it in your head for the long term with so few performance opportunities is a lot of work for a modest result.
  2. People may well remember what you did at the midwinter gathering last year, one song for each festival might not be enough.
  3. Everyone, absolutely everyone does or knows John Barleycorn. Find something else for Lammas if you want to stand out.
  4. If you want to impress, you have to practice ahead of performance so you need to be rehearsing for material ahead of where you are in the year.
  5. The vast majority of Paganised Christmas carols sound naff.
  6. Have fun with it! If you aren’t enjoying it, no one else is likely to either.

Bard skills: Many things to practice

When you’re rehearsing a piece of material, you’ll undoubtedly practice the obvious bits. There are however a few less obvious things that it pays to practice as well.

Practice breathing. This is especially important if any part of the performance is coming out of your mouth, and not irrelevant for non-mouth-based things as well. Anxious people don’t breathe well, and not breathing well can compromise any performance. If you learn to breathe with what you’re doing, it will increase your resilience.

In any mouth-based performance, breathing affects the phrasing and flow. Work out where you can breathe without damaging the flow, and where you need to breathe and practice the piece with the breathing in your chosen places. You may find in situ that you perform faster, or use more air to make more noise, but even so, having practiced with breathing in mind you’ll be better off.

Practice what you’re going to do with your body. If you intend to perform stood up, practice standing up. Think about where your feet will be. Explore how movement and stillness impact on your performance. Experiment with hand gestures and facial expressions if relevant. What happens with your body in performance should not be incidental, but part of the whole. That doesn’t mean you need to choreograph the whole thing, but it pays to have given it some thought.

Think about how you will frame the piece with words and actions. Don’t get bogged down in this or deliver a script, but think about what people might most need to know. That could be a simple ‘please join in’ or ‘this is a song by…’ If you are very new to performance, don’t apologise – that just makes your audience nervous too. It’s ok to say you’re new to it – that can make an audience more sympathetic and supportive.

Think about all the things that might realistically go wrong for long enough to have a plan about what you will do if that happens. It could mean a copy of the words stuffed in a pocket, being ready to laugh at yourself, or a backup piece of material you feel more confident about.

Practice while visualising the audience and the space you’ll be in. If you don’t know what to expect, just guess, it’s still helpful. Practice how you are going to feel in the performance space – consider your nerves, but also consider how excited you might feel and how euphoric if it goes well. Practice while feeling euphoric and like it’s going well. Imagine yourself doing an excellent job. It’s useful to be prepared for the worst, but in expecting the best and building that expectation into your performance, you’ll likely do a better job.