If you have a decent memory, it’s possibly to learn songs, tunes, poems and stories at a fair speed, and thus to perform them from memory. For some purposes, that’s enough. Storyteller Martin Shaw in his various books talks about a much more involved process. Sitting with the story, living with the story for a year or two, telling it to the landscape it came from, telling it to wildlife and working up to sharing it with a human audience. In this approach, it isn’t enough to know the surface of a tale, you have to climb inside it and enter the heart.
Something changes when you undertake to make a piece part of yourself. I’ve found it with tunes and songs, and I’ve found it with the stories I’ve carried with me though my life. They become points of reference, they develop new meanings, and carry with them the resonance of where I’ve sung or played them, who I was with, and so forth.
I have a whole set of seasonal songs, some of which I’ve been singing at their proper time of year for more than a decade now. The process of singing them year on year builds associations and insights that go beyond what a single year of singing can do. This isn’t necessarily a clever and thinky process, it is more often a body knowledge of song and season, memory and place. Sometimes I come up with new interpretations of songs I’ve known for a long time because life experience shows me something that gives the song a different sense.
Singing with other people changes my experience of a song. This may be practical – different versions of tunes and words, different pacing, unfamiliar harmonies. Another singer may bring new meanings to the song simply by how they use their voice. Sometimes, a different voice changes the feel or even the meaning of a song. There’s also a thing whereby if someone nails a powerful harmony line, a song can come alive for me in an entirely new way.
For me, an important part of the bard path is this process of forming a deeper relationship with the material. It is in part the process of being shaped by the material. The O’Carolan tunes I’ve played since my early teens have settled into me, in ways it is difficult to describe. The songs I’ve sung since childhood are part of my sense of who I am. The occasional songs I write are partly a consequence of what I’ve internalised, and what I need to express that I can’t express with existing material.