Tag Archives: bard

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.

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.

Bardic meditation

Meditating is not a single, simple practice to cover all possible needs and people. There are many ways of meditating, and your intentions should inform your method. If you meditate to support your bardic work, then simply creating inner peace and calm isn’t going to be enough on its own. Holding inner stillness may mean that you are shutting off the flows of inspiration.

For bardic meditation, opening the self to inspiration is the likely motive for doing the work. By becoming still and quiet, we can allow two things to happen – we can become more aware of what is outside us, and we can make room for things to bubble up inside us. We can use meditation time to focus on a concept, place, object, story, or person in order to engage with it and seek insight and inspiration. Or we can just let the world in, by being still and open, and see what happens.

The best creative thinking isn’t worked for, it’s allowed. When we let our dreaming, imagining minds play freely, the awen is most likely to flow. Try to force and direct it and you are more likely to get something that feels pushed and contrived. Mediation can make a space for unconscious thinking to rise gently to the surface. By letting the mind settle, space can be made for gloriously mad connections to be made, essential what-if questions to be asked and so forth. So we may start with some standard techniques for stilling and settling, but once ‘in the zone’ the last thing we want to do is notice and let go of our thoughts. Instead, we need to notice and explore what arrives. A deliberate wool gathering, daydreaming time, where we go with what happens.

The best creative work happens when we’re engaging with both the outer and the inner worlds. Too much outer work can become drab, or at the moment, demoralising. Too much inner work and we can be too far away with the faeries for anyone else to benefit from our ideas. As ever, some elements of balance are required.

When considering any meditation, it’s important to know how the practice you are working with relates to emotions. Many people offer meditation as a way of escaping from or controlling emotion, with the goal being inner peace, and emotions viewed as something to let go of. For the bard, emotions will be the driving force in our work. Effective creativity makes the audience feel something, and to achieve that, the bard must be fluent in their own emotions, and have a good idea how other people may think and feel. Creativity is more likely to come from inner passion than from inner stillness. Rather than letting go of our feelings, we need to explore them, work with them and give them room for expression.

Bard skills – Being a good audience

Being a good audience may not seem like an essential skill for a learner bard, but it absolutely is. First up, you will learn more about being a performer from listening to other performers than you will by any other method. You can learn material, presentation skills, technical tricks of all kinds, from the close observation of others.

Secondly, a developed ear and good listening skills work in a great many contexts, to deepen your awareness and insight. If you want to perform, you have to be able to listen. It also means you will be able to listen to yourself as you practice, and sometimes as you perform, to see how to improve, and to strengthen your abilities. In becoming a good audience for others, you become a good audience for yourself, and help yourself develop. By listening, you deepen your relationship with all things bardic; with individuals, with performance in the moment and with the tradition as a whole.

As a bard, obviously you want an audience that will sit attentively and focus on your performance. If you totally invest in listening when in a performance space (or in joining in where appropriate, if that makes more sense) then you invest in the space. You support a receptive audience. If you’re chatting at the bar until it’s your go… if you’re part of the open mic culture that rocks up, does its slot and leaves… why are you going to be treated any differently? It’s possible, in the moment, to get an audience to behave like an audience, and focus. Oddly enough for bands, getting up and dancing can be the best way to make this happen. In most spaces, attentive listening and applause can help draw others in to listening more attentively.

We’re collectively used to passive entertainment where our engagement isn’t called for. The TV doesn’t care how little attention we pay. Recognising that being an audience for live performance is a whole other thing, is really important if we want to make bardic spaces thrive.

Becoming a bard – how much practice?

There isn’t a simple formula for how much practice you need to be an effective performer. Some people learn material very easily, and some don’t, and most of us get quicker over time as we get into the habit of using our memories. Here are some general pointers.

  • Make it regular – at least a couple of times a week. Early on you’re better off doing a little and often. As you develop, practice means building up the amount of time you can play for.
  • Get inside the material. Know it with your body so that you can make it your own. There is a huge qualitative difference between performing a piece from a place of it meaning something to you, and doing karaoke or a cover version.
  • You can learn a piece in the short term for performance but then find it falls out of your head. If you want it to stick for the long term, you have to keep practicing it for the long term.
  • Don’t just practice the piece. Think about what you might say to present the piece to an audience. Think about how you will sit, stand, move and breathe when performing. Imagine yourself in the space where you will perform. It all helps.

I tend to allow myself at least a month between picking up a new piece and taking it out in public. If the arrangement is more complex, I will allow myself longer. I like to really know a piece before I share it, so that I can perform from a place of confidence and insight.

Some of the things I sing, I’ve been singing since childhood. I still practice them every now and then. I’ve had phases of rapidly expanding my repertoire – usually to meet the needs of an event, or a new instrument. I haven’t always kept everything from those flurries. These days I eye up a piece for the long term. Is it a keeper? Is it something I want for the rest of my life? Do I want this song to be something I sing often enough that it becomes part of me?

Practicing your material as a bard is something that takes time. Professional musicians will play for hours every day. Serious musicians may practice for an hour every day. You should expect to put in an hour or two every week at least. That’s a lot of time and life, so the material you pour your life into really matters and needs taking seriously. Performance is a really important aspect of the bard path, but practice is the thing you’re going to live with, so it makes sense to do what you love, and what inspires you so that you can sustain the work of keeping the material alive inside you.

Without practice, we don’t have a relationship with the material, we don’t feed it and keep it alive. When you perform, you need the piece to be vital, alive and flowing through you. The other side of this is that if you practice in a way that bores you, makes the material seem banal, or you get complacent about it, you’ll lose the life in it. Practicing well is a process of finding your own balance points.