Tag Archives: bard

Connecting with an audience

When you’re performing, connecting with your audience is a major consideration. There are people whose audience connection and engagement is so strong that they can get by with weaker technical skills for other parts of what they do. Audience engagement can be the centre of how you perform. In most circumstances I prefer to focus on the quality of material and how I use my voice, but there are many ways into this.

The person who taught me stagecraft was of the opinion that primarily what a person needs to do is fill the space with their own personality. If you’d got a strong enough personality, everything else would flow from there. He was certainly able to work on those terms. Much of that approach depends on confidence. You’ve got to be able to walk into a space and demand attention, not just with your voice, but with your whole self. You’ve got to know in your bones that you are entitled to be there and that it is in everyone’s best interests to pay attention to you.

Winning an audience over is an act of will that can feel a lot like magic. It’s a relevant ritual skill, as well as a performance skill, and I think it’s well worth considering on more magical terms. To captivate an audience, you have to assert your will. When an audience is cooperative, that feels fairly rational as a process.

I have taken less cooperative audiences by force on a few occasions. Noisy pubs are the worst in this regard, where you have a lot of people who have come along to chat and who treat the performances as audio-wallpaper. Even an audience like this can be made to fall silent. I’ve done it as a solitary singer, and at poetry events, and on one occasion when we were out with the band. In some ways it’s easier with an exposed voice rather than instruments because most people aren’t so used to hearing that.

Uncooperative audiences can be intimidating, but stepping out there with the intent that they are going to be quiet and listen is an essential starting point. You can’t expect an unruly audience to become polite and attentive, but you can demand it of them. Audacity can get a lot done.

Given the kind of material I take out, the best measure of audience engagement for me is often silence. Not merely that people stop talking, but that they don’t move. The absolute stillness of an audience means that you’ve successfully enchanted them. It’s an entirely different process with comedic material because there, the small sounds of amusement through to the unmissable guffaws will give you a lot of information. Then there’s the material that demands toe tapping and that calls upon bodies to move, and even if they don’t jump up and dance you can feel when an audience is responding that way. It’s all in the sounds, and it’s much easier to judge sound as a whole than to try looking at individuals. 

Be it in ritual or on a stage, there’s often nothing more powerful than silence. Most especially, the silence that falls sometimes at the end of a piece where no one wants to move or break the spell. If you can hold an audience in stillness and silence, you’ve got them.

It’s difficult to pin down the precise mechanics that make this possible. However, magic is in essence about putting intent into the world, and good performance always feels magical, so perhaps it makes most sense to approach this as an act of magic and prepare accordingly. Believing in your own power is a very good place to start.

Bard life

This viola came to me maybe fifteen years ago, and previously belonged to another Druid. In its previous life, this viola went to The Albert Hall as part of Portsmouth Sinfonia, so it has quite a history of its own.

I started learning the violin when I was about ten – the two are similar in that the interval between the strings is the same, although the viola is lower. They have different clefs for musical notation so while I can in theory read for viola, I’m not very good at it! My brain was, for many years, entirely wired to the violin. However, for some years now the state of my shoulders has meant there’s been no way of playing a violin.

Being bigger, the viola requires a different hand and shoulder position, which is more viable for me. After some months of work, I’ve built up so that I can play for half an hour without too much pain. Relearning tunes on a bigger instrument with all the wrong muscle memory has been a bit of a fight, but I’ve got some of them back under my fingers and they don’t sound too shabby.

In the photo, is the viola in its new hard case. Getting the case is is act of faith and hope on my part. I should be gigging a bit this winter with a local folk outfit called The Jovial Crew – hopefully I’m ready and equal to that. Beyond that lies a project I want to use the viola for, but it’s early days and there’s a lot to figure out. Somewhere on the distant horizon is the vague shape of a third musical possibility for which being able to be out and about with a viola would be a great help.

Part of the bard path is about putting creativity into the world. Part of it is about the quest for inspiration so that you have something to share. The third key strand is about doing the work so that you have the skills set you need. All three are vital. I find it difficult to keep any of that moving without also having somewhere to take my creative output. An audience of one is enough to make it worth striving. What works best for me is having people to interact with, who can be motivation, inspiration and reward all at the same time. I’m really blessed with regards to my current creative collaborators – around music and writing alike. I get to do things with some tremendously cool and interesting people.

Making a set list

When you start out as a bard, the odds are you’ll only play one or two songs at any given event. However, if performance becomes important to you, then you may get to a point of doing more than two pieces. Once there are more than two pieces, a set list becomes a consideration.

The order in which you perform pieces, and the pieces you select for your setlist will have an impact on how people experience your work. There’s no magic formula here, but there are some things that are worth considering.

Picking your setlist should be about deciding what you think will best fit the audience, the event and the space. This gets easier with practice. Early on you may be performing everything you know and not be able to pick and choose. When you’re going into an unfamiliar space, this is only ever a best guess, but it does always help to think about what might work best.

The first consideration is your voice, or in the case of other kinds of performance, whatever it is of what you do that is most vulnerable. Give serious thought to how you are going to manage your personal resources as you perform multiple pieces. This is much easier if you aren’t solo, because you can take it in turns to do the heavy lifting and give each other breaks. A minute off while someone else introduces the next piece makes a lot of odds.

Your most showy pieces are also likely to be the most demanding ones. It is worth having some easier material in your set so that you get breaks, especially if you are a solo performer.

It’s a good idea to start with something attention grabbing. Put more ponderous pieces, and pieces you are less confident about in the middle. End with something you are totally confident you can do well even when tired.

Practice your set in order, before you do it live. It’s worth checking how things fit together and making sure you can do what you intended. Also check the timing and make sure it fits the time slot you have. Have a plan for if you need to cut your set, and a plan for if you need an encore. If you come in a couple of minutes under your time slot you’ll be far more popular than if you over-run.

Ideally your set should maximise diversity to make it interesting for people, while balancing the need to make things smooth. If people have to watch you tune a new instrument ahead of each song you’d better be able to engage them by talking while you do it. Maximum showing off doesn’t always make for the best set, and it is important to remember that entertaining people comes ahead of impressing them. Focus on giving your audience a good experience and a lot of other things will be easier to figure out.

Call yourself a Bard

Do it. Call yourself a Bard. Or take the other names that appeal to you but seem too big to even try on. Poet, author, Druid, Priestess, healer, oracle, mystic… There are a lot of powerful words out there that can be used to describe who a person is and what they are doing.

Of course there are far too many people who take titles they don’t really deserve. You’ve probably run into that. You may well be afraid of looking like that if you claim the names for yourself. That might not just be a spiritual path issue. That might be about identifying as disabled, or queer, or neurodivergent while a little voice in your head says ‘yeah, but you’re not really queer enough, are you?’ Pick up the name or the label you need and there are reasons to fear someone else will tell you that you aren’t entitled to those words.

Try them on for size anyway. Test how they sit in your mouth. Explore the ways in which you might understand yourself on your own terms.

Too many of us are taught to make ourselves small and not to make a fuss. Too many of us experience being invalidated and not being allowed to express who we are and what’s going on for us. Some of us have family and cultural backgrounds that treat difference as shameful. We may need to reclaim the truth of who we are, and the acceptability of who we are. 

On the inside, some of us are still a small child who was told to shut up and sit down and stop being so attention seeking. Some of us were told that our aspirations were foolish and unrealistic. I see enough people around singing activities who were wounded by being told that they could not sing by people who had no idea what they were talking about.

If you’re on the bard path, call yourself a bard even if you only do that in your own head.

Call yourself a bard when you’re waiting to go out onto the stage, say it to yourself because you are the one person who needs to hear it.

You don’t have to be small. You don’t even have to be sensible. Call yourself a bard to honour the most preposterous parts of yourself. Use the word to reclaim all the not-sensible bits of you that don’t fit neatly into the demands of a dying capitalist society. Call other people bards, too. Call them heroes and goddesses and miracle workers if you can. Call the people around you visionaries and marvels, call them courageous and generous and mighty. Tell people they are powerful and remarkable. Tell them they are valid, and support the ways in which they want to express who they are.

Use your bard skills to lift people out of their feelings of ordinariness and insignificance. Tell people who they really are and tell them how greatly they matter.

At the limits of language

Traditionally speaking, language is the bard’s tool. Even if we aren’t being deliberately bardic, language is a key part of how most humans get most things done. It’s also an incredibly limited tool to use in some ways, especially English which is a terrible language for anyone trying to talk about complex emotions. Just having the one word for love is extremely limiting for a start.

For some purposes, the kind of writing I’m doing in this post is the best way to get things done. I’m aiming for clarity and I’m talking about the kinds of concepts that are pretty easy to talk about. When it comes to spiritual experiences, it can be very hard to find words with enough power to express what’s happened.

I could, with regards to yesterday’s blog post, have written a more coherent description of what happened. But I don’t think I could have done that without sacrificing the impact. The intensity of the experience is at least as important as the events – and without conveying that, none of it makes sense. I can tell you that I’ve had an intense experience, but that probably won’t be enough to make you empathise much – unless something similar has happened to you.

Talking about magic and deity with people who have similar experiences is easier because you can assume they have some idea what you’re talking about. But even in that context, it isn’t easy. Trying to talk to anyone who doesn’t share your frames of reference can be hard.

Poetry doesn’t work for everyone. It requires that you think in a different way to dealing with prose.It’s a side step from everyday language and reality, and sometimes that can really help when trying to express the kinds of things that regular language just can’t handle.

Bard or Performer?

What you think it means to be a bard probably has everything to do with what you think historical bards were. I’ve seen people say that if you’re interested in your own fame and fortune and if there’s any amount of ego in it then you aren’t a bard. I guess these are people who have not considered the implications of being a court bard (Taliesin) or the kind of bombast and self promotion that figures in Welsh and Irish mythology tend to go in for. Scotland’s Thomas the Rhymer is hardly a self-effacing figure, either.

You can of course serve the gods, spirits and whomsoever else you wish to serve with secret, private bardic activity. But for anything involving people, being a bard really does involve being good at grabbing, and keeping people’s attention. 

Being larger than life, charismatic, and compelling are all good qualities to try and develop in yourself as a bard. There is magic in enchanting people, and there’s a lot to be said for having no qualms about putting yourself centre stage and demanding people pay attention. Of course if that’s all you’re doing, people will soon lose interest. Whether a performer intends to be a bard or not, they need to have something going on beyond a desire for attention.

The idea that wanting to be popular necessitates being crappy comes up a lot around ‘literature’ as well as bardic pursuits. To be serious, worthy, high brow one must also (according to some people) be elitist, obscure and write things that aren’t accessible to people who don’t already know all the things you know. I think this is by far the bigger ego issue than the natural human desire for attention. People need good art. There are a lot of people who want good art. Trying to make things for a larger audience doesn’t invalidate it. There is no conflict between trying to do something a lot of people will like, and trying to do something substantial and anyone who says otherwise is either a snob, or trying to justify why their work isn’t much appreciated.

What makes you a bard is that your work is driven by ideas, the need for beauty, principles, vision, inspiration and a desire to make the world a better place. If people pay you for that, you are no less of a bard. If you see creative work as a quick way to earn a lot of money… this is mostly not how anything works anyway. It’s surprisingly hard to have a creative career as a soulless mercenary who only cares about the bottom line.

Bardcraft – covering songs

While writing your own songs is always going to be an attractive choice for a bard, there’s also a lot to be said for singing other people’s material. It’s easier to learn existing songs than to write them. Engaging with existing songs roots you in your tradition and honours your ancestors of musical tradition. Keeping a song alive is a meaningful thing to do and can also be part of keeping culture and tradition alive.

As songwriters, most of us have habits. Few are the performers who can do a whole set of their own material without it starting to sound a bit samey. Throwing in some well chosen covers can help considerably with keeping your own material sounding fresh and interesting.

Covering a song well isn’t straightforward. You need to find a balance between making it your own, and being faithful to the original. You have to work out which aspects of the song are essential to its character, and which you can afford to do without. Traditional British songs tend to be fine if you just take the tune and words – often there are variants of those already in existence. Other cultures have traditional music where the harmonies are intrinsic and you can’t pull a single tune out and have it still work. Contemporary music from numerous genres can depend on the interplay between tune and accompaniment. 

I find it helps to listen to multiple versions of a song before I start trying to find my own way of doing it. With more famous songs, it’s usually possible to find cover versions, which help me explore possible ways of interpreting the music. When the song isn’t so well known, you might be able to find live versions from the songwriter, and these also help. It can also be helpful to find versions recorded much later – James doing ‘Sit Down’ at their final live concert defined my approach to covering the song.

There’s much more to working with existing material than just ‘doing a cover’ implies. As a bard, you’re going to be looking for a deeper relationship with the piece. You have to know it at a level that allows you to bring it to life, and to perform it with sincerity and a sense of meaning. It pays to take time forming a relationship with a song and letting it become part of your life, and part of you, before you try and take it out into the world.

Listening is a bardic art

With bardcraft, there’s an obvious inclination to focus on output. Here I am, writing a blogpost… But, to have the output be good, we need to spend as much time as we can listening to and reading other people. Our own perspectives are inevitably limited, and the more time we spend finding out how things look from other perspectives, the better. 

Listening and reading protects us from using cliches and stereotypes. It is easier to get away from tired pop-culture habits if we know more about a greater array of people. By listening and reading we can hopefully spot our own prejudices and assumptions and learn to do better.

Social media is brilliant for this. You can follow people with first hand experience of pretty much anything, and learn from them without creating any kind of burden. Learning when not to comment, when to stay silent and read/listen is a powerful skill, too. Finding the limits of what we know, and the points at which we aren’t qualified to say anything is valuable self knowledge.

All too often, creators write fantasies about other people’s lived realities. This is enabled by hiding behind the idea that imagination is everything. All too often, the people who get the high profile creative jobs are white, male, cis, straight, affluent, able bodied and comfortable. Popular culture has far more representation of what this demographic thinks other people are like than it does authentic representation of people. Most of the world is not middle class cis straight white men.

I’m entirely in favour of imagination and making stuff up. However, the more we know, the better a job we can do of that. Imaginations are not harmed or limited by exposure to facts and other perspectives. Feeding your brain information will stimulate your imagination, not hurt it. To imagine from a place of insight and understanding is far better than to just recycle whatever dubious ideas you have unconsciously absorbed from whatever is around you. The person who does not undertake research in a deliberate way is more likely to unconsciously repeat cliches and prejudices.

There is honour in being well informed and creating good representation of everyone who isn’t you.

Outrageousness and the bard

I spent the weekend at an excellent Steampunk event, where I got to see a number of extraordinary performers. It got me thinking about the importance of how you invest in your own work as a performer.

If you perform feeling self conscious, awkward, silly or afraid of being laughed at, this will show. If you walk onto a stage and treat what you’re doing like it’s perfectly reasonable, it’s amazing what an audience can be persuaded to go along with. Embracing the preposterous to make it your own is a really powerful choice, allowing you to do, embody, or vocalise things that more cautious people simply can’t.

This is fundamentally about your relationship with your own material. If you believe that people need what you’re doing, then it works very differently from getting out there with material you are suspicious about. People need to laugh, and there’s power in being comfortable with inviting the laughter. It’s good to invite any and all emotions. People also need to be surprised, unsettled and taken out of their everyday perceptions, and there are many ways of doing that. Sometimes people benefit from the comfort of familiarity, but too much of that just becomes banality. 

To be powerful as a bard, you have to be totally invested in whatever you’re doing. You have to be willing to take people with you. There’s a certain kind of magic that’s only available if you’re prepared to throw yourself wholeheartedly into whatever you’re doing.

I was utterly enchanted by Ash Mandrake’s set, he has a lot of youtube content for anyone who is curious, and you can start here for flavour –

Story Compass – a review

Story Compass offers the reader an interesting and original set of tools for self discovery. You could use it as a workbook, or as the basis of a set of retreats, read it flat out and take what suits you, or dip into it.

I think there are several kinds of people who would particularly benefit from this book. It’s very much aimed at the reader who wants to explore themselves in a contemplative way, and who needs tools and maps for this. It assumes that you’ve not done a deep dive into your ancestry, or the water you swim in, and that you have yet to figure out how your culture, background and life experiences have informed you.

It’s designed for people who are not squaring up to massive trauma legacies. If that’s you, then this probably isn’t the ideal book and you’ll need to find something more trauma informed.

I think this book also has ideas to offer to new bards. If you’re starting out on a creative path and figuring yourself out in relation to the work you want to do, there’s a lot here that’s usable. The relationship between self and creation, history and inspiration, how we draw on experience and work with the material of our own lives is all highly relevant.

Taking control of your own story, and being the teller of your own life can be an incredibly powerful and empowering process. The stories we tell define us, and if that is something you have no idea how to engage with, this is a book, and a process, to consider.

The writing style is easy going and enthusiastic. If you like the idea of taking your inner child on an adventure, then you’re going to love this. There’s a playful, open hearted tone to the whole thing – which isn’t for everyone. If you suspect you might find that patronising rather than engaging, you might well not get along with this book.

The work outlined in Story Compass can be approached in a number of ways. You could be fairly pragmatic about it and go for imaginative journaling and creative thinking. You could use it as a guide for visualisations and journey work and really go for that – depending on your needs and preferences. One of the things I liked is how unprescriptive the author is when it comes to these kinds of inner journeys. You’re given the gist of where to go and what to do, but how that plays out is very much down to you. It made me realise how normal it is to see this kind of practice described in a lot more detail, where you are told what spirits or ancestors are going to say to you. I found it refreshing to see such open ended explorations.

I came to this title as a book reviewer interested in working with story. It’s not come to me at a time when I could personally make much use of the contents – although twenty years ago it would have been a divine gift to encounter something like this. It means that a lot of what’s here is not material I’ve felt moved to test – I’ve already done this sort of work, in my own ways so there’s not much for me to delve into and unravel. However, I think the whole approach is useful and fertile, and likely to be worth exploring for anyone who is setting out on a journey of self discovery.

More on the publisher’s website – https://www.johnhuntpublishing.com/moon-books/our-books/story-compass-journey-discovery