Tag Archives: Bardic

Get off your knees

There’s a line from Alan Moore’s 2016 interview in Pagan Dawn that has haunted me for the last 18 months. Talking about the bard tradition, he said “You can kill or cure with a word. Get off of your knees.”  (You can read the whole interview here – http://www.pagandawnmag.org/alan-moore-the-art-of-magic/)

At first it stung, because it was true. Over time it led me to look hard at why I had been on my knees. There were a lot of reasons, to do with things I’d been through, people I’d dealt with, bodily ill health and poor mental health. Over the last year or so I’ve put my health first, and that’s been a key part of getting up. This summer it struck me that getting off my knees was not just about overcoming difficulty, but about deliberate choice.

It means not being afraid to act, to lead, to set things in motion and to take responsibility. It means imagining that I can do things on a larger scale.

Fears around leadership have not been about the idea that I couldn’t do it – I’ve done it before, I know I can. It’s more a fear of accidentally railroading others, of accidentally disempowering others, and of turning into some kind of self important ass-hat. I figure that so long as I stay alert to that kind of issue, I can negate it as I go. I don’t want power over anyone, I want to get things done, it should be fine.

Some of it was about having a good place to stand once I’d stood up. I’m finding those places, there seem to be a few of them. The Pagan Federation, my local bardic community, Moon Books, my little family at Sloth Comics, and two further spaces that I’m contemplating and waiting to see what happens with because there’s no rush. In some of those spaces I will be more active than others, and I expect the balance to shift from time to time. It’s more than enough to be going along with.

In terms of dreaming bigger, that’s simply been happening. I’ve got ideas about events, books, art, co-operative companies, studio space, a house… I want to operate on a totally different scale and I’m seeing how I can make that happen, and hopefully take a fair few people with me while I’m doing it. At the moment, things still feel poised, and I’m holding the balance, waiting to see what pulls and what suggests itself. At some point this winter (because I do not try to live in harmony with the standard wheel of the year narrative) I’m going to start moving in earnest, I think.

Getting off my knees. Finding who wants to do things with me. Ignoring the people who have a problem with that and not letting them slow me down. I do not have to be small simply to make others more comfortable, and I certainly don’t need anyone who thinks making me small for their comfort is a good idea. I think in the last 18 months I’ve mostly freed myself from those sorts of connections, but I won’t hesitate to do it again if I need to. Onwards!

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Bard Magic

We tend to talk about the modern bard path purely in the sense of creativity, inspiration and performance. If you start from the belief that magic means transformation, then bard craft has an enormous potential for magic.

In creating a piece, be that poem, song, sculpture or cake, a person is using their will to manifest something in the world. Something new. Like any manifestation of will, what you create as a bard has the power to change things.

Bards usually commit (if they undertake any of the Bardic initiations I’ve encountered) to working for the good of the land, their tribe, their gods or however else they may express their sense of sacredness. To be a bard is to set out to be inspired by the sacred and to share that inspiration. In essence, you offer to be a doorway through which things can enter the world.

When you put yourself forward as a bard, you can have an immediate impact on how other people feel – a bard can uplift, cheer and inspire, create empathy and understanding, foster a sense of the scared, of magic and possibility. A bard can change how people think about themselves, each other, the culture they live in…  In practice the lines between spells and songs, poems and prayers, is not a clear line. A story can be an invocation. Art can heal, it can make sayable what was unsaid.

Bards can challenge how we conventionally think about things, can satirise politics and mock the ethically bankrupt. It is a path that enables subversion, radical reimagining and changing the stories that shape how we think and act. We can give voices to the voiceless, we can empower, uplift and enable others.

You don’t have to think anything supernatural is going on for this to work, but if your world view includes that kind of magic, the bard path remains relevant. Bard craft can make a good focus for spell work. When we set out to enchant and inspire each other, the world is a much better sort of place.


Talking about Nature

Earlier this year I ran into an free online course being run by the University of Gloucestershire, teaching ecolinguistics. It’s called The Stories We Live By. http://storiesweliveby.org.uk/  I’ve not completed it yet because I decided to read Arron Stibbe’s book Ecolinguistics. Each section of the course has notes from this book, so I figured it would be as well to read the whole thing.

Back when I did this sort of thing more (a degree course many moons ago) I always read whole books rather than the bits tutors waved at us because I wanted a broader and deeper understanding of things. I am out of practice with reading academic books, and it is slow going as I adapt to the language and concepts. Also, reading to study is no longer my primary concern, I just don’t have as much time to devote to this as I did when a student.

So, why ecolinguistics? This is about studying the kind of language people use to talk about the natural world, and how that language shades our stories and thus informs our choices. I feel that by studying this I will be better able to challenge other people’s ideas and dismantle them where I need to. As someone dedicated to the bardic path, the way stories work is an issue that matters greatly to me.

Mostly though, ecolinguistics is, for me, about my fiction work. I realised this year that I do not want to write books that could easily be classed as utopian or dystopian. I want to write books that imagine a better sort of future and how we get there, but I don’t believe in utopias, or find them plausible. I’m taken with Kevan Manwaring’s concept of Golden Dark, but I’m not sure I want to pin myself entirely to the dark side of the equation.  I also don’t have a clear enough sense of what, in terms of the details of how we live, needs to change. So I’m doing this course in search of inspiration.

One of the things the ecolinguistics course has made clear is that cultures are built out of shared stories. Those stories not only reflect where we are, but steer us in certain directions. They affirm some values and undermine others. While we tell each other stories about profit and power, conflict, consumption and GDP, we tie ourselves to planet destroying trajectories. We need stories about kindness, co-operation, hope, health and wellbeing and being part of the web of life. That all sounds profoundly Druidic to me! We need to change the stories we share, and look hard at the stories (often manifesting in adverts) that are telling us to trash everything for short term ‘profit’.


Bard Attitude

The attitude a person expresses when performing can have a huge impact on how a piece is received. The right kind of bard attitude will serve you well, while some approaches are a lot like shooting yourself in the foot.

The classic mistake, especially for the new bard is to start by apologising and saying why it might not be very good. Sometimes it is worth saying – if for example you have a cold that’s going to impact on performance ‘forgive the cold, bear with me if I start sneezing’ is all you need. Don’t apologise for new material, or untested material. Tell people you haven’t done it before, by all means, but that can be a gift to them, not a shortcoming. Don’t make your first expression as a bard one of putting yourself down.

I’m not usually a member of the ‘fake it till you make it’ school of thinking, but this is one of those times when it really does help. Acting confidently puts your audience at ease. If you are nervous, they will be nervous with you and for you. If you aren’t confident, then fake it as best you can. Practice faking your confident presentation. Eventually it will stop being fake and you will simply be a confident performer.

Being overconfident, too pushy, too self assured, too cocky… these things are often not attractive and can alienate the audience. Too much faking of confidence can push a performance into the realms of the unappealing. And if this is who you are, just be aware that people will be watching for you to fall flat on your face and will enjoy it if you do. If you have no natural capacity for a bit of humility, consider learning how to fake it, because like confidence, humility helps keep you in good relationship with the audience and these things need balancing for optimal effect.

A bit of bardic bombast can be an excellent thing. There’s much to be said for being slightly larger than life, attention grabbing, energetic, lively and wild. If this is what comes naturally to you, then run with it. However, this is something I don’t advocate faking in the hopes of becoming. People trying to be more bombastic than they really are can come across as strained and false, and if you don’t have an innate sense of how to play that way, it’s easy to misjudge it and look like a prat.

For some, a quietly authentic expression of self is going to be more effective. You can be a strong presence without leaping around, or dressing up, if that suits your nature.

Back when I was learning to MC, it was pointed out to me that what works best for performance is when you simply fill the space with who you are. Your own personality writ large, or let out, is going to serve you best. It is easier to maintain than anything else. There’s an aspect of trusting yourself in this – most of us do not have the kind of personality disorders that mean who we are should not be writ large now and then. Enjoy yourself!


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 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 skills: Tricks for remembering

Longer pieces are inevitably harder to learn than short ones. On the whole, where there is a story I don’t find learning longer ballads especially difficult. What’s really tricky, is learning something that has no narrative logic. I’m going to talk about one specific song for this post but there is plenty of material out there with similar issues.

So, here’s Lay the Bent to the Bonny Broom – listening is not essential, but it’s an excellent song! This is Brian Peters, and it’s his arrangement.

 

The difficulty with this song is that you have a set of nine riddles followed by nine answers, and really the answers need to come in the same order as the riddles, and remembering all nine is easier if you get them in the same order each time. There’s no narrative order to the riddles, but there is a slight escalation, and the one on its own at the end is the one at the end – this kind of thinking is an aid to remembering.

However, the method that helps me most is to get the rest of my body involved. I run the riddles through my fingers, using the same finger for each riddle every time I sing it, and the same finger for the answer as I did for the question. It’s a small physical prompt, and it definitely helps. I’ve used the same technique on other songs where order matters but at the same time there’s nothing much to help hold that order together.

Remembering is not just a brain activity. We have muscle memory – essential for learning tunes and dances. We can remember all kinds of shapes and patterns. If a piece is difficult to learn, looking for other ways to remember it can really help. Using physical gestures, patterns of movement, or just this simple trick of counting on fingers can get other kinds of memory involved to make the process easier.


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: 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.