We know that the ancient Druids had an oral tradition, and that the bards of old memorised vast amounts of material. However, when it comes to the modern bard path, I think it’s really important not to be dogmatic about doing things from memory.
Firstly, not everyone can. Not all brains are good at storing great swathes of text and music. Brain injuries, cognitive differences, and learning difficulties can all make memorising impossible, or excessively difficult. No one should be excluded from bardic performance for these reasons. If you’re holding a bardic space, it is important not to discriminate and not to demand that people perform from memory. Don’t challenge people who can’t and don’t ask why they can’t – it isn’t your business.
There can also be class, life stage and economic issues around performance from memory as well. Learning takes time. That time may not be available – work, illness, family, and other pressures may mean a person does not have the luxury of time to learn content by heart. It is kinder and more inclusive not to put people under pressure or to exclude them based on how overwhelming their lives are. And again, we do not need to know the details of why a person cannot commit to learning the words.
For someone who is anxious, or inexperienced, doing it without the words can simply be too daunting the first few times. People who could be great may never get started if the entry bar is set to high. None of us benefit from that.
The quality of a performance does not depend on whether you are holding a piece of paper. Certainly a piece of paper can be a barrier between performer and audience, but it doesn’t have to be. No one complains about classical musicians reading from the sheet music. Authors are allowed to read from their books at events, too. It is entirely possible to perform very badly from memory. The best thing to do is focus on quality of performance – in your own work and when you are making space for other people.
If you need the words, or notes, to make that possible, go with whatever allows you to do the best performance you can. Don’t penalise other people for needing to rely on paper or phones for content. You can encourage excellence without making specific demands on what people do. It takes time to develop as a performer and most people start out far less able than they will be with practice. Experience of performing is part of what takes a person towards being a really great performer – most of us don’t get up for the first time at anything like the level of performance we might be capable of.
(And thank you to Clive Oseman for the prompt)