Tag Archives: music

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.

Albums I am listening to

I’m sure there’s a language for music reviewing, along with a sense of the kinds of things a reviewer should talk about in order to communicate usefully with readers. As I don’t really have a handle on that, I’m going to give these three albums the simple review of “I really like them.” They all have things that make them unusual, I’ll comment as best I can as I go, but the best thing to do is follow the links, and have a listen.

Findings – Ange Hardy and Lukas Drinkwater. Folky, but mostly original material, lovely intricate arrangements, mellow.















kitchenette by Sq Bomb – who describe themselves as “sizzling electro, dance, punk, pop, poetry and rock ‘n’ roll crackle.” Sounds about right to me. Lots of earworms here, in a gloomy, grungy kind of way. feel good for people who generally don’t.










Come Black Magic by Walter Sickert & The Army of Broken Toys. Sexy, sleazy, subversive, surprising and any other good words beginning with S that I have failed to think of…


Sheena Cundy

Sheena Cundy is another of the under-sung people of whom I have been a fan for some time. I’ve met her in person – she’s lovely. I’ve heard her band twice (at time of writing this) – Morrigans Path – overtly Pagan and great to dance to. I’ve read her novel – The Madness and The Magic, and greatly enjoyed it (there’s a review here – https://druidlife.wordpress.com/2015/11/27/friday-reads/ )

Here’s a track from Morrigans Path


Find out more about them on their facebook page or on artist trove

Here’s a little flavour from Sheena’s novel

Sheena quote

And you can find out more about the book here – http://www.moon-books.net/books/madness-magic

And this is Sheena’s website – http://www.sheenacundy.com/



If they said you could not sing

I’ve run assorted things – workshops and longer term projects, to help people find their voices and get signing. In doing this, I have met a lot of people who, as younger humans, were told they couldn’t sing. Someone announced they were tone deaf, or had an awful voice. I’ve been through this myself – as a child I was told I sounded like a cat. As an adult I’ve had a stretch as a semi-professional folksinger.

In fairness, I have met two people who were absolutely tone deaf, and for whom nothing could be done. Two. On the other side I’ve met more people than I can count who believed they couldn’t sing, but on closer inspection, clearly could.

Where most people fall down is when they try to sing something on their own in front of other people. There are a number of reasons this brings out the worst in a voice.

First up, it’s scary, so nerves will mess with you and make it harder to remember the words, stay in tune and so forth.

Secondly there’s nothing to cling to – if you’re used to singing along to a recording or singing with a group, some of the work is being done for you. Now, the good news here is that if you can sing in tune with a recording or another singer, or an instrument helps, then you are not tone deaf. It’s just going to take more practice because you need a really good ear and good voice control to stay on the tune. The more you do it, the easier it gets. There’s also the issue in this of remembering the tune all by yourself, and you might not know it as well as you thoughts you did! Again, practice solves this.

Singing is one of those things people seem to imagine that people ought to be able to do naturally. And like all the things we assume are ‘natural’ if you don’t get it at first try you can end up feeling like there must be something wrong with you. Singing, like walking, writing, dancing, taking, is all learned. About the only things we know how to do when we turn up is shit, scream, breathe, suck and sleep. Anything else you have got to learn. If you’ve not had opportunity, safe spaces, support, or good input to draw on, then the odds are you haven’t learned, and just need some time and resources to fix that.

When it comes to chanting, here’s what I tell people at the start of a workshop: There are two kinds of harmony that can happen when we’re singing together. There are warm, safe, familiar harmonies, and there are exciting, crunchy, challenging harmonies. That’s it. Nothing else exists.

What I find, over and over again is that permission to make sounds, to play with sound and to share it, without fail, results in making music in a group that is both full of moments of sweetness, and with plenty of exciting, and genuinely good crunchy bits. There are magical effects that only come with a certain amount of discord in the mix. And the people who told me they couldn’t sing, do sing, and do it very well.

This blog was written as a response to Kevan Manwaring’s recent piece on ballads, where he says “Told as a young man I was ‘tone deaf’ and discouraged by my peers at the time, I gave up trying to be musical for many years.” He’s taken the plunge and started singing anyway, and singing to good effect.

Festival at the Edge

Folk festivals have been something of a feature through my life, from childhood visits to the Holford Arms, (tiny, windswept festival in the Cotswolds) to Bromyard in my teens, Alcester through my twenties, and assorted one-off visits to many others. I’ve not been in a field full of folkies in too many years. Festival at the Edge is in Shropshire, and is primarily a storytelling festival, although there is a music thread, dancing, beer tents, and folk people.

Tom and I were invited to go along by the fabulous Genevieve Tudor (of BBC Radio Shropshire’s Folk Show fame – and you can listen online). We did a three hour stint in the children’s area, getting a large number of brilliant, enthusiastic young people to write dreadful poetry and draw hideous monsters. It was a very intense session, and excellent.

I caught a fair bit of music – Biscuit Badger and the Biscuit Heads, Phil Hare, Na-Mara, Lady Maisery, and Bill Caddick. Bill made me cry. He pretty much always does. Back when I used to run a folk club I once put him on as a guest with a reference to how reliably he reduces me to tears, and then had to explain that no, this isn’t because the songs are terrible… Every time I feel lost and don’t know where I’m going or what I’m doing, someone needs to sit me down and make me listen to Cloud Factory, John of Dreams, and Unicorns. I will probably sob pathetically for a bit and then get my arse into gear.

I didn’t get to much storytelling, but I did go and see Amy Douglas, someone I also booked more years ago than I feel inclined to admit. She’s a lovely performer with a warm and intimate style.

I spent quite a lot of the festival catching up with people – old friends from the Midlands folk and Pagan scenes, and the Matlock the Hare creators. And one epic moment in the history of this blog – if you read the comments (and you should, the standard here is always high and the posters splendid, and friendly) I had the surprise and delight of finally getting to meet Argenta in person!

If you know me online and happen to be at an event I’m doing, please do come and say hi, (and expect to have to tell me who you are, my facial recognition skills are abysmal.)

Mountains, music and myths

Both of the books I’m reviewing this week I bought because they have relevance for my Pagan Pilgrimage project. I’m in an ongoing process of studying writing about landscape and the many different forms that takes. The CD in the set has turned out to be an excellent soundtrack for colouring Camelot

Gloucestershire Folk Tales – Anthony Nanson.

Many of the stories in this book are connected with landscapes I know intimately. Some of the tales were familiar, others not, including one about a hill that has left me with a significant mystery to ponder. For me, what made the book so valuable was the intertwining of known history, physical place, and story. At times there are reasons to think that the stories have grown out of those other features, perhaps to explain something. I particularly liked the way in which the Devil stories for the county were woven into one tale. I hadn’t realised just how much of the landscape was of the Devil’s making! Parallels with tales from elsewhere were also fascinating. It’s a lively read, and a must if you’re in the county.

You can buy direct from the publisher – thehistorypress.co.uk or find it anywhere you’d normally buy books.

Dirty Toes – Mad Magdalene

Both the band and the album names are reference to Tom O’ Bedlam, which is a favourite song of mine. This album is an exuberant mix of folk and Pagan music, and very danceable to. It sounds like live performance – there’s something raw and immediate about the production, which I prefer anyway. I’ve seen Mad Magdalene perform live a couple of times, and this is very much their gigging sound. The arrangements are innovative and freshen up some classic folk songs. You can always hear the words. The final track is a version of Lord Randall, unlike any other I’ve heard – (plot spoilers!) the replacing of a sweetheart with a stepmother suggests a far more complicated and unpleasant sort of back story. You can listen to them on bandcamp – https://madmagdalen.bandcamp.com/album/dirty-toes if you like them, do consider supporting them by buying a copy.


Mountains of the Mind, Robert Macfarlane,

This book explores the differences between mountains as people imagine them, and mountains as they turn out to be when you’re on one. It’s a difference that has a habit of killing people. Through talking about historic understandings of mountains, Macfarlane is able to open up the broader territory of landscape writing, ideas of masculinity, adventure and conquest. It’s a beautiful, fascinating read, weaving history with personal experience. You don’t have to be obsessed with mountains to enjoy it, either. Being the sort of person who likes to admire them from afar, reading about other people’s deaths, accidents and near-deaths on slippery, near-vertical surfaces has confirmed me in my prejudices! Easily sourced from all places that sell books.

Falling in love with musicians. More. Again.

I spent last Saturday at Exeter Yule Ball – a fantastic event Tom and I hadn’t been to before. It may take me some days to recover. With live music during the day and in the evening, it was a great opportunity to hear some new bands. I was deeply impressed by the sheer diversity of music.

I’ve been talking a lot about book industry issues in recent weeks, but things are no less tough in other creative industries. Music is given away online, the only way a performer can make a living is by touring (which is bloody hard work) and selling at gigs. It’s pretty much impossible to make a career by staying home and writing songs. Like most authors, most musicians will have a day job. If you love music, you need to support your musicians. Buy their albums, don’t just pick up youtube freebies.

New-to-me music I think you would like… links on the names for things you can check out. Gurdybird – folk electronica, hurdy-gurdy and pirate hat, great tunes, and also really good videos. Ideal for dancing to. The Wattingers – bass and harmonica. No, really. It shouldn’t work, and yet it does, but the bass (which you don’t get at all listening at home) is like a physical assault and I swear my bones will never be the same, having heard them. Totally startling, in a really good way. The Mysterious Freakshow – Fey Pink sings like every female goth vocalist I have ever loved with a bit of Kate Bush thrown in for good measure. Videos do no justice at all to her captivating stage presence, but go watch some anyway.

I’ve been following Miss Von Trapp online for some time now. She sings songs of murder and violence, or turns previously innocent songs into mayhem and blood baths. Accompanied by a cello. Really funny stuff. It turns out that in person she’s just as delightful, and has a truly amazing voice. You can check her out in this video in which she and Professor Elemental abuse a song and a reindeer… (I was there!)

The Men That Will Not Be Blamed For Nothing. Another group I’ve followed for years but had not seen live. Very much the punk side of Steampunk, lots of retro-politics that are all too relevant right now. An intense performance, brilliant songs, a mosh pit (from which I was absent) and my first proper encounter with a musical saw. This song is stuck in my head, and is one of my favourite things at the moment. Atheist issues with the supernatural. This house is not haunted – no god, no ghosts, no afterlife.


The end of the evening bought a set from Professor Elemental. I found him by accident, years ago when looking for an OBOD video on youtube, and have adored him ever since. Fantastic performance, not just funny, but an experience designed to lift people up, leaving us feeling better about ourselves and each other. A one man austerity antidote in a pith helmet. Part of the normal audience job is to look up in awe and be inspired to love the performer. I go to gigs expecting to love the performers. There are whole other levels to this for me with the good professor. Having worked with him to co-create a book, been a test reader for him, thrown works-in-progress of mine his way, introduced each other for nerdbong podcasts… he’s been important to me for a long time, both as his stage self and when not pithed-up. Seeing him over the weekend reminded me of just how much I love working with him, so I’m determined now to find some opportunity for a new collaboration.

And that previous joint project looks like this. Paperback and hardcover, with the lovely people at Snowbooks.


The Butterfly Effect

There’s a tale about a butterfly who flaps his wings on one side of the world, and causes a hurricane. In my head, this is what that butterfly sounds like. The video is from a couple of years ago, and features the utterly amazing Peter Knight on violin.

I can’t remember when I first heard Peter Knight playing – it wasn’t an event, he was an intrinsic part of the soundscape of my childhood. He played for Steeleye Span for many years, and their music was a big part of my early years. As a teenager, I used to dance to his rendition of Mooncoin jig when no one was around to see me.

I saw Steeleye Span in concert some years ago, and I saw his new band, Gigspanner as well. Last night, much to my joy, Gigspanner played at a venue I could walk to. And walk we did. It was a truly amazing evening – a small venue, breathtaking musicianship, my son with enormous eyes and in a state of total awe. Peter Knight is a remarkable player, lyrical, melodious, graceful and with an appearance of effortlessness. He puts me in mind of a blackbird, singing down the sun at midsummer.

I used to be a mediocre sort of violin player – a frozen shoulder has left me unable to play at all for more than a year now, which is frustrating. I know enough to be stunned by this man’s playing. There are things about violins that, for the rest of us, are a liability – the little scratchy, whispery noises, the harmonics… and he plays these as well. As well as the regular bowing the violin (as in this video) he picks strings to use as accompaniment for singing, uses the body percussively, there’s even a track where another band member plays the violin with sticks while Mr Knight is bowing it. I don’t think I breathed during that whole piece.

I was struck last night by the capacity of music to act on the body – percussion and lower notes are easily felt as vibrations, but anything we hear, we also feel. It’s no doubt this line of thought that has led us to sound bathing as a New Age therapy. Given the choice, what I would prefer to immerse in, is this. Over several hours last night, the music washed over me, and through me, and for a while there just wasn’t room for anything else other than what was happening to me in response to this extraordinary sound.

The idea that what we put into our bodies in terms of food might have huge effects on us is something people are increasingly aware of. But what about the sound we put into our bodies? What does daily exposure to traffic noise do to a person? What happens to us in response to our soundscapes, the rhythms we experience, the songs we sing, and the songs we don’t sing?

Last night’s music affected me profoundly. It touched and changed me in ways I have no language to express. I can measure the difference in my mood today. I feel more complete in myself, more well. For me at least, the sounds I experience are as important as the quality of the air I breathe, and what I’m eating. I’m probably not alone in this.

Stories about songs

I’m not much of a songwriter. Inspiration seldom comes to me in that shape, and I tend to be too wordy – it’s a very specific skill writing lyrics, and I haven’t got it. Nor am I a natural tune writer. However, I’ve sung and played music since childhood, and this means I spend most of my time with other people’s work. Picking material is a major process for anyone in my situation. So, what to pick, and how? These questions don’t have to be tackled in order.

I tend to look at traditional folk music, rock and pop for my source material. A song therefore has to work stripped down. It needs enough melody to work with me signing it, and must not depend on complex multi-instrument arrangement. Many pop songs, deprived of their backing, sound like nothing at all, so for me the first measure of a song is whether I can sing it unaccompanied.

Question two is, does it make sense if I sing it? Is it personal to the singer – again often an issue with pop – or is there something universal here that makes sense. Is there a story, or a message, a mood or a concept that I can express? Do I like, value, engage with those things such that it makes sense for me to sing them?

I then have to ask if I have the vocal range, technical skill and playing ability to do the song justice. I might well not know until I try. I did, once, sing the entirety of Meatloaf’s ‘Bat out of hell’ unaccompanied in a folk club. Mostly for giggles. It’s surprising what can be got away with. I know the entire song because it is such an excellent vocal workout, I use it for exercise.

There will be other factors – how the song makes personal sense to me. Who wrote it. Who I first heard singing it, and where that was. Every song acquires a story about who I’ve sung it with and why. There’s also an arranging process of figuring out how to make it mine. There is a difference between ‘doing covers’ and singing someone else’s song. Here are three I’ve recently put on my youtube channel.

Hazard, by Richard Marx was around in my teens. The original sounded like a pop song, but it strips back to something that’s pure folk – a strong narrative with much of the plot implied but not present, a strong melody, powerful emotions. That ticks all the boxes for me. It was written for a guy to sing. I like the way that my singing it with a couple of minor word changes turns it into a different story. I’m not usually at all visible in my bisexuality, music is one of the places that gets expressed.

Elation, a Levellers album track. This was a struggle to learn because the original isn’t in a key I can sing in. It’s goddessy, and there are so many people it needs singing to, who are heart-sore and need hope. Every time I sing it now, there is also a pang of missing the chaps I used to sing it with, and hearing where they are not. This arrangement always sounds a bit thin to me, because I know what it’s missing. Some losses we just have to carry.

Sit Down was at number 2 in the charts when I was 14 and Chesney Hawkes was at number 1. And although I adored young Mr Hawkes, this was always the better song. I’ve only been able to sing it since acquiring the bouzouki – it just doesn’t work for me unaccompanied. everything this song says has always been true of me, it is how I feel, it is the song I would have written if I could. I have yet to sing it in person with all the people I most want to sing it to, but I know who they are and they will almost all be at Druid Camp.

If you sing something frequently, it becomes part of your life, and part of who you are. It’s worth choosing carefully.

Songs from the heart

I like my music raw. It is the blood, tears, sweat and other bodily fluids a performer brings to their playing and singing that hooks me. Amanda Palmer might not always be perfectly in tune, but she’s very real. And then there’s Jacques Brel, dripping sweat and tears breaking his heart over Ne Me Quite Pas, which we’ve mostly had in bad translation.

The intimacy of this performance, the realness of it, the raw emotion… entrances me. But this is not how we normally present emotion in music.  This is the more familiar version in English –

The words are much calmer – ‘if you go away’ is very different from trying to sing the better translation ‘don’t leave me’. In this version, the emotions are tamer, softer, less alarming. No one actually cries. Singing a song with some expression isn’t that difficult. Getting up in front of a bunch of people and singing like your life depends on it, like your heart is breaking, your world hanging in the balance… making the emotion of the song absolutely real and immediate for those few minutes… is unspeakable difficult. Especially if you then need to change tack and sing from a different space for the next three minutes, and again…

The soft, tame songs make good wallpaper. We can happily half listen, barely engage, and not feel too much ourselves. The other way of doing it demands attention. It can make the audience uneasy, embarrassed even, it can elicit emotional responses in return. It’s not safe, for singer or listener.

I’m an intensely emotional person, and there’s a lot (and increasingly) in my life that affects me so deeply, there are days when I can really only manage that by singing. Bleeding into the steadfast container that is a powerful song, can be an incredible release around things that I barely know how to articulate to myself. At the moment, I’m doing that at home. I have no idea whether I could put that in front of anyone else, and no idea what would happen if I did. But I don’t usually let things like that stop me.