Tag Archives: performance

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.


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.


Musical plots and plans

At the moment, a lot of my time and creative energy is going into a project called The Ominous Folk of Hopeless, Maine. We’re a four person singing group, doing a mix of original stuff, covers and folk.

This all started some years ago when the Hopeless, Maine graphic novel project was invited to participate in the local book festival. What do you do with a graphic novel on a stage? We put together a mix of stories and folk songs, because folk traditions have always been a big influence. James and I have been singing together his whole life. We added Susie to the mix and last year took our first Hopeless, Maine show out into the world, debuting it at Festival at the Edge, in 2021.

We’re gigging a lot – at Steampunk events, folk things and local stuff. We’re now in a conversation about recording an album in October, which is an exciting prospect.

This isn’t my first musical project – I played in a blues rock band in my teens, gigged as half a folk duo in my twenties and have been involved in assorted things that were mostly for fun. I love performing. I love how this group works – the balance of silliness and gothic, folk horror vibes, the getting to play with kit, and the ways in which we can increasingly do things by magic.

This is performance with no safety net. We sing unaccompanied, so there’s nothing to refer to for pitch. There are also quite a few songs that start with two of us singing in harmony, and we’ve got to a point where it just happens, we simply hit the notes. We’ve learned to breathe together, and to be able to make sense of what we’re each doing even when we are stood in a line far enough apart not to be able to easily see each other in peripheral vision. I get a massive kick out of this. It’s definitely magic, no two ways about it.


Presenting as a Druid

I’m always interested in how we define or experience authenticity, versus when we see things as fake, in ourselves and when looking at other people. For me, authenticity is very much part of what it means to live as a Druid. To act authentically, to show up as a person not just a performance and to connect with people and others from a place of honesty. 

However, as soon as you put clothes on and use words you’re engaged in a process of deliberate choices. Part of being human is how we express ourselves to others, how we want to be seen and understood. There’s a hazy area between aspiration and performance. If I want to become a kinder and more patient person my best bet is to try and act like a kinder and more patient person until the process of doing that becomes ingrained in me and part of who I am. There’s not much difference between that and the person who simply wishes to seem kind and patient acts and either person can mess up and let something else show.

When you look at another person, it is hard to tell if they’re undertaking to fake it until they make it. Maybe they are showing you their most authentic self. Maybe they are a people pleaser trying to perform the role they think you most want them to play. Maybe they are an abuser with a persona that protects them and enables them to groom new victims. From the outside it can be impossible to tell what anything really means. Inherently charismatic people are good at persuading others of their innate worth. Socially awkward people can come across badly but still be full of wisdom and compassion.

Druids who are wise, knowledgeable, experienced and compassionate will often discourage others from seeing them as leaders and authorities. Druids who want to be important may go to a lot of effort to present as plausible leaders and authorities. Some Druids step forward to lead and offer authority because they have valuable skills to offer and want to help people. Some Druids pretend to be humble because they’ve figured out that it’s a good look.

I can’t know what’s going on in someone else’s head. I do know that it is very human to feel judgemental of other people. We get social reinforcement by looking around and identifying people to feel we are superior to, and people to look up to as role models and leaders. How we judge each other may have a lot more to do with our own desires to know where we fit than with anyone’s innate qualities. 

It’s good to think about what we’re attracted to, what we find convincing and engaging and what seems laughable or insubstantial. Are we drawn to beauty, charisma and glamour in our potential leaders? Are we deeper people if we mistrust those things, or is that just a different set of values, prejudices and performance styles at work? Any time you feel moved to say ‘that Druid is superficial and insubstantial’ it’s worth looking at exactly what we’re rejecting and why. Humbleness and self effacement can be just as much a performance as fancy robes, and can be a highly successful one. It depends on what buttons you have to push.

How deliberate is your presentation style? What are you putting into the world as a Druid? How deliberate a performance is your Druidry? Does the idea of Druidry as public performance make you feel uneasy and inauthentic, or might that be an entirely valid aspect of what it means to be a priest, a bard, a celebrant? How does anyone else benefit from our Druidry if we don’t perform it in a deliberate way? Is it enough to live your truth, or is it necessary to make that more visible?


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 –


Trust and inspiration

This is a photo from one of my new ventures. I’ve wanted to do this for a long time, and at the recent Steampunk event in Gloucester I was able to pull a team together for some improvisation-heavy theatre. I’ve wanted to do scratch theatre in a steampunk context for ages. It has to be a bit cobbled together because we weren’t able to meet before the event for rehearsals and this would always be the way of it with steampunks travelling from all over the place to events.

I wrote an outline. Craig Hallam brought poems – the setup was a literary salon run by a psychopath (me, being Mrs Beaten) with Craig as Hopeless Maine poet Algernon Lear. Other cast members took on characters suitable to the setting, while John Bassett played Reverend Davies.

I’ve been dabbling with plays for years – mostly mumming plays, which are short, anarchic folk plays with a format around death and rebirth. Usually I write characters based either on traditional material, or for the person who will be playing the part. Getting to see someone bring to life a character I did not write for them has been an affecting sort of experience. 

For me, what’s most exciting in this kind of creative project is the mix of trust and uncertainty. I knew I had a great team, and they were willing to trust me that we could do this thing. We had a framework, but no one really knew how any of it would work or what would happen in the moment. And there were some wonderful moments with people interacting, sparring verbally, or at one point literally sparring with a cane and a massive spoon… When people collaborate amazing things can and do happen.

We made a space and a possibility. We held that space between us, and supported each other in being entertaining and funny and a bit weird, and I am really happy with how it all went. There will be more of this, and it means I can include more people.


Inspiration and Performance

Often, we talk about inspiration as being the act of creating a piece of work. That’s not quite what happens around performance. It is possible to be a really good performer – of music, poetry, theatre, dance… without creating original pieces of work. There are a number of ways in which inspiration can manifest.

Firstly there’s the choice of material. An inspired choice will be a powerful thing. This is about finding the perfect piece for the setting, the time of year, the audience, the mood on the day. When this works it can be truly magical. As you’re preparing material and won’t necessarily be able to fettle those choices in situ, how inspired you are in your choices can make a lot of odds.

There’s a lot of work involved in learning and arranging a performance. A lot of your own creative energy will go into this. What you do with your voice or body to bring a piece to life is very much yours. The preparation work you do will also inform how you are able to interpret and perform the piece in the moment and what you can do to tailor it to the space, audience etc. Whether you prepare with the intention of doing it in a way you’ve settled on, or whether you prepare to try and have many options on the day is also a factor.

Then there’s what happens in the moment. When you step into a space and decide how to perform what you’ve brought with you. The more confident you are, the better. The more sure of your material you are, the better. But there’s also always that scope for something magical to enter in and influence what you do. Performance itself can be inspired, and when it is, there is a considerable difference.

Creativity is a way of being in the world, a way of being open and interacting with the material, the spaces, the audience. Inspiration is a strange, glorious process that can strike at any time. Anything we do can be lit up with inspiration and can be made more wonderful by having that extra spark in it.


Intuition on the bard path

Intuition is a really important skill for bards. First and foremost it’s about being able to read the room (or grove). Having a feel for your audience that allows you to respond to them is essential for making a connection and communicating effectively. You also have to give yourself space for that – if you’ve carefully planned out every detail of what you will say and do, you’re leaving no space to include what comes up at the time.

Stages feel pretty exposed at the best of times. If you are nervous you may feel like trying to be more open to your audience is a bad thing. This is not something a person is likely to get the hang of at the first go. It’s something to explore once you’re over the worst of the nerves caused by simply trying to perform.

It’s easier to read the room if you start before getting on to the stage. It’s important to check out the space and the audience ahead of time. Flounce up just before your set and you have no idea what you’re walking in to. It’s easier to try and read the mood of the gathering before you start performing. Some crowds respond well to bombast, some will like you more if you come in gently.

Intuition has a role to play at other times as well. Very few bards create in the moment and on the day. It takes time to learn, write, choreograph or otherwise get your creativity to the point where you can share it. What you have to learn to get there, is an issue. The decisions about what to work on happen a fair way ahead of sharing a finished piece. What will be relevant by the time you can share it?

For me, 2021 has been full of intuitive leaps in the dark. I’ve made decisions about what to do and when, creatively, that were at best informed by wild guesses. That’s been going surprisingly well, so far. It’s left me feeling more open to possibility, and perhaps a little more in tune with the tides of existence. Which sounds slightly pretentious, but I can’t think of a more grounded way of saying it!


A sense of self

This is me, onstage at Festival at the Edge this summer. The photo was taken by Allan Price, and I was there doing a Hopeless Maine set (more of that over here – https://hopelessvendetta.wordpress.com/2021/07/20/ominous-folk/ )

I love being on stage. There’s a bit of me missing when performance isn’t part of what I do. I freely admit to craving the applause. More than that, though, I want to surprise, delight, amuse and inspire. I’m happier in myself when I can get out there and entertain people.

During lockdown I’ve done a lot of soul searching. I’ve not felt like myself, and part of that has been about not having the sort of engagement with people that I can have in person. Being on a stage again, I’ve felt more like myself. 

It’s rare for me to have a photo that captures something of how I want to be seen, but this one does. I am clearly ridiculous, with my sparkly horns. I’m wearing the waistcoat I made and embroidered – an act of creativity I am deeply proud of. Eccentric, and unapologetic about that. I didn’t put this outfit together with the aim of looking non-binary, but in many ways it captures that side of myself too. I’m still trying to figure out what I need to look like to feel comfortable, and this is the first time I feel I’ve nailed it. Being fluid and shifty, I will clearly also need to look like other things.

Who we are is such a curious mix of things. What we seem like on the inside, what we deliberately present or hide, how people interpret that, how we feel about those responses, and what we do. So much of my sense of self depends on what I do, what I put into the world. In theory ‘be yourself’ sounds like it should be the easiest option. Trying to figure out what that would mean remains an important area of exploration for me. In this photo at least, I’ve seen someone I recognise and feel comfortable with, and that’s unusual for me.


Learning things by heart

Memorising is a traditional bardic skill and it’s a wonderful thing to do. In learning something you form a much deeper relationship with it, and it becomes part of you. It is scary – performing from memory without a safety net is a really exposed thing to do and you can fall and fail – but you really feel it when you fly. And if you sauntered onto the bard path the odds are that you crave the applause, the audience response and the glory to some degree.

There are people, and my son is one of them, who seem able to absorb vast amounts of text with very little effort. For most of us, it is a slog taking time and repetition. To learn things by heart you also have to learn how much work that takes. It’s easy to be put off and to assume you can’t do it… but it can just be a case of needing to make more effort than you expected. The more you learn by heart, the better your memory becomes and the easier it gets.

Not everyone can commit things to memory. Not everyone who can memorise finds they can perform from memory. It’s worth investing time and effort in building familiarity with material even if you do then need the safety net. It’s vitally important that bardic spaces don’t require you to memorise – that’s abelist. Further, no one should have to explain what their issues are if they don’t perform from memory.

Here are some things I’ve found helpful when trying to learn something by heart…

Little and often is better than big sessions. Go over the material every day.

Start trying to do it – or bits of it – from memory as soon as you can. It doesn’t matter how bad you are. If you just work from the paper you get used to the paper. Trying to reconstruct the piece from memory will really help you, even if you spend most of the time going ‘tum te tum’ between key words.

Play with the material. Messing about helps with learning. But also be careful because you don’t want to learn the wrong words. Comedy versions can be great, but don’t set yourself up to remember the wrong words!

Don’t worry about getting it wrong. The chances many people – or for that matter any person in your audience knows the material better than you do, are small. If you present the piece with confidence and a smile, people will be persuaded that you know it. Mistakes delivered with certainty are seldom noticed. If you need to brazen it out, that was how Granny always said it, or ‘folk process’ are always options. As a bard, a good story can be more pertinent than a disappointing and useless truth. If you go off-text you can also always say that you were in the grip of the Awen and that’s simply what turned up!