Tag Archives: performance

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 – creating spaces

One of the things you may be called upon to do as a bard, is to create a performance space. There’s no way of doing this that is right, it’s a case of considering the space, and the intention and nature of the gathering.

If you use a performer/audience model with the audience in rows and the performer(s) at the front, then you elevate the status of the performer and encourage the audience to be an audience. It can take longer to get performers on and off, and if there is more than one performer then someone must act as master of ceremonies and handle the changes. In some venues, this layout raises issues of who can see and hear – a stage is often essential, amplification may be necessary. If there are a lot of people, this is often the best layout to use.

Working in the round puts everyone on an equal footing, there is no ‘front’ and everyone is able to interact, so there’s much less divide between audience and performer. If most of the audience are also performing, this can be preferable, and quicker. It does create a more casual atmosphere, and does not give the same status lift to performers. It can make the space slightly harder to control. In a circle of under thirty people, this layout is viable, but if it gets to be a larger crowd, you may have to have inner and outer circles, which will cost you some of the inherent democracy.

When you’re running a space, it’s good to test the acoustics of it and find out if there are any sweet spots for getting your voice to carry, or any dead spot to avoid using altogether, or encourage the accordion players into! They don’t need any help to be heard.

Never try and run an event from a position of having your back to the door. Make sure you can see the majority of movement in the room. If you’re outside, try and find something to have at your back – a tree for example – so that people can’t creep up on you. To hold a space you need to know what’s going on in it.

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.

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.

Becoming a bard – first material

So you want to be a bard, and you plan the first step of taking some material out. If you’re anything like me, and anything like most of the bards I have ever met, you’ve got a fire in your head and dreams of glory. You want to wow them. They are going to cry, laugh, wet themselves… you will hold them in the palm of your hand. Thus the first instinct is to pick out the longest, hardest, most impressive piece of material you have ever run into.

It’s not a good plan.

The thing is, if you haven’t performed much, or at all, outside of your home (shower?) there are things you won’t factor in. The impact of adrenaline on your body is something you won’t have a measure for until you’ve performed in public. Hands that shake in response can make strings tricky, blown instruments unreliable, adrenaline makes singing and speaking voices quavery. Unexpected nerves can elope with your second verse.

Things that were perfectly easy and you could do brilliantly at home, alone, are a lot harder to pull off when there’s an audience in front of you.

It’s also worth being aware that the space may not be very forgiving – lighting, acoustics, other people messing about, and if you’re outside, darkness, and wind may thwart you. Singing or talking against even a light wind is quite hard work.

Start safe. Ignore the urges for something that will blow them all away, and opt for something that you might still manage to do even if your trousers were on fire. Although probably don’t do it with your trousers on fire unless you’re into circus skills and have the right kit. Do something you can’t be frightened into forgetting. Do something that isn’t your fastest piece, so you can weather the nerves.

If you go out in public for the first time with an over-ambitious project and fall flat on your face, you do yourself no good at all. It’s better to have something you can be totally confident about (which reduces the scope for nerves to start with) and to pull off a solid performance, and enjoy the confidence boost this gives you. Sooner or later, you will mess up in public – every performer does. It can be disheartening, but its way better to avoid starting out with something that goes wrong.

Becoming a Bard

How do you go from being a person who does not perform, to being a fabulous bard with a song or poem up their sleeve for every occasion and who can give a dazzling performance in any space? It may seem like an impossible leap. I’m going to start running a thread about techniques and tactics for becoming a bard. I’ve been a performer for a good twenty years, but I’ve also run spaces where I’ve been able to help people cross this threshold. I’ve got a fair amount of experience to draw on, and a desire to help as many people as I can realise that even though yes, it is a big, intimidating looking step, it is also an entirely feasible step to take.

You probably weren’t one of the kids cast in lead roles for school productions. You probably weren’t chosen for solos in the choir – if you joined it. Most of us get signals – more and less explicit – from early on that when it comes to music and drama, we don’t make the grade. We stop singing, we don’t act, we don’t declaim poetry, we don’t improvise tunes in the middle of woods, but probably we always wanted to. Then we find out way home to Paganism, and the shining promise of the bard path, and all the things we wanted and were afraid to do because some numpty told us as children that we couldn’t.

Where do you even start?

I recommend starting by training your memory. Commit some things to memory – small poems, chants, songs that aren’t too tricky, a tune, a prayer – pick things you like and that seem easy. Learn them so that you can recite them by heart. Learn them so that they become part of you. (Methods for learning is something I’ll cover at some point later). Get a dozen pieces you know you can do well before you think about performing. It’s tempting to get one thing and take it straight out, but this isn’t the best way. It may go well, and then they ask for a second, and you aren’t ready…

There is a confidence that comes from really, really knowing a set of pieces. The time you devote to learning them, you will also learn about your relationship with said pieces – what each means to you, what’s important in it, and from that, how to put it across well. If you explore a number of forms, you’ll find out what comes most readily to you, what appeals, and what doesn’t suit you so well. Be prepared to keep revisiting this, to broaden what you do, but at the same time, know your strengths.

We don’t use our memories as much as our ancestors did, you find this is a muscle that lacks for tone, and it will take time and effort to strengthen it. That’s ok, just put in the time. The vast majority of us can remember stuff – and can learn and remember far more than we think we can. Unless you have a brain injury or similar level of damage, do not imagine that you can’t remember things. Keep pushing. Work on it every day if needs be. Repeat, and repeat and repeat. Get used to working at it.

One of the mistakes people who aren’t performing make, is that they look at the apparently effortless work of a skilled bard, and assume that what the bard is doing is effortless. To be able to seem like you’re telling a story off the cuff, or to be so easy for a song that you can re-write bits of it to suit the occasion, is not proof of lack of effort. To get to that stage has taken the person years of dedication and graft. Hours and hours of practice. To a significant degree, it is the willingness to do the work that will divide the bards from the non-bards.

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.

Acoustic spirits of place

Being a singer and musician, I’ve always had a consciousness of acoustics, and it slowly dawned on me that this is not universal. Apparently not everyone automatically does this or grasps it as an idea, so I thought I should share… Every space has its own sound quality. As a Druid, in ritual or just connecting with a place, the sound of a place is easily tapped into and, I feel, really enables you to engage with its spirit. Using the sound resonance of a space really adds to ritual work and performance.

If you listen to a space, you can start to get a sense of how the sounds work. Are there echoes? Is sound bouncing about? Or travelling to you from afar? What makes sound here? If there’s anything vertical, be that a slope, a tree, a standing stone, you can bounce sound off it a bit. The big stones at Stonehenge are amazing for this. Messing about with your voice and listening to what comes back will tell you what’s going on.

In buildings, the height of walls, length of room, shape of ceiling will inform how the sound behaves. Often, some spots turn out to be better than others. If you can stand in the right place, throw your sound the right way, you get to tap into that resonance. The space takes your sound and embellishes it. Sometimes certain notes or pitches work better than others, and if you can hear that, you can play with it, pitching your voice accordingly. It works as well for speech as for song, and puts you into the most magical kind of interaction with your space.

If you can tap into the echoes, into the pitches that suit the space and find the right place to stand to get the best audio effect (that might simply be upwind of everyone else so the wind takes your words to them, and not away) you are in harmony with the space. The space is working for you, you do not need amplifying, your words fly out as if by magic.

I’ve been doing this for lot of years, and I know when I’ve understood the space and worked with it, because not only do I hear the soft echoes supporting my voice, but I notice how much quieter people are. Get this right and an audience that might otherwise have been restless will stand still, silent, spellbound.

Druid magic… bard magic… there’s some science in this, although you have to work intuitively and with your senses to use it. This is the simplest way of adding a magical quality to your words or music, and it works anywhere. Even the deadest room will have places that work better acoustically than others. So, if you see me ambling about a place, staring and the ceiling and humming quietly to myself, this is why. I’m listening to the spirit of the place.

Performance Druidry

I’m not sure what I make of this line of thought, but, here goes. I’ve been reflecting on how I do my Druidry and have come to the conclusion that I’m more overtly Druidic if I’ve got an audience. If it’s just me and nature, then I’ll say ‘hello sky, hello trees’ and whatnot, and then mostly listen. I was down at the river last night. “Hello river, hello hills, hello sunset, hello gulls.” And then rather a lot of just being there, looking, listening, feeling, breathing. I didn’t have any urge to do anything much. Then on the walk home I started talking about the autumn equinox, and I heard myself slip into Druid ritual mode. It was an odd moment.

I’ve done time on stage – mostly with the music, but a bit of amateur theatricals, some storytelling and some public speaking. I know all about the high that is a round of applause, the joys of public appreciation… I never got to public adulation territory, but I’ve been part of adoring crowds and have some sense of how that works. I’m reasonably confident that the performance Druid thing is not merely a desire to get a hearty clap at the end.

I think what happens has everything to do with my desire to inspire and engage other people. I reach for the best words I can find, the most potent language that captures the essence of the moment. I’m open to the spirits of place, taking inspiration from them to help others be more aware of their presence. I try harder.

When it’s just me and the sky, the pace is different, and the intention. I feel the inspiration, but am not motivated to express it right then. It moves into me, through me. I am changed, I grow, but this is all pretty subtle and from the outside won’t look like much at all.

I look most like a Druid when there’s an audience to work with.

Looking back, those times of performance Druidry tended to leave me shattered, physically. Sometimes mentally and emotionally as well. I’d give my all, and it would leave me exhausted and empty. What I got out of that was a sense of being helpful to others, which is important to me. And sometimes fragments of inspiration from what I’d done and said, would stay, but more often, not. When I’m open, it rushes through me. Does the flute remember the tune after the flautist has stopped playing? I felt I was neither tune nor player at those times, just a carrier, a medium.

If I’m out there on my own, or with people who do not need performance Druidry, I can quietly say hello rain, hello geese, and feel the experience nourishing me.

If I go back to doing performance Druidry, I shall make sure there’s a lot more time when I’m doing the less visible work, for my own benefit. Because I need to, and I no longer think my only function is to be a flute on which other things play tunes. There is a difference between looking like a Druid, and being a Druid, sometimes. I think I’m more confident about recognising the importance of the less obvious stuff now.