Winter Nights: My first Bardic competition

I spent Saturday at Concordia of the Snows up near Albany, NY, for their Winter Nights event.  It was and incredible day dedicated to performance and (according to Toki Redbeard, the autocrat) very relaxed competition.  This was my first time entering a Bardic competition, if you don’t count the Depressing Song contest from last Pennsic, which was wonderful (and where I tied for first place), but a different animal: an entry level contest for new bards, who only needed to perform one song, with only the stipulation that it be depressing.  Winter Nights, by contrast, would be an all-day competition for Bards at various experience levels, with head-to-head performances, topic challenges, and multiple rounds of performing.  For those who are intrigued but unfamiliar with such things, as I had been, or who have been to other Bardic competitions and are curious how Winter Nights is structured, I offer some details of my (joyous!) experience there.

(Disclaimer:  This blog is about my bardic career.  A blow-by-blow account of how this competition went down may not interest all readers.  I do think my experience of the generosity and camaraderie of this group is worth sharing, especially for those who haven’t been part of it–it’s very different from, say, community theater.  And happily, Jess took video of my songs, including the introductions, so I’ve included those at the appropriate points in the narrative.  That said, if an extended “inside-baseball” story will bore you to tears, by all means stop reading now, or just scroll down and enjoy the videos.)

They offered three divisions to compete in: Novice, Intermediate, and Advanced.  I entered myself as a Novice (as mentioned, I’d never been to an event like this, and I hold no awards or rank in the SCA) and put my name and division on a scorecard, which was then collected by a scorekeeper scribe.  Toki informed me just before the performances began that I was the only Novice registered, and asked whether I was willing to compete at the Intermediate level.  I accepted the offer, and Toki let me know that I had just earned an extra point to start off the day.

The rules were, in my opinion, well crafted and nicely designed to allow for spirited competition on the part of those who were looking to win (and make no mistake, I was going to play to win, hungry to earn a little notoriety among fellow bards), while allowing those who were less competitive to not worry about the competitive aspect.  Everyone would be given an equal number of chances to perform during the day, regardless of whether they wanted to compete.  Each round, the scorekeeper would select the cards of two bards competing in the same division, and announce the “on-deck” match-up.  The newly-announced competitors would meet at the ox-hide in the center of the room (ours was apparently a very rare, fluffy off-white “polar” ox-hide), and have a chance to “throw down” and challenge each other to perform on a topic he or she proposed.  Alternately, the bards could each select a topic by choosing from three random cards drawn from a prepared topic basket.  Now that the on-deck bards had their topic challenges, they would step out of the performance area and take one turn to select and prepare their next piece, while the pair of bards who had been selected one turn earlier took the stage.

If it sounds confusing, it wasn’t.  For me, it meant that when my name was called, a pair of Advanced bards were about to perform, but before they began I would meet my new opponent and exchange challenges with her.  Then we both had time while the Advanced bards performed to get ready for our own performance.  The Advanced bards would finish their pieces, then the next pair of Advanced bards would be announced and challenge each other, then step off the floor to prepare for their turn, and then my opponent and I would perform back-to-back.

For each match-up, three judges who were outside that division were selected to evaluate the competing bards’ performances.  Everyone participating in the event was invited (and to some extent expected) to rotate as judges a few times during the day.  At the end of both bards’ performances, the judges would step out to the next room with the scorekeeper to quickly convene and choose the bard they believed had “won” the round, just based on the quality of the performances and regardless of whether a topic challenge had been accepted.  The bard judged the winner of that contest would be awarded two points, and each bard who had chosen a piece related to a challenge topic would be awarded one point.  The scorekeeper scribed the results on the contestants’ cards, which were kept secret during the entire event.

As an extra twist, a bard had the option to ask to step in and replace the bard who was being challenged, taking the challenge in his place.  Or a bard who didn’t want a challenge (or a particular opponent) could ask another bard to step in for her.  A swap would not happen unless both bards agreed to it, but if they did, both bards who were exchanging places were awarded a bonus point for their willingness to change things up.  (The bard stepping in, however, risked losing the bonus point if she lost her match.)

At the end of the competition, every bard participating would have performed the same number of times.  If she swapped into a match, that would count as her turn for that round.  If he let someone step in for him, he would get another turn with a different opponent later in the round.

It was a bit complex to get my head around when it was first explained, but it was pretty clear once it got going.  What made things more relaxed for everyone was that the results of the match-ups and the point scores were never disclosed to anyone, and all that would be announced were the champions of each division at the end of the day.  This did have the desired effect, at least for me: since I didn’t know whether I had won or lost a round, or how many points exactly I had at any point (though I could obviously make my best guess), I found I didn’t spend any significant time getting stressed about whether I was ahead or behind, and felt no need to second-guess my abilities in any round relative to how “well” I had done earlier.  The only thing I was measuring myself against as I competed was the quality of my opponent’s performance, if she had gone first in our match.

The one thing I did sweat about, from the moment I understood the rules, was whether my extremely limited repertoire of songs would be enough to carry me through the day.  From my perspective, my skill as a bard was as much about my songwriting as it was about my performance.  I was intent on using the three completed songs I had written myself, especially since I had almost nothing else that was “period” committed to memory.  As Toki had announced that there were two or three rounds planned, depending on time, I figured that a lot of how well I did would depend on whether I would be challenged with topics that I could match to the three arrows in my quiver.  I was hoping that I would be getting chances to pick a topic from the basket as much as possible.

I wasn’t matched up early in the first round, so I got the chance to observe how the challenges were being done, what the flow of the event was like, and what the level of competition was in the Intermediate division.  One thing was clear: no one, whether or not they considered themselves “competing”, was turning down a topic challenge.  That was probably at least as much bardic pride as about points: meeting a topic challenge appears to be a foundational skill among SCA bards.  And for competitors, meeting the topic challenge was a way to guarantee at least one point per round, win or lose, and in a close-matched contest, the victory was at the whim of the judges.  However, bards could be creative in how they interpreted the topic, and with the right introduction, they could frame how the piece they were about to deliver related to the topic, even if the relationship was a bit tangential or metaphorical.  I quickly got the sense that this sort of ingenuity was perfectly acceptable to all, and even admired when it showed some wit.

Near the end of the first round I was matched up with Magnus, a well-liked Concordian bard who, remembering from the round of introductions at the start of the day, recalled that this was my first event.  He offered me, very politely, to consider the topic of someone doing something for the first time.  I had been hoping for the basket, but pondered it for a moment, before I accepted with a slight smile.

As an unknown and a first-timer, this was my one chance to make a first impression, and it was a joyful thing to impress a room full of bards who’d never heard me sing a note.  The best moment came after I sat down, and Magnus came over to me, and offered me the gift of a ring he had been given (if memory serves) by his Laurel two years before.  His mentor had instructed him, in the SCA bardic tradition, to keep it a year and a day, and eventually pass it on to another bard who some day gave a performance that moved him sufficiently to be worth bestowing it.  He put the beautiful ring in my hand, pulled me into an embrace, and welcomed me to the community.

(The tradition of token-giving is one of my favorite things about the Bardic community in the SCA.  I had only learned about it at Pennsic this past summer, when I had received a few choice tokens.  This was actually the second token I’d been given today at Winter Nights, actually; another bard, who would be competing in the Advanced division, had greeted me with great warmth at the start of the day, and offered me a ring before any performances, as thanks for the service I had done the Bardic community in starting up and growing the SCA Bardic Arts Facebook group.)

I’m very gratified to say that the whole day continued in that vein.  I knew now that I had the chops to hold my own in this crowd, and the generosity, praise, and welcome continued on…at times, to paraphrase my wife, it was like a gentle rain.  I would have a collection of several more tokens by the end of the day, and just thinking about them brings up a warm rush of gratitude every time.  (Jess, ever practical, is helping me research what I want in the way of my own tokens to offer fellow bards at future events.)

That said, now that I had seen I could perform at the level required in my new weight class, the element of suspense and excitement continued to be whether I would be able to perform my remaining two songs without falling short of a topic challenge.  My next opponent said, “Drake, I challenge you with Fire.”  It took me a minute to figure out how to answer it…

This was definitely fun.  But of course, I only had one song left, so I was out of choices.

Near the start of round three, Rebecca, who had been performing impressively, challenged Magnus, my opponent who had given me the bear hug after round one, to sing.  He immediately began comically protesting, “You do not want to hear me sing.  No one hear wants to hear me sing.  Trust me.”

All she wanted from him was a song?  I perked up.  Another bard pointed out to the non-singer than he could ask for someone to swap in for him, and he asked, “Is anyone willing to sing in my place?”  I stood up.  “I’ll sing for you,” I said nice and loud, and I’m happy to say that an appreciative chuckle went around the room.  Magnus looked very relieved.

“You want to step in front of this bus, Drake?” asked Rebecca.

“I do,” I said, walking to the ox-hide.  “You want a song, I’ll sing a song.”  I could get my last song in after all.

“I haven’t chosen a topic,” she pointed out.  The smile froze on my face…she hadn’t finished her challenge, she’d been interrupted as soon as she’d said the word “song”.  Rebecca stared at me, studying me.  I was committed.  I was gaining an extra point for taking the challenge, but my impressive bravado would be completely wasted if I declined to accept her topic.  In a bardic challenge, appearances definitely matter.  I did my best to look calm and impassive.

With a last look of sly appraisal, she said, “Give us a funny song.”  I put out my hand.  “Done.”

“And what challenge would you offer me?” she asked as we shook hands.  I had seen Rebecca work this crowd, and she was impressive.  “Give me a song of childish innocence,” I said.  She frowned.  “Childish innocence…oooh.  I accept.  Does it have to be a song?  Or can the piece be spoken?”  I smiled graciously.  “Childish innocence is the topic.  You don’ t have to sing.”  I don’t think she actually said “Oh, it’s on!”, but her look did.

At my request, Rebecca went first.  I wanted to see what I was up against.  She definitely had a piece with childish innocence to it.  She retold “Beowulf” as a “Dick and Jane” primer.  “See Grendel.  Grendel is hungry.  Eat, Grendel, eat!”  She was amazing, and the crowd, myself included, was eating it up, convulsed with laughter.

Hey, this was the point, right?  Going head to head with genuinely talented bards and bringing our best game.  I had nothing to lose at this point.  I had clearly earned my place already as an up-and-coming bard of note.  It didn’t actually matter whether I won or not, and really, that was somewhat out of my hands.  I was punching above my weight, showing my daring, and giving it my all.  But while I was happy just to be here…I wanted to win this.  And Rebecca was going to be very hard to top.

I stepped out into the center as the applause died down.  “I’ve learned a few things today,” I announced.  “When Rebecca asks if anyone wants to ‘step in front of the bus’, I should think…”

Around this time, Toki announced that for once, Winter Nights was running ahead on time, and the rounds were going faster than they had in previous years.  There was time for a fourth round, with a faster format.  Everybody cheered.  I just turned to Jess, and she immediately understood the look on my face.  “I have to do a fourth performance?” I said to her.  I’d used every arrow, presented all three of my songs matched to challenge topics…and now there was going to be an extra round.  “Oy,” she said.  I scrambled for the iPhone.  I had some searching to do.

Happily, by swapping in I had finished the third round very early, and so I had plenty of time to find other pieces.  I knew now I didn’t have to have them memorized, and as Jess pointed out, if people were reading from Kindles, surely no one would judge me harshly for using an iPhone?  I quickly pulled up web pages for a number of songs, poems, and ballads I was familiar with and would be able to perform with confidence, and one or two other well-known songs that I could do from memory.  I’m pleased to say that a number of the other bards checked in with me compassionately, asking whether I was going to be ready for a fourth round since I’d told everyone I didn’t have any other material.  I let them know, with thanks for their concern, that I had found a few stray arrows in my spare bag–not my own stuff, but I knew that wasn’t required.

Toki explained the format for the fourth round.  The Baron of Concordia would reach into the topic basket and offer up a topic.  There would be a few seconds for a bard to stand up and accept the challenge, and do a piece on that topic, on the spot.  If no one stood up, the Baron would reach into the pile of contestant cards and call out the name of a bard to perform, who would then have to stand up and do a piece, either on that topic or not.  There was again no problem with doing an off-topic piece, but the bard wouldn’t get the bonus topic point.  After the first bard went, another bard would be asked to follow up and try to top the first on that topic.  If no one stood, a name would be picked at random.  Divisions were, by general consent, going to be ignored this round–anyone could compete against another bard regardless of experience.  Three judges who weren’t competing would watch each piece, and take a few seconds after each pair to decide on a winner, before the next topic was called.

I was as ready as I was going to be.  The Baron called out, “The first topic is…’gods’.”  Everyone sat silent.  “No one?  Does anyone have a piece on ‘gods’?”

I stood up and stepped to the ox-hide to a murmur of approval.  I recited “Neptune Rex”, a wonderful poem I had heard Michael Alewright present at a bardic circle at Pennsic, and which he had graciously given me permission to perform.  I read it from the iPhone, but I read it with conviction, and I heard and felt the audience respond.

It turned out (and in retrospect I might have guessed this) that the results weren’t announced until near the very end of the event, after 10 pm.  The main competition ended some time after 7 pm (I went out to dinner with my family and our in-town hosts and came back after), and the Baronial bardic competition began.  Local bards of Concordia performed for the Baron to evaluate for the post of new Baronial Bard, but non-local bards were welcome to perform for enjoyment during the evening as well.  I actually tried my hand at story-telling for the first time…and I learned the hard way how long a story can run when I’m winging it (though I knew the story outline reasonably) and haven’t prepped and timed it out.

Finally, the Baron convened a brief court to announce the champions to the happy but tired group of bards.  “And the new Winter Nights Intermediate Champion is…Drake Oranwood!”

I’d done it.  I’d won my first Bardic championship.  I walked up to the Baron to tremendous cheers, shook his hand, and was presented with a copper armband as my prize.  Someone called out, “All hail Drake Oranwood, the Intermediate Bardic Champion!”  And the collected voices rang out, “VIVAT!  VIVAT!  VIVAT!”

I was thrilled to learn that the Advanced Champion was announced as Lilly van der Tam, the bard I actually was best acquainted with, having spent some time in her company at Pennsic.  Though she was an experienced bard, she was, like me, a newcomer at the Winter Nights event.  I was equally pleased when Magnus Hvalmagi, who had given me his token and who had swapped spots with me, was declared the new Baronial Bard.

I was asked by many to make sure I came back to Winter Nights.  Oh, you can count on it.

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One thought on “Winter Nights: My first Bardic competition

  1. Pingback: Winter Nights 2015 | Drake the Bard

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