Post-Game Analysis: EK Bardic Champions

Win or lose, they’ll remember this day…
(from “We Are the East”)

I promised I would do a deep dive (translation: long read) on my experiences preparing for, during, and after this year’s kingdom bardic championships, and this would be it. Of course, this would probably be a little more exciting if this were a breakdown of how I became a Royal Bard of the East…but as Zsof, Jess, and I all spent the last six months reminding me, I can’t control outcomes. So for that post I’ll refer you to Aethelflied’s fantastic recounting of the story behind her being selected as King’s Bard. (Mistress Alys’s blog has documentation for her round one piece, which was her first step to being selected as Queen’s Bard.)

Before I go all in, I’ll own that I feel a little funny. Who wants to hear about the runner-up’s prep? Aethelflied’s story in particular is like the hero in a fairy tale (and I love me some fairy tales). So does detailing my intensive prep (in my intensively Drake way) risk making me look like a Bond villain? Or the bitter lamentation of Salieri? I’m choosing to let that go, based the following points:

  • I’ve been told by many bards (including my friend Grim the Skald, who is Aethelflied’s Laurel) to think of our Bardic Championship as two events: a two-round competition, where judges (including their Majesties) evaluate performers, determining the finalists; followed by a one-round job interview/audition, which is ultimately their Majesties’ choice alone. Everyone selected as a finalist has won the competition, which is all they have any influence over. So, yes, it is valid to share how I trained to compete, successfully, for a spot in the finals.
  • Zsof and Aethelflied each encouraged me to share this, on the grounds that it is instructive for those who want to know what one might do to get ready for this level of competition. (And I’ve been reminded by at least one bard from outside our kingdom that the East is one of the few kingdoms with a culture rich enough for a full-day competitive event with a deep field, for which bards will prep months in advance. It’s a privilege bards in some kingdoms wish they could enjoy.)
  • How we deal with disappointment is at least as important as how we handle success–especially in the SCA, where one’s comportment makes up a huge part of one’s reputation. Part of prepping for a competition is about maintaining the humility to know we may not get what we want. If the only accounts out there are those of the victors, that crucial side won’t get addressed. In all seriousness, it’s a big part of what went into this event, and what I got out of it.

Pre-Game: Planning to Compete

I decided to start prepping for the bardic championships back in August, shortly after we got home from Pennsic. The truth is, I went into a bit of a depression after finishing the album. Having taken a long-term project through from inception to completion, I needed a new project, something that would push me and give me an organizing focus. I had known since Brennan had won Crown Tourney that I wanted to compete to be a royal bard this winter. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I couldn’t be the only bard in the kingdom excited at the prospect of competing for the recognition of him and Caoilfhionn, who had modeled love and care for the kingdom during their first reign, and whose return to the throne was eagerly anticipated. Especially coming off a very difficult reign for the kingdom, seeing these beloved monarchs back on the throne, getting to choose champions for the first time…this was going to be a killing field.

I’ve mentioned my philosophy before: if you’re going to compete, play to win. I couldn’t (say it with me) control the outcome, but I could prepare to go up against the most renowned bards in the kingdom. I’d been to 3 kingdom competitions, and competed in one; I’d been paying attention. What would I need to bring to have a shot at the finals?

  • I needed to up my game demonstrably. Bards who are performing at a level people haven’t seen before get noticed in competitions. In particular, I needed to beef up my period performance, and demonstrate my interest and seriousness of intent to the bardic Laurels and Maunches present.
  • I needed to connect to the audience–not just the royals, but everyone present. I needed to shed the last of my theater fourth-wall habits, and engage directly with the audience in the way of period performers, making eye contact, reading the room.
  • I needed to demonstrate my love for and appreciation of the SCA, and the East in particular. The way to these royals’ heart was their love for their kingdom; I had to bring that up in them, and everyone watching.
  • I needed to be ready, in the event I pulled this off, for the intimidating final round…to be assigned a type of performance and probably a theme from their Majesties with 30 minutes to prepare. Experience told me that I would be asked to perform in a style I hadn’t used in the first two rounds. Given my heavy focus on singing, that meant I needed to be ready with spoken-word material…and be ready to compose something on the fly if necessary.

Now that I had a sense of the ways I needed to be prepared, Zsof asked me…what were my goals in doing this? Was it going to be worth more than six months of work if I ended up not being selected? This forced me to think about the event in a deeper way. I realized that competing for kingdom bard consists of a number of interconnected, but separate, goals:

  • To become a better, more entertaining, more engaging, more well-rounded bard. This is my chief goal at all times.
  • To create performance moments that leave an audience breathless with delight and stay with them after the performance, and the day, are over.
  • To promote the bardic and performance arts in my kingdom and the SCA, and show the worth of SCA bards to our collective benefit and advantage.
  • To demonstrate my abilities and my devotion to my King and Queen, and their heirs, thus winning their notice and approval. (Deep human drive, the desire to win the approval of authority figures, and very period appropriate.)
  • To be appointed to a high-profile one-year service position as a representative of the royalty and the kingdom.

With this in mind, I began to plan how to tackle each round of the competition.

Round One: Become a Lutenist

I quickly hit on a way I could level-up my authenticity, and demonstrate my commitment to research and period music: accompany myself on a John Dowland lute song, playing my Martin backpacker guitar, as my round one piece.

This scared the crap out of me. I Bardic Champs Guitaram a barely-competent beginner on guitar. I know my way around chords, but my strumming is sloppy, my finger-picking horrible, and when I play it just sounds awful. I know music theory and notation, but I don’t read music especially well. I can read guitar tablature, which is designed to show you exactly how to play a piece of music on guitar, but Elizabethan music wasn’t written in modern guitar tablature. They used lute tablature, with a different symbol notation.

Fortunately, Maistre Lucien gave me an assignment when I studied with him last year that made this seem like a doable task. He asked me to spend five weeks breaking down a Dowland piece from sheet music with lute tablature, and learn to play and sing it on guitar as best I could. Just the top line of notes, not the full arrangement. It was frustrating but rewarding, and by the end of that time I could do a slow, fumbling, but passable progression through “Come Again” while singing it. Lucien was impressed with how far I got.

But I didn’t want to do “Come Again”, which I would have to relearn with fuller chords, and which has six verses. I wanted to do “Can She Excuse My Wrongs?”, which I had learned to sing for my first time competing at EK in 2014, and which I liked enough to record on Hidden Gold. (Of course, on there, my friend Dave played the guitar part, and was able to build the track phrase by phrase in his home studio. But it meant I had already broken down the tablature for this one, and I was familiar with the piece…and it only had two verses.) Of course, “Can She Excuse” is also one of the more agonizingly difficult Dowland pieces to play, with lots of varied counterpoint and ornamentation to it.

But…I did have six months. I spent it practicing on average half an hour a day, and gradually progressed from slow and painful to…faster and a little less painful. I worked my way through getting off book, learning the fingerings, loosening my death grip on the guitar, taking my eyes off the strings so I could focus on the audience, letting my muscle memory learn every phrase of the piece, and finally getting more pleasant sounds from my picking. I tried it in front of select audiences at bardic circles, and with teachers via video, to get more comfortable being watched while I played (which was terribly distracting and would set back my playing level by weeks each time). The final week I finally started to tighten up on the piece.

The Performance: The day before the competition I realized something. I had always practiced while wearing my glasses, because I wanted to make eye contact with the audience while singing and playing. But at the level I was playing at, eye contact started my brain wandering, considering whether the person I was looking at was enjoying themselves, whether they were registering mistakes, looking at my hands. I needed to take my glasses off for this round, and make “eye contact” with blurry people who would distract me less because I couldn’t see their faces.

And…it worked. My glitches were largely manageable and subtle, and I didn’t stop or hesitate. The irony, to me, was that while this was by far the most difficult thing I was going to do all day, it didn’t look like much, and I suspect most of the audience just enjoyed it politely. Which was all right with me…the bards who knew me well would surely realize I was doing something new (as I hinted in my intro), and appreciate the level of challenge. (It did indeed. I heard from a number of people afterward to that effect. In particular, Master Fridrikr Tomasson of Aethelmearc, writing up his highlights of the day on Facebook, noted that this, my first round performance, was one of two performances that would stick in his memory, invoking period feeling like nothing he’d seen me do before, and reflecting that one of his aspirations as a performer was to be “as well-rounded as Drake”. From an outspoken Laurel from whom I’ve received a number of critiques over the years–always given with instructive intent–this took my breath away.)

Most importantly from a practical standpoint, I was reasonably confident this would get me through to the second round–where I would play my big guns.

Round Two: Create a Kingdom Anthem

The Preparation: For round two I needed to get under people’s skin and into their hearts. I wanted to write a new song, and drew on my experience from “Lady of the Rose”, which often gets queens, past and future, right where they live, and is often requested by them when I’m fortunate enough to bump into them. But I needed a piece that would speak, not just to members of an elite Order, but to an entire kingdom–my kingdom.

The reason “Lady of the Rose” works so well is that it captures lived experience that listeners recognize. So when, in September, a series of memes surfaced on Facebook with the theme “I Am the East”, beginning with one of Caoilfhionn herself, the concept for the song, and my approach, came to me in a rush. I would attempt to forge a new kingdom anthem for the East, one that represented the experiences of a broad cross-section of the populace. I surveyed over a dozen members of the populace (including Duke Kenric shortly before he won fall Crown), and they provided me with the material I needed to fashion “We Are the East”. The song was mostly finished by December, with a little additional polish as I rehearsed it in the months that followed.

The Performance: Once I finished the Dowland piece and made it through to round 2, I relaxed considerably. This was my wheelhouse, singing my own work a Capella for a friendly SCA audience. This was the moment that, if I sold it properly, and if I could get the audience to sing along on the chorus, would stick in people’s minds, get me my best shot at the finals, and hopefully establish this as an anthem of the people.

It landed exactly as I’d hoped. I could see and hear it in people’s eyes. These are the moments a performer lives for. I was still vibrating from it when I sat down. In the end, the piece stuck with not only the Queen but the King as well. And, at the end of the round, I found out that I was, in fact, one of the four finalists. The feeling was electric.

Round Three: Spoken Word Readiness

The Preparation: In the final round, I was going to be asked not to sing after two rounds of singing; I knew that from experience. The royals almost always ask for something they haven’t seen earlier in the day. Katrusha Skomorokh pointed out that the key to this is what you put on your performer summary, ideally leaving them only the choices you plan to have ready. On the other hand, this is also the guide for the royals as to what your skills are, and what they can count on you for should they select you. I decided to leave myself two options, depending on what I got thrown: (1) Prepare a couple of stories on the chance one of them should fit, and (2) bone up on sonnet-writing in case I had to compose something on the fly in 30 minutes.

I spent January and February finding the right stories, one funny, one serious, and polishing them. I worked them with Zsof, and with bardic circle audiences. (Since I didn’t end up using them, I’m keeping the details under wraps for now.)

In the last week or two before the competition, I reached out and solicited topics from friends, challenging myself to write sonnets in under 30 minutes. I produced four of them (which I will share in a later post), by which time I judged the muscles were limber and I had a process for quickly outlining the progression of the stanzas then working through, building the sonnet stanza by stanza until it was complete. I was able to consistently do it in 20-25 minutes. The quality varied, but I wasn’t unhappy with any of them. I really hoped I was going to be asked for a story, or given a topic that fit what I had.

The Performance: I was right; Brennan wanted me to not sing. We were all given the theme “valor”, and he was kind enough to let me present either a song or a story on the subject. I was a little panicked; it wasn’t a good fit for either of my stories, and it’s not a subject that just leaps to the pen for me. But clearly, I was going to be writing a sonnet.

In the end, I went for inversion of the trope, which is an approach I enjoy:

Who showeth valor? He who sallies forth
With sword aloft, astride so bold in might,
And by his forceful prowess shows his worth
Thus riding home victorious in the fight?

Or is he still more valorous instead
Who in the desp’rate minute of the strife,
Seeing the cause is hopeless, unafraid,
Retilts the game by giving up his life?

And yet another valor have I seen
When one you love whose suff’ring brings you fear,
And you must still protect them, although keen
The pain, you do not hide or disappear.

In each of these is valor, you must heed.
You may decide of which we most have need.

This is the round that I ended up second-guessing, of course. I heard from a number of people afterward that they considered me an odds-on favorite going into the finals, but at least one bard whose opinion I trust considered this a “power-down”. Others liked the tightness and subtlety of the poem, and the range of intensity it allowed me to show. The impression I have in retrospect is that I might have done better to close with a higher-energy piece that ran a bit longer. Still, I like the piece, even if it gets a bit clunky in the third stanza.

Post-Game: Can’t Control the Outcome

At final court, they announced the winners. I knew my shot was 50-50, and yes, it hurt not to be called, but the process had taught me humility enough to know that, no matter how much I had prepped and planned, it was out of my hands. I’d rather compete in one of these than decide one of them. Maestra Sol and I were called up after the champions, given lovely tokens, and celebrated by the populace as finalists, and their Majesties expressed the wish they could have selected all of us. It was well said, and cheering. As the feelings swirled within me, I reflected that this was the universe testing me, how serious I was about being able to do this and do it with grace–I had fallen short in the past, and that had impacted my reputation for a good long while.

It turns out I was able to handle it. In addition to developing and practicing pieces, I had pulled myself out of last year’s depression by setting myself up with a daily training regimen as part of my preparations. Daily exercise, vocal warm-ups, and a little quasi Tai Chi ritual where I reminded myself that my goal in life (not just in this competition) was excellence, not perfection. That I was flexible like the willow, and could bend when things went sideways, then get back up. Back in my seat, I reflected on this quietly, and the sadness began to let out like the tide, and I could still see the outlines of joy. (It’s a process. Writing this up is indeed part of it.)

And then, Caoilfhionn interrupted court with one of her crazy, joyous smiles. (Jessa told me later that she had just seen the Queen get a gleam in her eye, lean over and whisper in the King’s ear, and get a smile and a nod from him–I had been reflecting and had missed it.) She announced that they were throwing a wrench in court with some unplanned business. Brennan began to talk about a moment during round two that had touched him so deeply, they felt the need to recognize it–something about a song…

And they called me back up to court, and explained that one great thing about having created a new set of AoA level Orders during their reign, was the discretion it gave them to bestow these Orders to someone who didn’t yet have one, to recognize when someone distinguished themselves. (Or words to that effect. I must admit I wasn’t at my most focused.) They were inducting me into the Order of the Silver Brooch, the new A&S Order. They didn’t have the brooch on them, or a scroll, but if I was okay with that, they would honor me (and “We Are the East”) at this moment anyway. Damned if their Majesties didn’t find a way to make me cry right back, which I guess serves me right.

img_1818“But we do have words!” cried out Mistress Alys, standing behind their Majesties in her newly-acquired Queen’s Bard regalia. Veteran herald that she is, she proceeded to rattle off a pitch-perfect off-the-cuff scroll text for me (though neither of us remember exactly what she said). Later, it turned out they did have a Silver Brooch in the Royal Room, which they took me to and presented to me. It will never come off my performance doublet.

So…disappointment aside, I had an amazing day. When I look at my actual goals for the day, I achieved all of them but the last–and I can find ways to keep myself occupied with the time I thought the job was going to take up. The goal was to spur growth, and I’m thrilled with how that worked out.

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One thought on “Post-Game Analysis: EK Bardic Champions

  1. Pingback: The Making of “We Are the East” | Drake Oranwood

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