What if a day, or a month, or a yeare
Crown thy delights with a thousand sweet contentings?
Cannot a chance of a night or an howre
Crosse thy desires with as many sad tormentings?
King’s and Queen’s Bardic and A&S Champions was held yesterday. I’ve been running relatively quiet while I prepared for the last several months. While Bardic and A&S have become a combined event as of last year, and are likely to stay that way, for most of us who compete, they are essentially separate events, because there is little opportunity to focus on the other when we’re participating in the one. So I will speak only to the Bardic. And, as I tend to, I’m going to go heavy on process as I experienced it. (I won’t apologize for that…I’m learning that a number of other bards, including some I competed against yesterday, read my posts, and find value in what I share.)
But first, let’s not bury the lede. His Majesty Ivan selected my dear friend Juliana Bird (aka Bird the Bard) as his new King’s Champion, and Her Majesty Mathilde selected my new friend Geoffrey of Exeter, originally from Lochac (Australia), and an experienced bard in at least two other kingdoms, as her Queen’s Champion. I had the honor of competing in the final four against them, alongside Phelippe le Vigneron, who like Bird, is an incredibly talented bard from Bhakail, and relatively new to the SCA bardic scene (this was his first competition). [CORRECTION: Phelippe is from Settmour Swamp, and told me as much. I have a terrible habit of lumping people together who play in Bhakail, because I’m frankly jealous of their camaraderie and live too far away to participate regularly in it.]
As I’ve learned from veteran bards before me, East Kingdom K&Q Bardic is really two things rolled into one: a two-round judged bardic competition with eliminations, followed by a one-round job interview for Their Majesties. So, for the second time, I won the competition (making it to the finals), and was not picked for the job. [EDIT: It has been brought to my attention that some people have interpreted the above as my implying that I deserved to win and didn’t. That was not my intention, and I’m sorry if the phrasing came across that way to anyone. That gets clearer later in the post.]
My feelings on this are complicated, as you might expect, but let me make it clear: there is no fault to find with Their Majesties’ choices. Bird, like her namesake, is lighter than air, full of life and color, and issues joy from her mouth when she sings. Geoffrey is warm, friendly, gracious, and a brilliant harpist with a fantastic contratenor voice who performed flawlessly.
And it was a glorious day overall, filled with fun, lightheartedness, beautiful performances, and time (however fleeting) with good friends. That was a sentiment that I got from nearly everyone I encountered, and it is one I share.
I’m going to utilize a technique I’ve learned at my new employer, Bluewolf, to assess the experience: the competition, what I put into it, and how it played out. The company calls this “Wins, Learns, and Changes”: What were the wins (what did I feel good about)? What did I learn? What changes would I make going forward?
- The East Kingdom has been blessed with an incredible influx of bardic talent in the last few years—newcomers to the SCA or the Kingdom who bring to the game skill, passion, and tremendous joy. They are eager to learn how bardic works, or how it’s done in the East, and they are soaking up knowledge, doing research, and honing their abilities with zeal. Everybody in our kingdom, and the bardic community, wins by having them. That includes me.
- I want to acknowledge this one here as I have elsewhere. I live in one of the few kingdoms that has enough support and interest in bardic that our royals choose their bardic champions much as they do their martial champions: through an intense elimination competition. Many kingdoms have no royal bards, or only have them intermittently, or have competitions with only a handful of entrants. I will speak to the pros and cons of competitions elsewhere, and I know they are not something everyone enjoys, but I consider it a gift that EK bards get a proving ground like this, and many bards outside the East are quite envious.
- There were 20 really talented bards at this thing, and I had my eye on Bird, Geoffrey, Phelippe, and a number of others from the very start of the day as ones to watch. The side effect of this influx of talent is that K&Q Bardic is getting much harder to win. A number of these people (including all of the finalists) play instruments, which was relatively rare a few years ago when I started. And in the midst of this rising tide, I actually made it to the finals again. I was honestly not sure about my chances of making it through either of the first two rounds with competition this fierce.
- I love my fellow bards, but I really loved these finalists. Yes, I’m already close friends with Bird. Phelippe and Geoffrey I had just met, but there was mutual esteem and regard among all four of us. We have just enough in common in terms of our musical interests and styles, that we all talked about collaborating on performances before we left the site.
- I chose my round one and two pieces, as well as my performance approach, very strategically. In round one I performed a lute piece, “What if a day”, but did the lyrics as spoken word rather than singing the melody. In round two, I told a story, “The Birth of Oisín”, which I told back at Concordia’s bardic championship, but honed it down to the 6-minute time limit that was imposed. My strategy was to demonstrate that I could make it through to the finals without using my primary weapon, my singing voice. The real reason I did this was on the assumption that we’d be asked in the finals to use a form we had not used previously. (That assumption turned out to be wrong, so it didn’t give me the advantage I was hoping for in the final round, as I’ll discuss later.) Nevertheless, my choices were the right ones. They pulled performances out of me that surprised and impressed the judges and the audience, and that was what got me through to the finals.
- Adding spoken word lyrics to “What if a day”, and using “The Birth of Oisín”, were both late changes to my lineup I made about a month ago. Both were related to the passing of Duke Kenric. (“What if a day’s” lyrics, while not morbid, are about the fleeting nature of human existence, and I realized it was worth trying the extra challenge of speaking the words as I played because of how much it enriched the performance. My original story choice was a comic piece, but treats the death of the protagonist as a punchline, and I knew it might leave a bad taste.) Anticipating the mood of the house is a bardic skill I’m glad to have finally learned.
- In the final round, we were all told simply to perform on the theme of “Kindness and courtesy”, and bring our “best weapons form”. I suspected Their Majesties would want something uplifting for the finals, given a great deal of sadness and drama that has transpired in SCA in general (which I won’t go into here), but this particular topic caught me off guard. Happily, I have a very smart Laurel, and while Zsof couldn’t be there, she was available by text and quickly pointed out that if I considered my own songs, I had several to choose from, the most obvious being “Lady of the Rose”. I did that one at my first K&Q four years ago for round two, and it wasn’t the best piece for the general crowd back then, but given the challenge, and with the proper introduction, it would work here. Bonus points: I realized that I needed to actually run the song several times before the round started, because I actually don’t perform it very often, given it’s kind of a special-audience piece, so I needed to get fresh on the lyrics lest I stumble during the round. That made all the difference, and I gave what I believe is the best performance of that song I’ve ever done. I had a feeling the story of the joys and hard learnings of a new queen would resonate for Mathilde, and it certainly did. There were tears in her eyes throughout the piece. Unlike my last time in the finals, I went big, and landed it.
- Looking over the day, I have no regrets about the choices I made. I gave well-calibrated performances, and even the one choice that was over-ambitious and imperfectly executed (I’ll get to that in a minute) worked well and resonated with the audience.
- I greatly enjoyed Sólveig’s rendition of “We Are the East” in round two. I was deeply honored when she asked my permission to perform it.
- Nobody owes you anything when you compete. Any unwritten rules or norms you may have picked up from past competitions may not have any bearing this year. Their Majesties will choose the performer who hit them the right way, who fit their image of a court performer, whatever that looks like for them. It doesn’t matter how much time you have in the game, or whether you’ve made a name for yourself, or whether you’ve written songs people love. It is possible that this will work in your favor, but in this particular competitive environment, where the championship is treated as the equivalent to a martial competition, it could conceivably work against you, by raising the bar or by making their Majesties lean against making what might seem like prejudicial choice. There is no telling how it will play out, and it is just their call to make.
- I knew all this, but I got to re-learn it yesterday, because when I made it to the final round, I made the classic mistake of starting to count my chickens. The key learning here is that I started to rationalize to myself all the reasons I “deserved” to be chosen, not because they were good reasons, but because I wanted it so badly and didn’t want to face the alternative possibility. That is what makes it a gut punch not to be selected, and that was nobody’s fault but mine. (See previous point.)
- I get stage fright when I play strings. You’d think I’d have figured this out by now, but for the most part I’m weirdly immune to stage fright. I get a little nervous, but I don’t dread public speaking or performing. But around the guitar (or the lute, or in this case the lute guitar), I develop a case of nerves in front of an audience that practically turns my fingers to lead, no matter how much I’ve practiced the piece. And understand, I’ve been learning “What if a day” for two years, and practicing it at least 15 minutes a day at least 5 days a week for a good six months. The truth is, I had maybe six months of guitar lessons when I was 30 or so, and I’ve been slowly picking up lute skills for two and a half years. This is a really, really challenging instrument to play, doing polyphony that requires coordination of the left and right hand, and when you add vocals to that, it is insanely difficult. It takes years of dedicated practice to really incorporate that skill so that it becomes second nature, and while Maistre Lucien baited the hook by telling me how brave it is to try to accompany oneself in front of an audience, performing while partially frozen from stage fright is really painful. I can play that piece fairly well, and played it through almost perfectly not 10 minutes before the competition started. But right now, when I play this instrument in front of a “real” audience, my hands start telling me what an imposter I am to do this, and they freeze up.
- Complicating this is that I keep taking on insanely difficult lute pieces. “What if a day” has two versions to each of the three musical sections: the base play through which is basically chords, followed by an intricate descant ornamentation. I learned both parts through note for note. It’s an incredibly beautiful piece of music. I’ve been planning to perform it at events for over a year, and each time, as the event drew closer I would “punt” because I knew it wasn’t really ready, and pick a different piece to perform (which consequently was not as well-rehearsed as if I had chosen that piece to work on sooner). I finally decided that, damn it all, I was going to spend six months and make this one ready. But while I gauged the SCA judges and audience correctly yesterday, and the gamble paid off—this is a place that loves and respects the courage to stretch and do something really hard (particularly when it reflects careful research), and awards points accordingly when you show you are way out of your comfort zone—it didn’t make for the best performance I could have given, and working on pieces that take more than a year to master clearly isn’t helping me get over my stage fright. (Thank you, Grim, for offering me honest feedback around that, and letting me choose when I was ready to accept it at the end of the day.)
- The above notwithstanding, the insane gutsiness of these choices is deeply impressing the bardic and A&S communities, and I was grateful to learn that (thank you, Anne—you weren’t the only one, but you really made me feel it). Aneleda told me that the obvious nerves, and the cognitive juggling act the piece required, resulted in a performance she found deeply moving and authentic because it revealed the vulnerability beneath my performer’s polish. That was a wonderful bit of feedback to get after round one, and I did what I could to keep the emotional edges available and accessible in the next two rounds, which deepened the performances. (Thanks, Aneleda.)
- I relearn this again and again: The SCA may have its drama, but it is overwhelmingly populated by kind, curious, supportive, loving people who want to help one another to succeed. (Thank you, Geoffrey, for reminding me at the end of the day, that when we spoke that morning and you didn’t know any Eastern bards yet, I had been that person for you.)
- While I get too invested in external validation and I wanted to win really badly, I learned yesterday that I care about this community, this art form, this kingdom, and the people that I share it with, more than I do about the results and who gets the job.
- Lots of people hate competitions. And I will say, as someone who just spent some time preparing and came up short, “losing” ab-so-lute-ly suuuuuucks. But I love these competitions, and as I sat there absorbing the loss, I got a little more clarity on why. The pain of losing, even more than the delight of winning, is a teacher. It forces me to either introspect and explore my choices until I learn something valuable which makes the pain worthwhile, or start self-sabotaging to hide from the pain. I’ve had some experience of the latter, and there’s no bad situation it can’t make worse. Lemonade, please.
- I plan to reevaluate my approach to the lute. I need to find a way to workshop these pieces with fellow bards or other Scadians, spaces where I can play for an audience with lower stakes. I might need to create an online space first, given how remote I am from the local groups like Bhakail that practice and perform together regularly. I need to probably go back and start learning my pieces again, from the simplest upward, and find a way to work through my stage fright. I am sharing space with bards who can perform confidently on an instrument, and having put this much effort into learning one, I need to find a way to eventually do it without a limp, or special consideration for the limitations of my skills.
- Nevertheless, I am going to be recording “What if a day” fairly soon. I can play the piece pretty well without a live audience, so I want to see what the best version of this will sound like. As a bonus, this will be my first chance to record a piece of music, vocals and accompaniment, that I create in its entirety, without the help of another artist.
- Some time in the coming year, I am going to be taking a break to hopefully do a community theater production. This isn’t about my withdrawing from the SCA, it’s honoring a promise I made to my wife. I haven’t done theater in many years, and while she only ever got to see me in one play in the time we’ve been together, she enjoyed that, and asked, in exchange for her supporting me through this year’s competition, that I would take this break and do something she would like to see either after my term as royal bard concluded, or when we learned I would not be serving. Jessa has been my rock and support through the process and through the conclusion, so I am honor bound.
- I will be adding some more stories to my repertoire. I’m kinda good at it, and it’s nice to have more tools in my kit.
- I also want to spend some time engaging with the A&S community more directly, separate from bardic. (There is of course overlap, but the activities around them are generally separate from one another.) The A&S geeks I know are all pretty cool, and I want to spend more time with them and connect to that vibe.
- It’s time to get back to writing songs again. I want to do some more historically-influenced stuff, but I miss writing SCA folk music. I have a commission for an original work to honor, and emotional juice like what I have going on now is great fuel for some songs I’ve had on the back burner for a while.
- I need to stop going silent when I’m preparing for a major competition. As a performer, keeping my work-in-progress secret is clearly the opposite of what I need to get really ready, and it’s too isolating. I don’t want to deprive myself of SCA connection going forward.