I’m back once again from our King’s and Queen’s Bardic Championships. And once more, it is bittersweet. I was not selected–in fact, I didn’t make the final four this year. Which on the face of it, seems like it should be a real letdown, after having been a finalist the last two times I entered.
And yet, that’s not how it feels. Don’t get me wrong, I am absolutely disappointed, and I’ll have to carry that with me for a little while as I process it, because feelings are stupid. I particularly loved the these royals, Wilhelm and Vienna, and greatly enjoyed the opportunity to get to know them during this reign, and bring them enjoyment as a bard. The idea of being selected by one of them meant a great deal to me. I could feel my overconfidence problem rearing its ugly head.
And then…I actually got there and laid eyes and ears on the competition, and I’m glad to say I sobered up real quick.
I had been watching out for Maestarinna Margretha La Fauvelle for years, knowing that one of these days, she was going to come after this competition, and that she is in a class by herself. A consummate musician and ferocious competitor, she is blazingly creative and knows how to have fun and convey fun from the stage while performing deeply researched European pieces with skills that earned her that Laurel. When the final round was over, I was not at all surprised that she was ultimately chosen as King’s Bard.
Similarly, Laila al-Sanna’ al-Andalusiyya has only been been back in the East for a few years, and active in the performance community for I believe less than a year, but she has been making her mark with her persona, her focus on Ladino songs, and her deep theater background. I had been getting to know her, and she is both delightful and clearly committed to her own performances in general, and the performance community of whatever kingdom she is in. She is a gem in our crown, and I fully expected to see her in the finals. I wasn’t really sure who would be our Queen’s Champion, but Laila was and is a terrific choice. (I’ll have more to share about her in a later post, as we are collaborating on a project next month.)
Phelippe Le Vigneron was in the finals with me last year, and as the other runner-up (“always the bridesmaid,” he has said jokingly–a true comedian knows how to say what I’ve been thinking), I fully expected to see him back there this year, particularly since I saw he paid attention and brought his citole with him (and he knows how to use it). Once I was out of it, I’ll admit I was kind of pulling for him, but the simple truth is, it’s not a question of if but when. As Margretha’s soon-to-be apprentice, I know that his growth from last year to this is only a sign of things to come. (Gulp.)
On some level, I had figured these three would likely be in the final four. The one I must admit I hadn’t counted on was my good friend Sólveig Bjarnardóttir, with whom I’ve worked a number of times: as our vocal director at the Elizabethan Feast of St. Nicholas immersion event a few years ago, as an artist on Sing for the East, and as a guest in my Pennsic concert last year. I was probably too close to her to see it, but the time she has spent studying with Mistress Sabine showed. Her soprano voice was already phenomenal, but on Saturday, her poise and emotional connection to her performances were at a whole new level. And, as her Majesty remarked later, when the lights literally went out in the middle of her second round (the single light switch near the door to the hall became a bit of a running joke during the day), she never wavered or dropped a note, singing right through as they (thankfully) came right back on.
These were our finalists. As they started to call out the names, I felt it coming before it happened. In the end, I am comfortable that I came very close, and the field was just this tough. But if I had to be eliminated, for me was easier to deal with at the end of round two rather than in court at the end of the day (I speak from experience). It’s a little like the phenomenon where bronze medalists are happier than silver medalists.
I am very proud of my performances from the day, and I have gotten considerate and helpful feedback from the judges to the effect that they were deeply impressed. If I wasn’t a finalist, I was within striking range. Round one, as usual for me, was the beast, because I began K&Q for the third time with a lute piece.
As I shared previously, after the difficulties “What if a day” posed for me last year, I realized that I was really wrestling with stage fright when I performed lute pieces. Even now, three and a half years into learning this instrument, I still feel incredibly vulnerable and shaky showing off this skill relative to my other performance abilities. I made a commitment to myself, and spent the entirety of last year working on this stumbling block, performing lute pieces at 50 Year, Pennsic, and Buckland Cross Investiture. My first round piece, “Come again sweet love” by John Dowland, is one I have been working on a while (it’s actually the first lute piece I ever tried to play when Maistre Lucien assigned it to me years ago). It’s still Dowland, though, and dude likes to show off. In the end, constant work (including learning from two of the judges, the outgoing King’s Bard, Juliana Byrd, and Queen’s Bard, Geoffrey of Exeter, each of whom had performed it with me at different times last summer) made a real difference.
I don’t know if I’ve beaten this fear completely, but I do have proof that I can beat it. This is the sort of performance I expressly wanted to create this year, and while it wasn’t flawless, it felt rich and accomplished as I played it through. I did the full piece (six verses), wanting to show that I wasn’t afraid to do an unusually long song. And the truth is, the lyrics tell a story richly (despite there being two different authors), and I liked the flow of it the more I worked on it.
I am also happy with my round two piece, though on later reflection I believe it wasn’t the choice I should have made, particularly when I realized how insanely difficult the competition really was. Like last year, I ended up telling a story from the Fenian/Ossian cycle, the final one this time.
Oisín is a beautiful story (though it wasn’t my first choice–I had wanted to do a funny piece I learned from Master Yaakov HaMizrachi a few years ago, but it lost too much of its flavor and humor when I tried to get it down to the six minute time limit). But as my wife Jessa and I were discussing things on the ride home, she helped me recognize, as part of me had suspected, that I was making what felt a “safe” choice based on what I felt the judges wanted, or what the format of the competition would require, which was a variety of forms. (I had gotten good feedback on the story I told last year–and indeed have gotten some for this year’s as well. But of course, now people know I can do that, so it isn’t so much a surprise anymore.) The result was that I presented a piece in round two that was something I did reasonably well (storytelling), but I was competing against performers who were doing what they did best and what made them stand out.
I was trying to game the competition, so that I would get a chance to do my thing (writing and singing original SCA folk, or music of the modern middle ages) in the finals. What I really needed to do in round two was be the best I could be–and the best I can be is Drake Oranwood. Also, the truth is, now that the royals are not present for the first round (just because of the demands of the events that K&Q coexists with), the finals haven’t involved a form-based challenge, just a topic, and I should have seen that coming.
The part that frustrates me a little, is I had a wonderful new ABBA filk, retelling a period story, in my back pocket, and I didn’t use it. I should have. (I was saving it for the finals, where it turns out it would not have worked for the challenge Vienna gave the finalists anyway.) It might not have changed the outcome, but it would have made for a more memorable performance, and that is what prowess in bardic is about, particularly at the level the East Kingdom now brings to these competitions. (I promise, you will hear this last ABBA piece before too long, though.)
As I said, I’m happy with my performances. I’m okay with getting eliminated. But for any bards who are thinking about what to do at a kingdom level competition (and have read this far), heed the advice I give others and didn’t listen to for myself: You do you. Bring what no one else but you can bring. As Jessa put it, “Do the thing that makes you Extra.” Every champion I’ve seen win has done that. I have a story I’ve been running in my own head, which is that what I do best isn’t enough, or isn’t what the kingdom or the judges want. (Let me be clear: “You do you” does not mean don’t grow and expand–I enjoy my lute repertoire, and singing while playing that pain-in-the-ass instrument is something I do that totally makes me Extra. But think hard about what really makes you shine, what you enjoy and connect to, not what you think someone else is looking for.)
Now, that brings me to one of my favorite things about the day. You know who listened to my advice when I didn’t? My dear friend Agnes de Calais, who was at her first ever K&Q Bardic, and who crushed it telling her own spin on Tam Lin as a story. You see, Agnes is a storyteller who just came into bardic a few months ago, when she entered Barony of the Bridge’s bardic championship, and won. (Apparently, I am very enthusiastic in my love of bardic, and I made it sound both really fun, and less intimidating than she had imagined it to be. ‘Scuse my while I do my little “bardic ambassador” victory dance.) And when she connects to a story, she is wonderfully, incredibly Extra. The proudest part of my day was having worked with her to prepare for the competition, and helping her connect to what she did really well, and encouraging her to use that. And that got her through to the second round with me–particularly impressive given they cut from twenty down to nine performers for that round. I worked with Agnes to help her get clear on what she wanted from the day, and what would create that for her. She wanted to get known, and be welcomed into the fold of the Bardic community. And oh my goodness, did she ever stick the landing on that.
And that, ultimately, is the joy that outweighed any disappointment in my competition choices, or the outcome. Regardless of whether or not I’m ever picked as champion, we Eastern bards touch each other’s lives, inspire one another to grow and learn and work harder and go deeper, and I got to see that manifest on Saturday. Laila asking me for input on which piece to use for her final round. Seeing Sólveig in the finals after all the time we’ve spent together, and performing her own original song in those finals as she’d seen me do. Other performers, such as Doug Doan, who outdid himself with a hilarious ode to one of Olivia Baker’s sandwiches, and Amalie von Hohensee, singing her fantastic original “A Song Is the Sharpest of Swords”, whom I’ve chatted with and offered what friendly encouragement and advice I could in the time they’ve been at this.
I do better at this, and I enjoy it so much more, when I let go of attachment to the idea that I’m special, or that I need to be the best. Any one of us can be one of the best bards in the kingdom on a given day. What makes each of us special? Finding what brings us joy and digging in and doing that as well as we can, in our own unique way. What makes us even better at it? Our connection to each other, and the way we support one another. Our kingdom is amazing, and I am privileged to be part of a day like Saturday representing it alongside my community.
In closing, I want to take a moment to formally thank: Bird, Geoffrey, and Aife for their impeccable judging of each round (which I did not envy them). Their Majesties Wilhelm and Vienna for their constant encouragement and celebration of Eastern performers (championing the champions!). Mistress Zsof, my Laurel, for her feedback and encouragement, and taking the time to come out for this. Likewise my good friend Melodia, who hiked out from Aethelmearc to see how the EK Bards do and cheer me on. Finally, Jessa, who remains my most trusted sounding board for what is and isn’t working, and my constant support, and Spencer, who puts up with a lot and always supports his bard dad.
That’s all for now. But there’s more stuff coming in the next few weeks. I’m not going anywhere.