As promised, it is time to break down this year’s Queen & Crown’s Bardic Championship as I prepared for and experienced it. I’m going to do one post for each round–not because this was the year I was selected, but because the work that went into each round dovetails with the A&S Journey posts I have been making since last June. We will start with the first round, where I presented John Dowland’s “Clear or cloudy”.
Preparing for this year’s competition
But first, a step back to talk about preparations for this year’s competition overall. (If you’re here for the A&S discussion and not for bardic sports analogies, feel free to skip ahead. Bards and bardic geeks, this part is for you.)
A year ago, on the drive home from K&Q Bardic where I didn’t make it past the second round, my wife and I reflected together. Much as I wanted to serve as Royal Bard, I was okay with not making the finals, because honestly, my second-round story was solid, but not spectacular. We ultimately came to several conclusions that informed how I approached preparing for the next year:
- I needed to stop worrying about being asked to perform a spoken-word piece if I sang during both opening rounds and made the finals. There had been a time where final round curveballs tailored to each competitor had been pretty common, but that hadn’t been true for a couple of years now, and champions who weren’t given such curveballs were unlikely to suggest them to the royals the following year.
- Instead of focusing on variety for variety’s sake, I needed to perform pieces that showcased my distinctive skillset, the things I do uniquely well. My core skills are:
- Accompanying myself on lute (I will never be a concert-level lutenist, but I know very few bards who accompany their own singing on Elizabethan lute pieces in high-pressure environments).
- Creating witty, humorous filks that scan beautifully and surprise the audience.
- Telling stories through original songs.
- The East Kingdom thinks of a championship as a championship, regardless of whether it involves martial activity. (As someone put it last weekend, “we’re a bunch of prowess junkies.”) Yes, the personal preferences of the royals weighed into who they selected among the finalists, and yes, a bard’s reputation could help or hurt them in those decisions, but at the end of the day, this was thought of as a test of skill. I needed to up my game, focus like a laser, and bring it.
As I reflected on “prowess”, I found myself thinking back to the movie Miracle, where Kurt Russell played Herb Brooks, who coached the 1980 US Olympic Hockey team to their upset victory over the indomitable Russian team, on their way to a gold medal. (Fun fact: Saturday’s Bardic Championship, I learned just a few days before the event, fell on the 40th anniversary of that historic game. [Edit: Note that this is not an endorsement of any of the former team members’ recent actions, which I found inappropriate in the extreme. I’m not a hockey fan, I just really enjoyed the movie.])
There’s a scene early on where Coach Brooks lets his collection of college hockey stars know that their hotshot status counts for nothing here, and will not be enough for them to win at the Olympics. He tells them what will:
Get used to this drill. You’ll be doing it a lot… I can’t promise you we’ll be the best team at Lake Placid next February. But we will be the best conditioned. That I can promise you.—Herb Brooks (Kurt Russell), Miracle
I mentioned the line to Peregrine when I set my preparation objectives. I wanted to be in the best condition I’d ever been in as a performer. And that meant, among other things, that I needed to be ready and able to play not just one lute piece, but two, with total confidence and precision.
The Dowland piece (A&S Journey)
Now, returning our focus to “Clear and cloudy”. I have posted four prior A&S Journey posts about my progress with this piece, so let’s summarize:
- I’ve admired the piece for a long time, but had held off learning it because of its degree of difficulty. I started working out how to play it last June, with the intention of using it for this year’s competition, and first posted about it last August. It is an ambitious piece, and my hope was that I could conquer it with enough time and focus.
- By early October, I realized I needed to step up my practice and set regular goals. I also realized I needed to review the version of the tablature I was working from, since the secondary source differed from Dowland’s original tablature. I compared my sources, made technical decisions, and revised the working tablature I was using to be accurate to the original, my abilities, and the 6-string instrument I would be playing.
- By late October, my focused attention bore enough fruit for me to share a work-in-progress video, and I shared about the ways in which I broke down the piece (particularly lightning-fast 16th notes in measure 7) so that I could play it through fluidly and without stumbling.
- In mid-November, having taken things further, I dug into it even deeper, and spoke about “deliberate practice” as a mindset to make real progress with a skill as you continue to develop it. I shared another in-progress video.
I continued working on the piece through December and into January, and made some more adjustments:
- On the advice of some friends in the SCA Musicians Facebook group, I purchased a set of Nylgut guitar strings. Nylgut is a special synthetic string designed to emulate traditional gut strings, but without most of their problems (such as sensitivity to humidity and breakage). Nylgut gives a somewhat more authentic sound, and while the strings are a little harder on the fingers than nylon at first, the adjustment doesn’t take long. More importantly, Nylgut stays in tune like nothing I’ve worked with this side of steel strings (possibly better), after they’ve stretched out and broken in (which does take roughly twice as long, or twice as much work, as with nylon). They’re only a few dollars more than a set of high-end nylon strings, and you can get them on Amazon.
- Tuning calibration. There are various calibrations one can use, and tuners can be set to, since instrument tuning has evolved over the centuries (and in period, before the invention of tuning forks, it was pretty much totally subjective). Baroque and Early Music professionals tend to use A=415hz tuning, rather than modern A=440hz (meaning the A above middle C is calibrated at exactly 440 Herz). It is generally agreed that tuning has gotten sharper over time, so as a consensus measure, 415 tuning is a little flatter (almost exactly a half-tone), so it can be approximated on instruments such as guitar by just moving the capo one fret higher on the neck. I decided to try this (basically playing the song in F# instead of G), which is the key that Sting and Edin Karamazov perform it in on Songs from the Labyrinth. While it is not necessary (most Scadians stick to 440), I decided this calibration worked better for my voice, and meant I could sing it without gliding or slight vocal strain. Research leads to improvement.
I recorded another practice session in January and shared it with my teachers and a few friends. (With 5 weeks to go until the competition, I decided to keep my head down, and wait until now to post.)
Finally, what remained was about speed, comfort, and getting past my audience nerves. Ultimately, here were the approaches that worked:
- Practice in front of live audiences. The more I could perform the piece with critical audiences (my teachers, my guitarist best friend Dave Lambert, close SCA and bardic friends), either in person or over video chat, the more I could recognize how my body tightened up when observed, and let go of it. The gap between my rehearsals and performing when watched grew smaller and smaller, and I started to only need to run the piece (and my Round 2 piece, which we will discuss later this week) two or three times a day. It was feeling solid.
- I sought out help for my Generalized Anxiety Disorder. That may seem a little Tiger Woods, and I’m not saying every performer needs medication or therapy. I sought it out because anxiety was getting to me at work and in other parts of my life, and I realized that when I started on anti-anxiety meds in January that if and when they finally kicked in (it generally takes 4-8 weeks to build up), they might also reduce my anxiety when performing. The meds alone were not going to be enough. I discussed my anxiety issues with my wife and my colleagues at work, and found to my relief that everyone was sympathetic, supportive, and appreciative of my trust and my honesty. Hard to say for sure, but in the last 2 weeks before the competition, my anxiety levels overall dropped enormously, and I found myself feeling more relaxed and confident.
- Finally, after a conversation with Mistress Margretha, the outgoing King’s Bard, where she acknowledged that even she was careful not to make eye contact with audience members when playing and singing together because it could pull her focus, I realized I had one weird trick I hadn’t used in years, but that would probably work. Take off my glasses when playing. I could make eye contact as much as I was comfortable without playing wrong notes, but it wouldn’t create a feedback loop because I couldn’t see the details of their expressions or what they were looking at (my fingers? my face? was my shoe untied?). Worked like a charm.
The result was the tightest, most confident lute performance I’ve ever given, at the lively tempo I felt the piece deserved. I knew from the first notes that what the audience was going to see was the product, not the effort that went into it, which was my goal.
And that I was going to be moving through to Round 2. (Tune in later this week.)