At last, we conclude our discussion of researching, preparing for, and entering a kingdom-level bardic competition, if you’re still interested in it (after the analyses of Round 1 and Round 2). For the final round, I debuted the original song “Hold the Door Open”. I researched the Arthurian legends of Thomas Malory, and wove together five characters to convey messages about modern diversity and inclusion. I chose to use my skills in modern composition to convey the emotions of the words.
Final Round: The job interview (go big or go home)
I have detailed the process of researching and creating the song itself on the
fully-operational battle station newly-annotated song page, so you can find those details there. The rest of this entry will discuss the strategy I took to the finals, and what I think worked this year.
Grim the Skald, my new co-champion, told me back when I started out that the Royal Bardic Championship was a judged competition, followed by a job interview. The “competition” part had basically four (or more) winners…and after that, it was all down to the royals, and how the finalists matched up to what they envisioned for their own Royal Bard.
Grim’s analysis is true, up to a point. If a royal has developed a connection for a particular bard, they may well choose that bard, as long as the bard shows enough prowess and mastery to convince the judges to pass them through to the finals. But I have learned in the last few years that this kingdom prizes prowess. To be chosen, you want the royals, and the judges advising them, to look back on three straight rounds of thrilling, memorable performances. You want to shine doing what you do best, the niche where you are a standout. And you want to end with a bang.
The question is, what do you do best? And, how well do you know your royals?
This year, while I hadn’t known her long, I did feel I knew some essential information about our royal. Queen Margarita is a bard. This was her jam. I had brought polish and finesse with the intense lute on “Clear or cloudy”, and then I had finally managed to bring funny to a kingdom competition with “Ode to Birka”. These were things where I knew how to shine, I had prepped them well, and I had nailed them.
But what do I do best? There is one answer to that.
I write original SCA songs that are like a hammer blow to the heart, because I believe in them. And then I commit to those songs and perform them with intention, and I leave it all on the field. That is what I do best.
That is why I wrote “Hold the Door Open” with modern music. Because this piece wasn’t just for this competition. This piece wasn’t just for my kingdom. This piece was for the whole Society, and this was the biggest debut I knew how to give it. Modern music allows me to speak to a broad audience with nuance, passion, and raw feeling. Period music absolutely has that same capacity, but the music of each era is a language unto itself. Communicating with an audience in their secondary language will never be as expressive to them as their native one. To serve this song, I wrote it in a modern audience’s first language.
I was going to do what I do best. Toki and Peregrine and I talked about it, and we all understood that a nine-minute, politically-charged song for the finals was going to be a risky move. In the end, I told them, if I had to choose, I wanted to perform this song on this day more than I wanted to win, because this message was what I stood for. But I also believed that that was what my Queen envisioned for her champion, and with luck, His Highness Alberic would share that vision.
Of course, for the final round, we are given a challenge by the royals. It may or may not line up with what we are hoping to do (often it does not), and we have to have a plan B ready. I had no real Plan B. Peregrine and I agreed that, as long as I was allowed to sing, I would use my skill with the Bardic Shoehorn to introduce the song in such a way that I would highlight the elements to fit any theme challenge she presented. And I had to hope I would get lucky, and not be given a challenge that would make that look awkward.
Margarita called the five of us up, looked at us with the intensity that told me how deeply invested she was in this process, this day of performances, and this choice.
“My challenge for you for the final round, bards, is this,” she said, and paused to make sure we were really listening.
“Bring. Your. BEST.”
I saw my wife Jessa’s eyes blaze with excitement. This was the challenge a bard gives. What do you bring when you’re asked for your very best?
I watched as bards brought their best. Solveig brought her passion and vocal training to another beautiful song. Ulfarr had another fantastic story up his sleeve. In particular, I watched David Anthony, now known as The Foxy Bard, bring a rabbinic tale I had seen him perform at Pennsic, that had song and story components. He gave it over with passion, pathos, and virtuosity. David is a Rennaisance Faire professional, and he has adapted those skills he has honed to our SCA bardic craft. That would be a formidable act to top, knowing that Grim was going to be performing after me–and Grim was a three-time returning champion.
So I stepped up, took a breath, spoke to the mission of inclusion that drove me, and launched into the song. I managed to completely forget the lyrics for both the final refrain and the repeat, but pulled reprises of earlier refrains that worked in the moment. You couldn’t see it on my face. And only three people in the audience had ever heard the song before, so how would anyone else know I’d made a mistake?
I left it all on the field. I took my seat. Grim killed it with his performance.
After the finals, as the deliberations went on, it was relatively quiet. No one coming up to me with reactions to the new song, compared to the excitement “Ode to Birka” had generated. But, I knew, it had been a long day, it had been a long round…and I had sung a long song.
Honestly? I found myself second-guessing, and wondering if I’d called it right. But I reminded Peregrine, this was the song I came to deliver, and it mattered to me more than the results. Which were now out of my hands.
I was exhausted, too. I was going on three hours of sleep from our hotel bed, and all my remaining energy had gone into the song.
When they called Grim up as Crown’s champion, I honestly thought I was out. While I believed I’d brought a strong day of performances, I was starting to think the final piece had been a swing and a miss, and they were going to call David’s name.
But they called mine. And the cheer that rose up went right through me.
If you look at the pictures, you can see the emotion. I was wrung out, and stunned, and beyond grateful.
For the bards and competitors reading this (which is still so weird to me, but also really cool), here are the takeaways I got from this experience:
- Figure out what takes you out of the moment when you’re performing. Address that. Over-prepare for it until you can get through it smoothly, and they see the skill, not the effort.
- Know when to adjust what you’re doing to match your capabilities. A well-executed compromise choice is better than an ambitious misfire (but you can still recover from those).
- Make eye contact and connect with the audience as much as possible. (But if you have to look at the strings, look at the damn strings, because wrong notes mar the experience more).
- Take time to get to know your judges and forge a connection with them if you get the opportunity. Don’t be afraid to geek out with them if they share a passion for the craft.
- As you get close to the competition, give anyone who’s going to be judging you a lot of space, because you don’t want to come across as “working them”.
- The hardest thing about competing as a performer, as opposed to a craftsperson, is that what is being judged is you. So use that. Own it. Be you.
- Figure out what you bring that’s distinct, that’s magic. Bring as much of that as you can, because that is your secret sauce.
- What we do is fun. Make sure to have fun when you’re sharing it, because that is infectious and communicates itself to the audience.
- Be prepared, emotionally, to deal with winning and to deal with losing.
- Careful what you wish for; you just might get it.